Recruiters Don't Need Your Salary History -- But Here's Why They Want It
I've been following you for a couple of years, and it's been an eye-opening experience to use my voice at work and on the job-search trail.
When I first started reading your columns I was pretty unhappy at work, but it was a good enough job (especially on paper) that I didn't want to jump into the wrong opportunity.
I started a very low-key stealth job search. I updated my LinkedIn profile and I heard from two recruiters right away.
Just as you predicted, both of them started our phone conversations by asking me "What are you earning now?" I told them I'm looking for a job in the $90,000 range.
One of them pushed gently ("How much is that over where you are now?") but I pushed gently back to say "Based on my research, that's what these jobs pay -- if we agree on that it makes sense to keep talking."
The other recruiter wouldn't take 'no' for an answer. He trotted out all the ridiculous reasons you have mentioned in your columns -- reasons he thought he "had to know" my current and past salaries.
I kept saying "No" and finally he said "We're not a good fit," which was true.
The reasonable recruiter, Jason, got me a great job that I've now worked in for 18 months. Jason and I keep in touch.
We had lunch last week and I asked him if his employer clients are still insisting that Jason get every candidate's salary history.
Jason said "It's about half and half. I've been able to get some of my clients to see the light. I explained to them that the more intrusive my questions are, the less easily I'm going to be able to sell their opportunities to candidates.
"The other 50% of my clients are inflexible. They feel that without knowing a candidate's salary history, they can't possibly gauge the candidate's skills, and they don't trust me to do it for them.
"The way I look at it is that as my brand grows, I can work with the most sophisticated and up-to-date employers and gradually let the other clients drop off my list."
Needless to say, my current employer is high on Jason's list (I think he filled fourteen jobs for my company in 2016). When I applied here, they didn't ask me what I was earning at my last job.
They paid me the $90,000 I asked for and thanks to a very good 2016 for me and for them, I'm going to crack the six-figure mark this year.
Thanks for all you do, Liz!
Old habits die hard. For 30 years or more, recruiters have been taught that they absolutely, positively must learn every candidate's salary details.
The habit of asking "What are you earning now?" is so ingrained that many recruiters become angry when you tell them "Actually, it's none of your business."
They are not about to tell you what they are earning now, much less prove it by supplying a copy of their W-2!
Here are the five most common reasons recruiters (both internal and external) will tell you that they must have your salary history:
1. They need your salary history because it "proves" that you're worth whatever sum you are asking for.
2. They need it to be able to tell you whether or not you're fairly paid in your current job.
3. They need your salary details to determine which of their clients' job opportunities might be a good fit for you.
4. They need the information because their client (an HR person or a hiring manager) insists on it.
5. They need it because they are in charge and you are nothing -- just another candidate among a sea of other job-seekers.
Let's destroy these arguments one by one.
Your past salary proves nothing except that at one point in time, you were willing to accept a job that paid x, y or z. Many if not most people have taken a job below their market salary level at some point, and that below-market salary should not dog them forever.
That's why some U.S. cities and the state of Massachusetts have banned the practice of asking job applicants for their salary histories.
Recruiters say "I need to know your salary details so I can tell you whether or not you're fairly paid now." For starters, that isn't a recruiter's job, and you didn't request that service.
Secondly, if the recruiter is so well-informed about salary levels then they can simply look at your resume, ask you a few questions and tell you what you should be paid.
Asking for your salary and then telling you "Yes, that's a fair salary for the job you do" is equivalent to a magician asking you to pick a card, any card, then asking to see the card and telling you "Yes, the three of clubs -- that's the very card I was thinking of!"
Recruiters who want to figure out which of their clients' job opportunities might suit you can simply tell you the starting salary range for each position.
As Jason mentioned, plenty of employers still demand salary histories from applicants, but as Jason's flame grows he will need these out-of-touch clients less and less.
The more confident a recruiter is -- meaning the more competent and well-regarded they are -- the less abuse they will tolerate from their clients. Being forced to pry into candidates' personal finances is an abusive practice that high-mojo recruiters won't tolerate.
The last argument for demanding a candidate's salary history -- the argument that goes "I am mighty, and you are lowly" is the one that most recruiters will not articulate, but you will hear it in their voice.
We can easily see why recruiters want your salary history, even though they don't need it. Knowing what you get paid now and what you got paid at past jobs gives an employer a big negotiating advantage.
They can offer you just a little more in salary than what you're earning now. If you're not working, they can even offer you less than your last salary. Without that information, you and they are on a more equal negotiating plane.
Run away from any recruiter who makes it plain that you are nobody and that they're doing you a favor by considering you for one of their open positions.
Without candidates, a recruiter is nothing! They cannot earn a dime without sharp and capable people to place into their client organizations. Never forget that!
All the best to you and Jason both --