“Being underpaid once should not condemn one to a lifetime of inequity.” – Letitia James, New York City Public Advocate
We’ve all experienced it before. That dreaded job interview question that will inevitably come up, leaving you shaky, sweaty and completely confused. Answer it wrong and you’ll either walk away empty handed or doomed to feelings of resentment and inadequacy before you even walk through the door. It’s a simple question that creates a lot of anxiety:
“What’s your current salary?”
Early in my career, I dreaded this questions from recruiters and employers. Why? Because I knew that the number I provided immediately boxed me into a category based on where I’ve been rather than what I knew I could contribute.
I always assumed that the salary I was offered for a role was consistent across all candidates. Being a woman who feels she has just as much — if not more — to contribute than her male colleagues, it only seemed logical that if a role had a defined scope and success criteria and the candidates applying for that position were capable of meeting these expectations, then the salary would be a fixed number for all contenders. Yeah right.
It wasn’t until colleagues at my level shared their salaries with me that I realized how underpaid I was. And I was — by a lot – even though I was doing the same work and in many cases leading the team in results. When I became a hiring manager, I was exposed to how the system really works — and I’ll be honest with you, it’s not pretty. I learned how much discretion an employer has to set the scope of the role, define the level for the position, determine the compensation and increase the compensation package to meet the needs of rock star candidates (yes, I’m definitely talking about rock stars like you). Without divulging all the details of how the sausage gets made, let’s just say that employers have a lot more flexibility than candidates are led to believe when it comes to the numbers.
I thought about inflating my salary with recruiters and employers so I could gain equal footing but the good-girl in me couldn’t do it. Not to mention, I knew that an employer could ask for a prior paystub or W2 to verify things. So, there I was, stuck in a system where my value was defined because I didn’t know how to negotiate the salary I was worth from the get go (not to mention the psychological effects of being a female who, in those days, didn’t completely understand that I was indeed worth it. But more on that later). And like women everywhere, I became part of the gender pay gap.
Which is why I was so encouraged to see that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill that makes it unlawful for those involved in the hiring process to inquire about an applicant’s current salary. Which means women in NYC will have the ability to earn a salary based on the scope of the position, not based on the scope of her salary history. Major, major score.
The law will go into effect in NYC in October. And more than 20 other U.S. cities and state legislatures have reportedly introduced similar bills.
It’s a huge step forward for a system that feels antiquated and stiff. Of course not everyone lives in New York; so for those of of you who plan to interview with prospective employers before your state passes this law, here’s what you can do when it comes to the anxiety-inducing “What’s your current salary?”
- Flip the Question: Rather than immediately provide your salary, flip the question back to the interviewer and ask, “Based on the scope of this role, what’s the compensation package for this position?”
- Embrace a Range: If the interview continues to press for a specific number, provide a range of salaries for the roles you’re considering. For example, “I’m considering offers between $x and $y range.” This should give the interviewer a ballpark range of what will/won’t work for you.
- Be Ready to Walk Away: For those interviewers who simply won’t relent, share your philosophy about your expectation to be paid based on the scope of the role and your prior contributions vs. your salary history. When I had a recruiter say to me, “I can’t work with you because I don’t know your salary,” I knew that he didn’t have my best interest in mind, so I walked away and worked with someone who did.