Handling the Current Salary Question

What is your current salary?

GovFem_FinalIt’s the dreaded question of every job offer and salary negotiation. Many recruiters use this number as an anchor for salary negotiations, rather than the market value for the position you’re seeking to fill. But if you’re looking to make more money in your new role (and really, who isn’t?), this question can really upend your negotiation for a higher wage.

That’s a problem for everyone, but specifically for women who might already be making lower than their male peers. Acting OPM Director Beth Cobert recently called out this trend. “Reliance on existing salary to set pay could potentially adversely affect a candidate who is returning to the workplace after having taken extended time off from his or her career, or for whom an existing rate of pay is not reflective of the candidate’s current qualifications or existing labor market conditions,” she said.

Unfortunately, it’s particularly difficult to avoid this sticky situation in government job application processes. Oftentimes, current salary is a required field to enter before you ever send your resume to a recruiter.

So if you can’t avoid it, how do you deal with the current salary question? Here is a 5-step plan to address the question without letting it derail your salary negotiation.

1. Tell the truth. Never lie about your current salary. Especially in government contract negotiations, putting down a false number on your application or giving a false number to a hiring manager can disqualify you from the job, even when you would otherwise have secured the position with ease. And trust me, they will find out if you lied about your current salary. It’s one of the first questions I am asked every time I have to verify a former employee for a security background check.

2. Calculate every benefit. Particularly if you’re coming from the private sector, your company probably offers a lot of benefits on top of your base salary. But even if you’re moving from another government role, chances are you are compensated in a variety of ways outside of your paycheck. Include every quantifiable benefit in your salary summary. Phone allowances, educational loan repayment, transportation, parking, and bonus eligibility should all be considered in your calculation.

Be careful, though. You want to make sure you include these details but don’t be deceptive. If they ask for your salary, don’t give them a dollar value without detail. Make sure to mention that your estimated salary includes certain benefits. For example, say “I currently make around $75,000 with transportation, phone, and education benefits included.”

3. Pivot. As soon as you answer the question about your former salary, refocus your discussion on the future. Explain clearly what you’ve accomplished since your last raise and quickly jump into talking about the skills and expertise you’ll bring to your new job. You’ll also want to clearly state how your professional are aligned to a higher salary in this next role.

Here’s a sample script: “Currently, I make $65,000. However, since taking my present job, I have advanced my skills, accrued additional responsibilities, and gained experiences not reflected in that figure. In this next role, I would expect a higher salary given those enhancements to my resume, as well as the unique skills I can apply to this specific role.” Then, detail exactly what makes you perfect for this job.

4. Choose a powerful but deflective rationale for your current salary. This tip comes from Victoria Pynchon of She Negotiates. If your recruiter seems really focused on your current salary, you may be forced to discuss it in more depth. If that’s the case, be ready to explain why your current salary isn’t comparable to your real market value. This undermines your current salary as an anchor for current negotiations, and it gives you an opportunity to start talking about your skills, experience, and other qualities that elevate your professional worth.

Don’t over- explain, though. Pynchon’s go-to line is, “My company has fallen a bit behind other players in the market for employees in the position I’ve filled, particularly given the duties I’ve picked up because of recession-era attrition. I’m looking to bring my position up to market, both promotionally and in terms of compensation.” Then, move on.

5. Repeat. As you go through the steps of applying to your job, receiving an offer, and negotiating your offer, the salary question will likely come up more than once. Make sure you stick to your script, relaying the same message and using the same tactics each time it comes up. Repetition impresses your point and it makes you seem more confident in what you’re saying.

Photo Credit: Flickr/Pictures of Money with red filter applied

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