Do You Really Need to Ask About Salary?

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In the last two weeks one thing has stood out for me, leaving me feeling slightly uneasy because I am unsure whether I am right or not, strangely despite how I feel about it.

I’ve had a view on a particular matter as a recruiter and recruitment manager over the last few years and then much more so as a candidate last year during #myjobhunt and more recently.

What do you think when you are asked “What is your current salary or package?”

Do you answer? Why do you answer?

What purpose does it serve to ask the question? What purpose will it serve to answer the question? Surely this is an irrelevant question and on one’s business but mine?

In organisations where a rigid grade or compensation policy doesn’t exist, I can understand knowing what someone is currently earning helps construct an offer and package to fit the candidate and helps to avoid over paying someone. Yet is it still relevant? Shouldn’t you know how much you want to and can pay and still achieve worth to your business? Are you not asking for a multitude of problems and challenges by making yourselves open to negotiation.

In the larger more complex organisations the compensation packages are mapped directly to the Job Families and the Grades. New vacancies are generally submitted and approved based on the budget available, grade and salary banding (the guidance received from either the Recruiting or the Compensation & Benefits departments). Offers are made accordingly to qualified candidates.

Last year it seemed that only agencies or search firms had an interest in what I was earning in my previous job. None could provide me with a good enough reason for me to give them the info. I can only assume that they preferred to take short cuts to categorise me by a job title and salary to ensure an easy deal closure, rather than my personality, achievements, competencies and potential. Whereas the expert recruiters and interviewers at prospective employers didn’t need to ask. I was assessed and judged properly.

This year is no different. In the last two weeks I have refused to give an answer to that question to three different companies. They come up with all sorts of reasons why they needed to know, one even stating that their client, an HRD in an FTSE 100 organisation, had asked for availability and salary information to be put on a cover sheet. Expectations maybe, but I cannot imagine anyone asking for current info. Why would anyone need to know this?

All the time I was looking to move on from my last job and when I finally took the plunge, I was constantly asking myself, agencies and search companies –

“Why should the limitations and salary restrictions of my current/previous employer have any bearing or influence on what a future employer might consider I am worth to them?”

Please think about it – I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others on this.

  1. It’s about paying the right rate Gary – nothing more suspicious than that. I see no problem with asking the question actually, especially when there are hard constraints on both sides on what can be paid or accepted. For a recruiter asking you the question, his motivation is not to waste time – his, your’s or his client’s. The number he wants is what you would consider acceptable – he doesn’t know this until someone tells him. And until we go 100% transparent on what we earn and publish this information (like, I believe, Norway do) that person has to be you.

    • I dont agree Hung but then if I did I wouldnt have written the post would I? I see this issue both from a candidates perspective and a hirer’s and from neither do I agree that it is needed. As a hirer I have a budget and grade parameters and have no problem telling a candidate what I am paying as a max. If that fits for the candidate then we proceed. If we then get to the point where we are willing to make that person an offer at our grade/salary because we think he/she is worth it, it is then totally irrelavant what they were earning previously. We think they can do the job at that salary then we already believe in their worth and hopefully then we will get the value over the year

  2. I always ask what an individual’s current salary is and what their expectations are when I’m recruiting. Not through any nosiness, but because it gives me an insight into what level they have been working at the previous organisation and the value that the organisation places on that role. Its also really useful for my own benchmarking information and knowledge.

    I am not rigid about what salary I would then offer the candidate (I completely get that sometimes individuals have remained with one company for ages and then are below market rate or feel that they are), but I do feel it is relevant. I think you have to know the parameters that the organisation and the individual are working within, otherwise you will inevitably be wasting eachother’s time.

    I think you’re right to challenge this, but we’ve probably got a big cultural shift to make before this stops being asked.

    • Hi Ali – thanks for taking time to comment and I can see your point but I would like to challenge you – just a little :). If you have a role for a Recruiment Manager and you have a budget of say £75k for it but the person you really liked had only been earning £50k how much would his or her salary influence your decision or assessment of suitability to you? Would you still pay them and would you then continue to underpay them accoprding to your own C&B scoping guidelines for the role.

      Dont we as HR profressionals have an obligation anbd a will to assess someone on their achievements, compentencies and potential etc and not judge their ability to do the job based on the salary or lack of it paid by another company?

      Dont forget the value another organisation places on a role or a person in that role is not the same as yours

      • Challenge away….:) In answer to your question, then no I wouldn’t continue to underpay them if I thought their salary was far lower than we would pay as an organisation for the equivalent experience – not only would that be unfair, it would also be storing up problems for the future, if they were significantly below their new peers.

        Like it or not, it is and remains a relevant piece of information to the hiring company.

  3. As you mention I think it’s about categorising individuals based on job title and salary rather than looking at competency. I think a lot of people just get into the habit of asking without really knowing why; other than to determine that if there is a substantial difference between candidates current salary and salary potentially on offer, then they can’t quite have the experience/competence to do the job. Clear that’s not correct but I think that’s the default starting point in many cases.

    On a similar theme I think a lot of recruiters focus too heavily on current job title and what they perceive to be the experience and capability based on that job title.

    • Hi Alex – thanks for reading and taking the time to comment – I think you are right, much of it has to do with habit but it also makes it a convenient tick or cross in a box and a poor way to assess a candidates suitability. Last year i was asked and I answered. I was told that if i was earning that much (or little as it was) I couldn’t expect to earn as much as I was looking for. This was by an agency that had the postion I actaully got a few weeks later and at a salary higher than they thought the role was paying, yet the company didnt ask me once what i was earning.

  4. “Roll up roll up get your pears here!”
    “How much are they?”
    “How much do you think they’re worth?”
    “…..yeah ok…..I think I’ll buy some apples…..from someone else….”

    Ok, so it isn’t that simple. Part of the problem here is that employers aren’t always willing to set out their salary limits, we all know the “Competitive salary” line, which in itself isn’t helpful. But on the other hand, I wouldn’t want to go through a recruitment process and the offer a role at £30k only to hear the candidate sigh and say that they want £50k minimum.

    I do request salary information, but I ask for an individual’s salary expectations rather than their current package. Part of the reason is that it allows them to look at total comp and assess their worth, part of the reason is that when you ask for an individual’s package they invariably inflate to meet their expectation rather than their current situation.

    As a side note, I was working for a company where my base salary was low by the market, but my incentives and overall package was high. I was able to explain to the recruiting company why I was worth what I was asking for and why I was trading one package for another. It was a grown up, adult conversation. Oh and I got the job too. So there is a way around this….if we all behave sensibly!

    • Cant but agree with everything in that one – a big sigh of relief I must say – was worried, no scared if truth be told when I saw your smiley face. The middle para on your comment Neil is spot on IMO – knowing the expectations do also offer up an indicator to the persons sense of self-worth and their knowledge of their place in the market – more important maybe in HR and Resourcing – and yes tend to eliminate the aspirational fabrication and if by our own assessment we then think the person is worth the salary we have for the role everyone is happy.

  5. An interesting post – I think recruiting on salary alone (whether an agency or hiring manager) is a dangerous and lazy tactic – over the years I have seen clients throw away potential talent for their organisation because they have compared their last salary to the one on offer and jumped to a number of conclusions. Recruitment to me is all about solving talent problems and finding the right combination of skill set and personal skills to help the future of that business – the personal decisions candidates make regarding remuneration should not, in my opinion, be the foundations for this choice. I do have clients who want to know the current salary information, and I will ask candidates if this is the case, however, I would never push candidates on this – quite frankly, what I earn is my business and I respect everyone else’s right to this privacy as well.

  6. I pondered this for quite a while yesterday evening, concluding that within the context of my job it is very important. Ultimately my clients expect me to provide them with the most applicable candidates for the job, therefore presenting candidates within the budgets they have available is fundamental to the role I play. Ultimately by not doing this I run a huge risk of hacking off both the candidate and the client and ending up being the one with egg on my face!! That said, I always start by asking what a candidates expectations are, this usually leads to a candidate telling me where they are now anyway. If they chose not to tell me then I respect that and will present the candidate to the client clearly stating they were not willing to discuss salary issues at this stage.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment Matthew. I am glad you said that you start with expectations, anything else in my opinion is unnecessary. If your customer has a budget and a salary range then that is all that is relevant to the discussion. Surely you’d want to qualify the candidate properly b y telling her/him what the budgeted remuneration package is and then ask if that is in line with what they are expecting and looking for. They will tell you one way or another. The discussion will then vary from that point or conclude as appropriate. If the salary is acceptable and then are invited for an interview your customer should use the opportunity to determine through the interview process whether they are likely to get value for money from that candidate. It follows therefore that it doesn’t matter whether they will be paying 1% or 100% more than the candidate is currently getting.

    • Monkey
    • August 5th, 2011

    As an HR systems analyst I have done the same job for £25K at one company, £36K at another and £54K at another and the although the job descriptions varied massively, it was EXACTLY the same job.

    • John Gerard
    • August 16th, 2011

    Interesting article. I agree current salary is not relevant. Expectation is what is important. This allows the recruiter to decide, all else being okay, if it is worthwhile to put a candidate forward. I don’t understand the comment from Matthew. If the candidate is willing to provide a salary expectation why would he state to the client that the candidate is not willing to discuss salary issues at this stage? By providing an expectation has the candidate not implicity entered an initial salary discussion?

    Alison’s comment regarding “…insight into what level they have been working at…” is also confusing. Surely this information is covered in their CV? If the candidate hasn’t managed to convey this in their CV then their ability to communicate, at least via written communication, is clearly not up to to much.

    In my opinion recruiters who ask this question are either inexperienced or too lazy to manage their client properly. Employers who ask this either haven’t done their homework on budgeting or, more likely, are looking to capitalise on the economic situation and get somebody on the cheap. My current salary is nobody’s business but mine and my current employer.

    • Hello John

      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

      Whilst I can see the points you have tried to make and agree with much of what you have said I don’t necessarily agree that recruiters who ask about current salary are lazy, inexperienced maybe, poorly trained and equipped definitely, but lazy is not valid here.

      The ability to ask the right questions comes from training, experience, attitude and confidence, as well as having the structure and tools available allow them to advise people from a position of knowledge. A good recruiter will consult and advise their hiring manager(s) and provide input to the salary ranges and budget planning, no one else can do this, not the C&B people not the HRBPs who rely only on periodic reports and research. The recruiters are speaking to dozens of candidates a week and have updated information about the pulse in the market – anecdotal or otherwise. The good ones will know if a candidate is asking too much for a specific job. This then allows them to ask the right questions and have the right level of discussion at every stage of the interview process with the candidate.

      A good agency consultant will do just that; consult and provide accurate market information to a hiring manager or recruiter in ordedr to get the absolute best for all. Those that don’t are only following a sales model established to generate deals and fees. These people are not necessarily lazy, just poorly focused and lack the emotional and technical maturity to do anything else. IMO

    • RaBoberg
    • August 28th, 2011

    I am a PA and have done a similar role for many years. Whenever I have been made redundant, there have been years of staying on the same salary whilst other industries have increased theirs.

    I only answer what my expectations would be and I would only give my answer based on my abilities, achievements and what other similar roles are paying (including my own budget/needs). My previous employer’s unwillingness or inability to pay the current rate for the role is irrelevant.

    • Johnny
    • September 4th, 2011

    I agree strongly with John Gerard. In South Africa we have it even worse, “all” agencies and most companies ask for a copy of your current payslip before even making you an offer. Which is anything from 5 to 10% more than your current salary. Most agents I have dealt with are inexperienced as well as poorly trained and equipped, so you are rated more on your current salary then your actual skills.

    • Sat
    • April 7th, 2013

    Do future employers and recruitment agents in Europe ask for payslips and if they do is it compulsory to disclose this? I find it very unfair for an employee who is underpaid in his current position and going for a new role …..he has to provide current salary info and confirm this with a payslip! Your new salary is then based on your old pay. Can employers really ask for your payslip?!?!

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