A friend recently asked me for advice on dealing with a scenario that will be common to many job seekers: he was getting pretty deep into the recruitment process with a firm, but no-one had mentioned money. When, he wanted to know, was the right time to bring it up? And, given that he feels significantly underpaid in his current position, how could he avoid being lowballed this time out?
While I make no claims to be an expert in the art of negotiating, it's definitely easier to provide advice when you're not going to be the one on the other end of the phone or email exchange. So I thought about it for a while, and realized that my friend really had two separate problems:
1) Finding out if the compensation for the position met his needs—and ideally before committing any more of his time or energy to the recruitment process.
2) Ensuring that his previous salary history didn't affect the offer this time around.
When I cast the problems in that light, solutions to both of them seemed obvious.
Asking about salary
For the first issue, the solution was particularly glaring: he needed to ask. While there's a whole lot of advice out there about waiting until the employer brings up the issue of compensation—heaven forfend that they should think you're in it for the money!—all of it leaves the potential employee open to the possibility of spending a great deal of time doing their best to land a job, only to find that the salary doesn't meet their expectations. So why wait? Assuming you've passed the initial stages of the process (i.e. the first interview is out of the way), it's a waste of everyone's time to progress any further if the compensation is going to prove to be a dealbreaker.
Which is easy to say, but how would you actually go about it?
That's also pretty simple: "I'm excited about this opportunity, but before we go any further, I just want to check that we're in the same ballpark on salary. Can you give me an idea of the range for this position?"
Note that you're not trying to nail down a specific number at this point. But unless the position is being created specifically for you, any reasonably well-run organization will have an idea of how much they can afford to pay to fill the position you're applying for. If they don't, or refuse to commit to a range, consider it a red flag. You might wish to proceed anyway, but do so with caution: being over-secretive about pay is often a sign that companies will be tough to deal with—that they treat salary negotiation as a form of combat ("whoever names a figure first loses!"), rather than a process for establishing fair compensation that reflects an individual's worth to the company. In other words: if they're not willing to discuss pay, chances are they're less interested in you than they are in finding a warm body to fill the job, as cheaply as possible.
What do you make in your current job?
The second part of my friend's dilemma stems from one of the more insidious parts of the employment process: the expectation that you will divulge your current or previous salary arrangements to your future employer. While this process seems to be accepted as normal in many places, it's hard to see what's in it for the candidate.
If you're in my friend's position—underpaid by market standards in your current role—the best you can hope for by disclosing your current salary is that your would-be employer won't use it as a benchmark when making an offer. The worst case, however, is that they use it to justify lowballing you.
For that reason, then, the advice I gave my friend was simple: don't disclose your salary history. What you make now is no-one's business but your own—and it has zero bearing on what your next employer should be willing to pay you. How you phrase that is up to you, but it probably behooves you to be polite about it, at least if you want to stay in the running for the job. Something along the lines of "I'm sorry, but I'm not comfortable sharing my financial information" should work.
The same applies for requests to see W-2 forms (apparently this happens)—if a company can't make you an offer without verifying your past salary, there's one of two things going on: they don't trust you, or they're worried about paying you too much.
Bottom line: contrary to a lot of the advice out there, salary negotiation should not be a taboo subject once you're past the initial stages of the hiring process. Keep in mind that the process is about making a deal between you and the employer that fairly compensates you for the skills and abilities you will bring to the role. And the jobs you've held in the past—and the salaries you've been paid for doing them—have no bearing on the deal you're making now.