It may be the hardest question you’re asked during a job interview. It has nothing to do with your skills or the value you could bring to the company, but it’s still one of the most personal things your interviewer will ask.
"How much did you make at your last job?"
As The Atlantic points out, it can be a contentious question. What you made at your last job (or the job before that, and so on) doesn’t necessarily reflect what you should be paid at this job.
The problem is that once that number is out there, it can be really difficult for employers to get it out of their heads. This is a cognitive bias called "anchoring." Let’s say your employer would be willing to pay you up to $80,000, but you only made $40,000 at your last job. Once the employer knows that, they’ll limit the maximum they’re willing to offer you down to $50,000 – despite the fact that without that knowledge, they’d be willing to pay up to $80,000.
While this can adversely affect candidates of both genders, its most important for women, who more frequently take time off in order to raise young children. For women attempting to break into the workforce after an extended period at home, their last salary can be much lower than what they’re worth.
You are not legally required to disclose your salary history to any potential employer, and many suggest that you don’t. There are many tactful ways to refuse the question. The best way to handle it, according to author Ramit Sethi, is to confidently refuse to answer the question and then refocus the discussion "on how you can add value to the company."
If the interviewer pushes you for a number, Ramit suggests having a "total compensation" number ready – a number that represents not only your salary, but your insurance benefits and any retirement account contributions as well. (If an interviewer becomes irate at the thought of you not revealing your salary history, you may also want to consider if the company culture is right for you.)
What you should never do is lie about your salary history. While it’s not against the law to lie about your salary, the fact that you lied could work against you if you ever sue your employer for wrongful termination or discrimination. More likely, they’ll double-check with your former employer and find out the truth, jeopardizing your job application.
Have you ever been asked this an interview? How did you respond? Tell us your job application stories in the comments below.
Image: World Relief Spokane