Asking for your current salary is not a legitimate question and should be treated as such.

🙄 The dreaded salary question

Here is the context:

You are on the initial phone screen call with someone from human resources.

Since thirty minutes you are trying to explain succinctly what your life has been about in the last decade to a complete stranger.

Maybe you have been teased with tricky questions on how git works internally, and you have done your best to answer correctly.

You are starting to feel exhausted, but fortunately the call seems to come to an end.

Then suddenly the conversation moves to one last thing:

“And by the way, where are you right now in terms of salary, and what are your salary expectations if you make this move?”

You may feel the rush to address the second part of the question and skip the first part of the question, but don't. First realize that you are being asked an illegitimate question.

🤔 Why do some companies still ask this?

I spent too much time this year looking for a job. I would be happy to report that tech companies have gotten this, and don't ask for your current salary anymore.

Alas, it's still a current bad practice.

Why? Because it works.

A surprising number of people in this stressful situation will undercut themselves by answering the question.

But it's not a legitimate question.

Imagine you are on the other side of the job interview.

If Alice and Bob have similar skills and can do the same job bringing the same value to the company, why is it relevant how much they were paid before? It is not relevant at all.

What the question does is that it creates a powerful anchoring effect.

A candidate who gives this information away will typically ask for only a bit more than what she is currently getting.

The human resources dude will then have a big internal smile: the candidate's expected salary is below the range that was decided for that position. He will then happily give the candidate 3.000 dollars more than what the candidate asks for.

How generous?

No, it's not generous. It is actually the absolute bottom of the salary range that was decided beforehand for that position.

So there is a huge downside for you to reveal your current salary and no upside whatsoever.

So you have a simple rule to follow:

🚫 Never tell your current salary

Simple, right?

But if you can, I would challenge you to go one step further.

Asking for the current salary is a bad practice that needs to die.

And you can help it to die faster by pushing back on the question.

🛑 Consider it a red flag that you are being asked this question

Companies try to be consistent in their hiring process.

If you are being asked for your current salary, it's likely that others candidates are being tricked as well.

It's likely that if you were to discuss your salaries with your future colleagues at the water cooler - or at the coffee machine if you are in Europe - you will realize that some colleagues are wildly underpaid.

Does that sound like a good place to work?

Bonus point if the company pretends to care about gender equality in their marketing document about their supposed "values".

You know that their actual values is that they are happy to leverage the fact that female developers are being underpaid to... continue to underpay them.

💪 How to push back?

  • Recruiter: “And by the way, where are you right now in terms of salary, and what are your salary expectations if you make this move?”
  • You: You want to know my current salary?
  • You: ...
  • Recruiter: ....
  • You: Why is it relevant?
  • Recruiter: That’s part of our standard process, which is as follows…
  • You: Ah, I see. Thanks for the clarification. Look, I want to be transparent: If you were to make me an offer, it's unlikely I would accept it. Your company isn’t a great fit for me at this time. So I don't want to waste more of your time. But if you wind up brushing up on your interviewing process and making improvements, feel free to reach out to me again for consideration().*

And then: you leave.

(*) line stolen from Erik Dietrich's post on deploying guerilla tactics to combat stupid tech interviews

Does that sound radical to you?

Consider this:

A company has more incentive to be nice to you during the interview process that it will probably never have after. So if that's the way they treat you during the interview, how will they treat you after?

Don't take the risk to work with them.

❓ What about people who don't have a choice?

Some people don't have a choice of rejecting a company, no matter how bad their recruiting process is. What about them?

Well it's precisely because those people don't have a choice that I encourage you to push back against this bad practice if you do have a choice.

Companies try to be consistent in their hiring process, so if candidates who are high in demand start to push back against those practices, the good companies will change their rules, and everyone will benefit.

❓ Isn't that too confrontational?

It's not about being confrontational, it's about polarizing :

I want to spend more time with good companies, and less time with bad companies.

How can you tell at the start of the process that the company is probably not that great? Well asking for the current salary is a signal as clear as a sign as it can get. I mean either the question often works or it almost never works. If it often works, lots of people are working there are underpaid, and that's not a good sign. If it almost never works, then they are dumb for asking it, and that's not a good sign either.

❓ What if I don't have a choice?

You should still never reveal your current salary.

It's pretty straightforward: you say you are not comfortable sharing your current salary, and you move on.

Still keep in mind that it's a red flag that the company ask you this. If you later have more opportunities, consider changing jobs.

❓ Isn't that common sense?

If it were so, no company would ask this question.

Maybe it's obvious to you who have years of experience in the industry.

But realize that we are in an industry who are is doubling every four or five years.

So there are lots of young inexperienced people who can fall in the trap!

👂 What do recruiters think of this practice?

Obviously, it depends on whether they are good or not-so-good recruiters. Google What's your current salary? and you will find an insightful article from recruiter Susan P. Joyce:

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). (....) 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. (...) In a job search, this question is asked by two different people. From an external recruiter, it may be acceptable. From an internal recruiter OR any other employee of the employer, it is not acceptable.

Now, that looks like a recruiter whom you can trust. Thank you, Susan! I encourage you to read the whole thing here

😁 What's next?

I hope that this article was useful!

Next step: let's talk about how you can handle the ssalary expectation question!

This post is also available on DEV.