A client of mine came to me recently with a question I hear frequently. She had been offered a position with a small (ten or so) litigation boutique, and was in the middle of ironing out the details. The firm asked if she would provide her current salary details. She is making less in her current job than she should be and is concerned about the impact of sharing these numbers in a negotiation context.
I always suggest caution when it comes to disclosing current salary, especially if that salary is lower than your capability/potential, and certainly if the question is posed very early in the application process or interview. There are a lot of reasons why your current salary might be less than optimal, including my client’s situation: you may have better negotiation skills and knowledge now than you did before, when you accepted that previous job!
Before I get to the nitty-gritty of how I recommend that you answer this question, there is a key point to highlight about my client’s situation that I find many over-look:
She has an offer! It’s what I call her “Sally Field moment”. Having an offer in hand means my client has leverage – they like her for the job, and believe she has what it takes. When it comes to negotiating salary and other conditions, you will rarely have as much leverage as you do when you’ve been offered a job and have yet to accept it.
Now, on to the burning question: what can she do?
First, she could ask them what knowing her current salary will help them with or help them decide. Their answer would give her the ability to frame her answer accordingly.
For example, generally employers and recruiters are looking to frame their offer into a salary range within which the applicant would accept. I.e. most employers and recruiters are preparing a range of salaries that are desirable or acceptable to them. They want to know if your expected salary range lines up with theirs – of course, I absolutely recommend that you prepare your own range of salaries that are desirable or acceptable to you.
If that’s their reason, great! My client can frame an answer to that issue directly, and side-step disclosing her current salary.
If your range is above theirs, that doesn’t mean the game is off; if they really want you, they will find a way – especially if you are open to other ways to meet your “salary goals”. Compensation is really about a package – salary making up the main component, and other items such as bonuses, vacation, benefits and other resources that can help you knock it out of the park in this job (e.g. a dedicated assistant vs. one shared among a group of lawyers)
If you do decide to answer the question, the best way is to situate your current salary (or your salary expectations) into a range, with the actual number somewhere close to the bottom of that range. If there is a specific reason why you accepted a lower salary in your current or previous job, be ready with a great frame on that reason – one that will speak to their interests – having a reason that is compelling to them can justify in their minds why they can agree to your receiving a (much) higher salary this time around.
If you are worried they may try to undercut your salary to the lowest possible amount – well if that were the case, then you might want to re-consider this employer! Remember, this is just the beginning of a long-term and hopefully great employment relationship. You are negotiating the terms of that relationship. How do you want this relationship to go?
Prepare your strongest case (you would do that for your clients, right?); get into your most empowered mindset and physical state (what is your body language saying?), and channel your inner Sally Field.