As soon as the topic of compensation comes up on a job search, you're likely to get the question "What were you earning at your last job?"
You have to be ready for it.
If you don't have an answer ready at your lips, you're likely to say "Oh, I was earning $X."
That's the worst thing you can do.
It's important to understand that the traditional job-interview process is a ritual. It's a script. If you fall into the standard script, you'll have a hard time climbing out of it.
Your personal financial information is your own business. It's no one else's business. There is never any reason to share your past earnings with people you don't know. Do you know why employers ask "What were you earning at your last job?" There are two reasons:
1) If you were earning a lot more at your last job than these new guys are willing to pay you, they're likely to say "This is not a good fit." That's not bad - it's good. Unless you're willing to take a big pay cut for some reason, you want them to tell you if it's not a good fit, rather than wasting your time. Still, they don't need your past salary information to make that decision. They only need to know what you're looking to earn in your next job.
2) If you were earning a salary that is in the range for the position you are pursuing now, they'll use your past salary level to determine your job offer. By a very strange coincidence, once you share your past compensation level, they always seem to offer you a very small amount over it.
If you were earning $45,000 at your last job, your job offer is likely to come in at $45,500.
If your target salary on your new job is $48,000, that's the number for you to share.
Employers don't want to spend money. I don't blame them. I don't want to spend money either. I tried buying groceries in bulk at a warehouse store to save money, but it was a dismal failure.
I live in a house with three massive hulking teenage boys, one little boy and my husband (our daughter is away at college). I filled up the car with food at the warehouse store, and my sons ate it all in one day. Now I shop in smaller quantities.
Let's get back to you. There is no reason on earth to share your past earnings. It's very impolite to ask "What did you earn at your last job?" but we don't hear the impoliteness in the question, because we've been taught that an employer has the right to ask it.
We think it's normal. We think it's normal for interviewers to ask "What's your greatest weakness?"
What are you, my therapist? Are you my spiritual advisor? What the hell is going on here? Is this a job interview, or a counseling session?
If you went on a date and someone asked you "What's your greatest weakness?" you'd leave. It's very rude to ask a person "What's your greatest weakness?" It's rude to ask "What were you earning at your last job?"
We've been brainwashed. We think that employers are little gods and we are nothing when we're job-hunting. Some headhunters will tell you that they MUST have your past salary information. Leave them in the dust and find a recruiter who has your best interests in mind.
You have to start a job search by shaking the toxic lemonade out of your veins. If you have a script of your own to follow, you'll be prepared with a ready answer when the obnoxious question "What were you earning at your last job?" comes up.
INTERVIEWER: So, what were you earning at your last job?
YOU: Great, let's talk about salary. I'm focusing on jobs in the $45K range in this job search.
INTERVIEWER: But what were you earning at your last job?
YOU: You know, if that $45K figure is in the range for this position, it makes sense for us to keep talking. If not, then it might not be a good fit. I wouldn't want to waste your time.
Interviewers aren't trying to be rude. They've just drunk a lot of toxic lemonade themselves. They'll say "We need your past salary information."
Really? You need it? I understand that people in Hell need ice water, my darling.
They don't need to know your past salaries. They just want it. As we tell our kids, Want and Need are two different things.
Tell them your salary requirement, instead. That's all they need to make a Yes or No decision about whether your salary requirements and their salary range are in the same ballpark.
But Liz, what if my salary in my last job was exactly fair for the work I did. Why not share it?
You can share whatever you like. You can tell them your salary.
You can show them your bank account statements to prove that you're good at saving money. You can tell them when you and your sweetheart last had some alone time together and exactly who did what to whom and in what sequence You can tell them whatever you want.
My job as your career advisor and Mojo Coach is to remind you that you don't have to grovel and give up personal information just to get a job.
Your polite and professional redirection of the question "What was your last salary?" is a litmus test. If they say "Oh, okay, so your range is $45K, that's good. That should be in our range, too" then the conversation continues. You will have learned one important thing.
You'll know that you're dealing with humans rather than zombies. That's important. If you get the job, you want to know that you can be human at work yourself.
If they say "I must have your past salary, or this conversation is over" you've learned something vital. Do you really want to work with pod people and robots who don't respect boundaries?
The world is changing. The Human Workplace is already here. Sharp employers know that their talented employees are the only thing that powers their organizations. They are learning to bend and flex, even if their processes were stiff and formal in the past.
Organizations who haven't gotten the memo will pretend that the Godzilla world of fear and control is the only working world there is. Their companies will go out of business, and that's an evolution just as predictable and natural as the evolution of amino acids to single-celled organisms and then on to you and me.
Only the people who get you, deserve you.
Practice our script above until you can redirect the question "What were you earning before?" easily and smoothly, with a smile on your lips. If answering a disgusting and intrusive interview question in a non-standard way makes you feel like an outlaw, rejoice!

Read the story "How to Report Your Past Salaries in an Online Job Application" here!

You are growing new muscles. All of us are. It's a new day in the talent marketplace, and not a moment too soon!
Human Workplace is a publishing, coaching and consulting firm. Our mission is to reinvent work for people.
THANKS for 300,000 Follows on LinkedIn!
Follow us on Twitter: @humanworkplace