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by Vault Careers | June 17, 2010


It's a moment most of us will experience at some point throughout our careers. The point where, when seeking a new position, you get through the interview stage and all the way to the point where the company wants to make you an offer. And the question comes: "What's your current/most recent salary?" While there are many ways to avoid answering this question until you've had a chance to establish a rapport with the company, at some point most interviewees give in and blurt out a number.

It can be tempting, as you’re pondering the answer in your head, to tack a little extra on to the figure you were recently/are currently making. After all, the offer stage is a negotiation, so it can't hurt to give yourself a little extra leverage, right?

That's clearly what Ellen O'Hara, a New York-based book editor thought when she penned a post on the value of little white lies in salary negotiations for Daily Worth.

Reporting that she'd lied about her current salary in a job interview and then held out for more when given an offer that merely matched the inflated figure she'd given, O'Hara offered the following "lesson" from her experience:

"Needless to say, I learned that it pays, literally, to be strong and assertive when it comes to money. My only regret is that I’d been such a wimp about it for so long."

As it turns out, not being "a wimp" may have placed O'Hara on the wrong side of the law: the post attracted a significant amount of attention for the ethical dilemma it raised, and among the responses was advice from HR professionals that suggested candidates have a legal obligation to tell the truth when divulging salary information (if, of course, they choose to divulge that information at all).

(The Daily Worth post—and the subsequent furor it generated—came to our attention via The New York Times, by the way.)

The end result in this case doesn't seem to have affected anyone too adversely: there have been no reports of O'Hara getting into any kind of legal fix (at least as far as we're aware at this point), and the worst of it seems to have been that the Daily Worth retracted the post—leading the Times to comment on it, and presumably drive its traffic numbers through the roof. Not the worst deal imaginable

It does raise an interesting ethical dilemma, though. Assuming that the worst that would happen if you were caught inflating your salary is that you wouldn’t be offered a job, would you take the risk? And, if you would, what would it take to put you off? Perhaps more importantly: do we concentrate too much on salary in job negotiations, instead of worrying about things like the fit between the person and the workplace?

--Posted by Phil Stott,