Although we all generally want to be honest and upfront with our prospective employers, embellishing your last salary isn’t considered so wrong anymore. This practice has become pretty much customary: tell your friends that you didn’t lie about it and some will think that you are an idiot! As a recruiter and a trusted source of career advice for many of my contacts, I am often asked how to handle this aspect with a prospective employer.
Some are leaning towards lying but are worried about getting caught. Some assume they should embellish the number (base or bonus), but they wonder by how much. Some ask me if it would be appropriate to simply refuse sharing their most recent salary. I decided it was good topic for a blog article.
Is it safe to embellish your salary information?
The simple answer would be: no it is not. Although your offer doesn’t solely depend on your current or most recent salary, it is certainly a big factor. I find that well-managed companies make every effort to control cost. So it’s not unreasonable that they want to make sure that what they are paying their employees is fair. Although some still operate based on trust, I would say 75% of employers today engage in some sort of verification. Large institutions are certainly more slick about it then smaller family-owned organizations. They hand you an application that you fill out and sign which then acts as an official release form. In the event that you accept their offer, they will have a verification partner (third party vendor) actually verify your pay, title, and dates of employment with your former employers. Yep! They reserve the right to terminate your employment if any of the information you originally listed on that application turns out to be inaccurate. Smaller companies often don’t have a solid process nor do they want to spend money on verification companies, so it is not unusual for them to request your latest pay stub or most recent W2 to verify your salary. With this said, whether you embellish your salary by a little or a lot, the risk of getting caught is certainly there.
Is it OK to refuse to disclose your salary to a prospective employer?
Because such a behavior doesn’t fit with our corporate culture, I believe this decision may have negative consequences. You may appear as a diva… (above the rules) or they might think that you are trying to weasel a ridiculous raise for yourself. In other words, I don’t recommend it, even if you are underpaid and disclosing your salary may put you at a disadvantage, there are other ways to score a great offer… just keep reading!
How to position yourself for the best possible offer
Keep in mind that being open and transparent gives you a disarming image of an honest candidate who has nothing to hide. This is first and foremost the kind of person every leader wants behind them! Sometimes candidates get so caught up in negotiation game they forget that being desired is their biggest leverage! If the hiring manager/executive wants you on their team, they will go above and beyond what is reasonable to give you an offer that you would accept. However if the hiring manager suspects that you might be spinning facts and your story doesn’t seem to add up, it would ruin this wholesome trustworthy perception at once. They might even change their mind altogether!
So my advice is to be honest. Share your salary, BUT be fully prepared for this conversation. Things to consider:
- If you are currently employed, prepare a list of all of your current perks and benefits whether you take advantage of them or not. Do the math and calculate what you make in bonuses and other incentives, how much you are saving with an affordable medical coverage, tuition reimbursement, work from home days, free gym membership (even if you are not a fan of the healthy lifestyle)… anything. Are you fully vested in your 401K, if not, how much money would you lose by switching jobs? All of this stuff is your leverage! If the same perks and benefits are not available with your prospective employer, it is not unreasonable to ask them to match the missing parts of the package in dollars.
- If you are currently unemployed your leverage isn’t in your last salary anyway, because no matter how high that number was, the prospective employer understands that it is in the past and not something you can fall back on, instead of taking their offer. However, you can and should leverage alternative opportunities against their offer. That is where you can let your imagination run wild, because they don’t know how many other suitors you potentially have and where you are in the process. You have to be careful with ultimatums, but telling them that you are close to an offer with a larger company may light a fire under them
- If you had been severely underpaid and there is a huge gap between your most recent and desired salary, I recommend addressing it yourself even if the hiring manager doesn’t bring it up. Usually there at least one other party that approves the actual offer and now that you’ve gotten the hiring manager on your side, you want to give them enough ammunition to convince their management to give you what you want. So think about why you might have been underpaid. Did you spend some time working for a non-for-profit? Did you change careers and heroically took a step back in order to make two steps forward? Or did you have to temporarily move to Paris, Illinois to take care of your ill grandma? Make sure your story sounds realistic and fully matches your resume.
And if this doesn’t work…
In some cases, no matter how hard you try, somehow you still end up with a lowball offer. Most employers have a hard time committing to high salaries without seeing your skills and work ethic in real life. If you are confident in your abilities and feel that this company is the right fit, you can ask for a six month review. Provided they would create a tangible plan and clear expectations, you can realistically get your increase in half the time!
Other negotiating strategies include flexibility with working remotely, tuition reimbursement, access to learning new skills, in other words asking for benefits that are less tangible but valuable to you.
Keeping a positive attitude, remaining humble and polite throughout negotiations is key; most of the time it is not as important what you ask for as how you sound when you ask.