This question may also be stated, “What were you paid in your last job?” for those who are not currently employed.
Although these questions are illegal to ask in many locations in the USA (see the list below), this question is still asked by many employers.
Obviously, a very careful response is required.
Like the salary expectation question, this question is usually asked very early in the hiring process, as part of the application or near the beginning of a job interview.
Asking for your current salary is inappropriate because it is for a different job in a different environment. In addition, this question is illegal for an employer to ask in several locations (listed below).
Many employers ask instead for your salary expectation, which is a much more appropriate question. Know that salaries are part of an employer’s “total compensation package” which includes benefits like vacation, bonuses, healthcare coverage, and other elements which might (or might NOT) offset a salary that seems too low.
Do your research to be well-prepared for this question — know what most employers pay people in your location (or your target location) to do this job. If possible, research on Salary.com and Glassdoor.com and other sites to see what this employer pays employees who do this job.
Below find strategies and sample answers for the current-salary question.
The current salary question may be asked at different points in the hiring and interview process:
1. When completing an application, either online or in person.
The application form may contain a field for “Current Salary.” You have several options:
- Leave the field blank.
- Put a zero or type “No” in the field.
- Type in “N/A” (for not appropriate or not applicable).
- Type a sequence of numbers like 123456 or 11111.
- Put your target or real salary number in the field.
NOTE: If you don’t put a number in this field, your application may ignored, particularly if the form is online or automated —
- All of the options above could result in your application being rejected or ignored.
- When you complete and submit the form, you may be confirming that everything you provided is accurate and true.If so, try to find a place in the form where you can type something like, “Target salary, not current salary, was provided” or “Target salary will be provided in the interview” or “I am unable to provide my current salary” or whatever is appropriate for you.
- The form may be accepted, even without a number, but may not seen by those recruiters who use the applicant salary as their first search criteria.
For tips on where and how research an appropriate target salary, read How to Research and Find the Salary You Deserve.
2. When asked by an employer over the phone, via video, or in person.
If you are feeling brave (or annoyed), you may want to consider going on the offensive and asking them why the salary paid by a different employer is relevant to a company which pays employees fairly. This may end the opportunity quickly, however.
I recommend choosing one of these responses:.
As I am sure you understand, my employer considers employee salaries to be confidential, and access to this information is limited to management inside our organization. So, I am unable to share it with you. However, if you share the salary level and range for this position, I can confirm that my salary is within that range or not.
I will share my salary expectations with you, and we can see if it fits into your salary range for this position.
I don’t think that my current salary is relevant, but if you must have that information, I will provide it after you share the salary level and range for this job.
Hopefully, the employer will recognize that this response is a logical request to exchange confidential information, and not continue to request that you provide your current salary. If they do insist, tell them you will comply after you receive the information you requested.
Or, requesting to postpone the discussion may be the best strategy —
I have done my initial homework, and salary information on the Internet indicates I’m in the range. For now we should assume that salary won’t be an issue. Plus, I need to understand the full extent of the opportunity and the benefits you provide to employees plus what the salary range is for this role.
Some employers will continue to push for an answer, so consider these last two options:
- Give them a number —I am seeking a base pay of $XX,XXX, but I can be flexible depending on the benefits and any incentives you may offer.
- OR, be prepared to walk away from the opportunity. Insisting on an answer to this question could be an example of poor management.
If your response above doesn’t stop them from pursuing your salary, you may lose the opportunity with the employer unless you give them the information they require. Your choice.
When to Answer This Question
When you are interviewing with an employer, the salary a previous employer paid you is not relevant, except as a negotiation advantage for the employer.
In a job search, this question is asked by two different people: one is usually acceptable, but the other is not:
MAY be OK — An external recruiter
Also known as a “head hunter” may ask this question to get an idea of what salary you are looking for and an indication of your “market value.”
They are not employees of the employer who has the job opening. They are paid by the employer only if that employer hires you after they referred you for the job. If the recruiter has a good reputation, you can probably be frank with them. If you decide to share the information with an external, get their agreement not to share your salary with the employer.
NOT OK — An internal recruiter OR any other employee of the employer may NOT ask you the question.
The salary question is, in fact, illegal in some parts of the USA (specified below).
Regardless of whether or not the question is illegal in your location, my recommendation is not to provide them with a number (more below). This is NOT an appropriate question for them to ask you.
If the question is asked in a area where it is illegal (see below), you can ask the employer if they understand that the question is not legal. If they say yes but continue to pursue an answer, you need to decide if you want to work in an organization that does not pay attention to the law.
Some employers request a copy of the job candidate’s most recent W-2 form which provides the salary details for the previous year’s income. I would strongly resist providing that information until the employer has given you a written job offer.
If you do provide a copy of your W-2, be sure to black out your Social Security Number and address to protect your privacy and address ID theft concerns.
Why This Question May Be Inappropriate Even When Legal
Sharing what a different employer paid you for a different job benefits only the potential employer for the salary negotiation.
By asking this question, an employer is making it clear that they do not worry about “internal equity” in compensating their employees, so consider if you actually want to work in such an organization.
You may be paid thousands of dollars more for a job (or thousands of dollars less) that a colleague simply because your previous employer paid well (or poorly).
Each employer’s profitability and reputation, budget, management, other staff, work tools and resources, policies and procedures, as well as the “total compensation package” (like vacation time, bonuses, etc.), and many other things are different — often very different — with different employers.
These differences mean that comparing the salary paid by a previous employer with what the new employer may pay is not “an apples-to-apples comparison.”
Instead of providing your salary, use one of the responses in the Sample Answers, above, to dodge salary questions. Or dodge the employer who insists on an answer to this inappropriate question.
Recognizing that this question is an inappropriate attempt to bully job seekers for the salary negotiation, several parts of the USA have made this question illegal. The effort to protect job candidate salary history seems to be expanding. The expectation is that new employees will be paid more fairly when they are protected by this law.
Two states have limited local governmental ability to block the salary history question: Michigan and Wisconsin.
Research to find how the law works in your location even if your location is not on the list above. If you voluntarily tell the prospective employer your current salary information, the laws likely do not apply, and the employer may be able to use the information before making you an offer.
For an updated list on the states and other entities which have rules that apply, check the details on Salary History Bans on HRdive.com.
Be sure check for the current laws in your location to see if the question is now illegal in your area, too. [Read How to Answer the Salary Expectation Question for more details and strategies for successfully answering that question.]
As with all illegal questions, this may still be asked by unknowing interviewers or by interviewers who are consciously breaking the law. Have your answer ready, and decide if you want to work for an employer who ignores — or doesn’t know — the law.
Refusing to answer may cost you the opportunity, but asking an illegal question in a job interview may be a sign of how everything is managed in that organization. Not working in that organization may be a good outcome. Again, your choice.
The Bottom Line
Your starting salary is impacted by your interest in the job/employer, your negotiation skills, and your willingness to try to negotiate as well as by the employer’s interest in hiring you.
Understand that “your mileage may vary.” If the employer isn’t very interested (or has many other people they could hire), they probably won’t do much negotiation. If they are very interested in you, they will negotiate. Many employers expect to negotiate starting salaries. However, some do not want to negotiate and may even withdraw a job offer if pressed for a higher starting salary.
More About Salaries and Job Offer Negotiations:
- Guide to Salary and Compensation Home
- 5 Steps to Negotiate the Best Job Offer
- Very Important Elements of Your Compensation Negotiation
- What to Expect in a Job Offer
- Winning Negotiation Strategies for Your New Job (free ebook)
- Salary Negotiation Strategies for Stay-at-Home and Working Moms
Answering the Common Job Interview Questions:
Questions About You:
- What Is Your Greatest Achievement or Accomplishment?
- Tell Me/Us About Yourself
- Why Should We Hire You?
- What Do You Want?
- Why Do You Want THIS Job?
- What Is Your Greatest Weakness?
- What Is Your Greatest Strength?
- Why Do You Want to Leave Your Current Job?
- What Is Your Current Salary?
- What Are Your Salary Expectations?
- When Can You Start?
- Where Do You See Yourself in 5 Years?
- Smart Strategies to Answer to Behavioral Interview Questions
Handling Special Career Situations:
- Why Did You Quit Your Last Job
- After a Layoff: Why Did You Leave Your Job?
- After Being Fired: Why Did You Leave Your Job?
- Explain Your Gap in Employment
Questions About Them:
Questions for You to Ask Them:
- Do You Have Any Questions? — choose from 50+ good questions to ask them
- 5 Absolute Must-Ask Questions for the End of Your Next Interview
- The Second Interview: 5 Key Questions to Ask
- 45 Questions You Should NOT to Ask in Job Interviews
- 3 Steps to Interview Success: Build Your Interview Checklist
- The Winning Difference: Pre-Interview Preparation
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