Liz Ryan is CEO and Founder of Human Workplace in Boulder, Colorado. Liz says of her company: "We are reinventing work for people, to Bring Life to Work and Bring Work to Life!"[1]
Published here May 2013


Musings Index

"What Was Your Last Salary?"
Some contentious advice from Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder, Human Workplace

Max Wideman ruminates:

When applying for a position, it is not unusual to be asked: "What was your last salary?" If this is asked early on in an interview, this suggests that the interviewer is not really interested in your qualifications but rather in you as a warm body to fill a slot at the best price. In which case, try and divert the focus because an interview should be a two-way affair and you are entitled to ask questions as well.

You might say: "Before we get into remuneration, I'd like to know a little more about your company. (Clearly implying: "Let's see if I want to work for your company anyway!") Of course, a more drastic alternative is to walk away from the interview, but remember you are only at the first gate where the objective is to filter out candidates rather than filter them in.

For a more elaborate take, consider what Liz Ryan has to say.

Liz Ryan makes her case:[2]

Annual salary increases at most large and medium-sized employers have plummeted or disappeared altogether. That means your best hope for keeping your income in line with the cost of living is to change jobs every now and then.

There's only one problem with that plan. When you apply for a job at a new company, their first question to you is likely to be "What were you earning at your last job?" The less you earned, the smaller your new job offer is going to be. Your past, unexciting wages will dog you forever!

If you were earning $52,000, your new job offer might come in at $53,500. If you earned two hundred and forty-five thousand dollars a year, expect a job offer around two-sixty. Notwithstanding the exacting pay grades, salary charts and ranges laid out by bureaucrats the world over, the strongest predictor of a new hire's starting salary is whatever he or she was earning at the last job!

That's discouraging — and pathetic! If an organization doesn't know how to value your talents other than by looking at what somebody else paid you in a completely different situation, they don't know squat about the talent market. How are you ever going to increase your earnings if every time you change jobs, you get a tiny raise over what they paid you at the last place?

Drinking toxic lemonade over the years, we've gotten used to the idea that the question "What were you earning before?" from a prospective employer is perfectly reasonable. It's not, of course. Your personal finances are your business.

When we call the plumber because our tub drain is clogged, we don't ask "What did you charge the guy down the block to unclog his drain last week?" If we do, the plumber is going to say: "My rate is $95 an hour. Do you want me to come over, or not?"

Plumbers have avoided the weenification process the rest of us have subjected ourselves to. I'm generalizing, of course — I haven't met every plumber in the world — but my impression is that plumbers and other tradespeople are way ahead of the suit-and-tie crowd when it comes to saying what they think. They don't become mealy-mouthed and hesitant the way business people so often do when they really should speak up, on the job search or on the job.

They don't fawn and grovel the way job-seekers have been taught to do, and are still being encouraged to do by experts who tell them to please everyone, say anything, and be anyone the employer wants them to be, just to get the job. That's what passes for job search advice today — advice about how to scrape and bow and beg for a job. Sickening, isn't it?

We can de-weenify ourselves any time we want. The first step in draining the toxic lemonade from our veins, of course, is to realize it's there. For some reason nearly all of us have come to believe that the most intrusive personal questions are perfectly fine when they're asked in the context of a recruiting process. That's ridiculous. You already know my feelings about the heinous interview questions "With all the talented candidates, why should we hire you?" and "What's your greatest weakness?"

The question "What were you earning before?" (Or the variation "What are you earning now?" that falls into the same category). These are all questions that one adult lacks the social right to ask another. Yet we happily bleat "Oh, I was earning sixty-eight five over at XYZ Products" because we believe that in the hiring process, employers have the upper hand.

Employers will have the upper hand in your job search as long as you give them it to them. When you decide that you have something valuable and unique to bring to your next organization — when you really believe it, and act out of that conviction — you'll quickly move past the managers who don't deserve you, and focus on the ones who do. You won't hand over confidential information about your past salaries, because that's nobody's business but your own.

Here's what you'll do, instead. You'll give your prospective next boss the information s/he really needs to make the Go/No Go decision, which is your target salary level. With that number, your boss or recruiter can quickly determine whether it makes sense to keep talking with you or not. They don't need your past salaries to make that call. So why hand over your personal information?

Max Wideman takes a rather different approach:

Liz, that's a very interesting perspective. I agree that pay remuneration is a sensitive issue, but the reality is that salaries are determined by market forces. If there are few positions for a glut of particular skills, average pay will be lower and vice versa. My two cents worth (and experience) are as follows:

  1. In today's market if you are looking for your first job, take any job that you can in any area regardless simply just to get a foot on the ladder, i.e. something to put on your resume, including volunteer work. It seems to be generally recognized that someone who is employed, whatever the work, is more valuable than one who is unemployed.
  2. If you are really, really, attracted to a position, you might even offer to work for free for a strictly limited period after which you want a "discussion on pay"! (That actually impresses potential employers and makes you stand out.)
  3. Otherwise, avoid any discussion of pay until the very last. The response to the request for information on your last pay should be: "Well, before we get into that there are some questions I'd like to know about the proposed position." Then you hammer your interviewer with a barrage of questions (you have done your homework about the company, haven't you?) Your questions can range from number of employees, to market share, to last year's annual report and outlook for the future, as well as details of the job being offered.

    My most successful interviews have been those in which I persuaded the interviewer to do all the talking about how great their company is, while I did very little talking ...

    The objective of this exercise is to show how much you know about the company, how interested and supportive you will be and how effective in the position offered that they realize that they simply cannot survive with out you. (Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.)

    When you have reached that point, in answer to the question "What was your previous salary?" Your answer could be: "Well, rather than waste time on historical data, it would be better if you want my help, why don't you make me an offer that I can consider and then we can discuss the matter further."
  4. Having said all of that, a more significant question is: "How do you get an interview in the first place?" Well, don't look for jobs; look for companies for whom you would really like to work. If possible, identify the head of a department and ask to see him or her. (This bypasses the HR department whose primary job is to filter people out.) Then generally follow the advice in the items above - ending with: "How soon can I start?"!
  5. If all that fails, well just try starting your own company.[3]

1. For more information on Liz Ryan's Human Workplace company, see:
2. Abstracted from:
3. See our companion paper this month: Why a Small Business Might Be the Perfect Retirement Gig and 10 Rules for Starting Your Own
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