Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Three Good Reasons Why You Should Not Exaggerate Your Salary When Job Hunting

I can’t believe that in all these years, I have not written about this before.

Many of you are aware that New York City recently passed a law making it illegal to discriminate based on salary.  In essence, this means that a company cannot ask about your salary history.  The attempt here is to insure that women are paid what men are paid.  The problem is that this question will be asked anyway, despite it being illegal (I am not a lawyer, but as I understand it, you cannot legally provide a salary history, even if voluntary.  You cannot waive the right and disclose your salary, except to a head hunter who will negotiate on your behalf, but that waiver must be obtained in writing).  My guess is that this law will end up being adjudicated in the courts.  But in the meanwhile, companies will continue to ask about salary and candidates will continue to voluntarily supply this information.  

At any given level or title there is a huge disparity of salaries.  I have interviewed $60k account directors and those with the same title making $180k.  So the question will always be asked. Here is a good example of why the information is needed.

I recently re-interviewed a candidate I met five years ago.  When we originally met, she told me she was making $200k with a $50k commission on new business that she brought in.  She is still at the same company, but when I asked her this time, she told me her base was $150k and her bonus was $25k.  Big difference!  And, the reason for this post.

You may actually preclude yourself from great jobs
During the five years that have passed since I met with the previously mentioned candidate, I have had at least six or eight jobs which would have been right for her, but I never called her because I thought she was making too much money for those openings.
Everyone thinks they are underpaid and worth more than they are making, but by exaggerating your salary with a company or a recruiter, you may preclude yourself from something you really want.  A few thousand dollars can make a big difference.

Remember, the higher your salary, the fewer the jobs.

You are lying and will be caught
Particularly at junior levels, people believe that to make more money that they have to lie in order to move and get more.  It just isn’t so. If someone is offered less than they think they are worth, they can and should turn the job down.  Tell the recruiter or the company what you are making and what your ideal salary would be (the NYC law, as I understand it, does allow a job applicant to say what their desired salary range is).  Then go from there.

One of the problems with lying about salary is that no one can remember who they told what.  If someone is making $50k and tells one company or recruiter that they are making $55, they are apt to tell the next person they are making $60k. Lying is easy.  Except, when one is asked a second time during an interview (which is a great way of double checking) the answer is apt to be different. 
I have even asked the same person about their salary twice in the same interview (“sorry, I neglected to write it down, what are you making again?”), I have received two different answers; I also know the lower amount is probably the truth.

Also, remember that most firms require you to fill out an application which calls for a salary history.  It is very easy to get confused and get caught. (Although I recommend to candidates that they not fill out this part of a job application – your salary history is nobody’s business.)

Many candidates exaggerate salaries by including perks - bonuses, car and other allowances, matching 401k.  Base salary is the only thing that counts since perks are discretionary and are not always paid or may not be consistent year to year.

You may get a job which is way over your head
Remember, the higher your salary the greater the expectations of your performance.
I remember a candidate who kept pushing herself by exaggerating her salary with each job move.  She finally got a job as an account director at $100k, but had only been really making $60k as a supervisor; I believe she told people she was making $85.  What happened to her is sad.  She could not perform at the level of expectations that her new salary required and, after six months and numerous evaluations, she was terminated.  Her references were terrible and she was out of work for a very long time (While most companies have rules which prevent or should prevent people from giving references, don’t kid yourself, people give them anyway.)

It is a common misconception that since everyone (not true) lies about their salary, it is harmless.  When someone lies to me, I make a notation in their file and have to decide if it effects how I deal with them.  Why get branded as a liar, even if you think lying about salary is harmless?


  1. As a candidate, you give up 90% of your leverage when you tell a prospective employer what you make. And that's more of a disadvantage than it was 10 years ago given the scarcity of raises in the industry, and one's base salary in a new job is far-and-away the best chance one has to make more money. That's also the reason companies and recruiters don't initiate the dialogue with a range for the position, which would allay all of your concerns above and is just as easy to do.

    So I have to disagree with your stance. If and when asked their salary, candidates should ask what the compensation is for the role, and proceed accordingly. It's hard to do, but the right move.

    1. Harry, if you are working with a recruiter, you have the right to know what the salary range is. If you go directly to the company, there is no reason why you cannot ask for the salary range during the initial contact. And don't let a company tell you that the salary is "open" or not yet determined. The way to get around this if they are reluctant to tell you is to tell the screener that you don't want to waste their time.

      You are suggesting that lying is necessary and permissible, but lying is never okay.

    2. Sorry, I think we have our wires crossed. I'm not advocating lying. I was actually arguing a point tangental but interwoven in your piece: yes, employers will still ask about salary despite the law, but candidates should not succumb. Past salary is irrelevant. Too often, recruiters I have worked with (as well as companies) refuse to give that information...they turn it around on you when asked, in the spirit of not wasting time. So while it's true that one can just pass on the opportunity then and there, it's difficult to do so bc the culture and norms of job searching are stacked against the candidate. Case in point: no one has ever freely told me the salary range of a job. It takes fortitude and persistence. I understand why this is: companies want to get people as cheaply as possible, and recruiters work for companies. But instead of advocating for "answer honestly when asked about salary" my perspective is we should be rallying around "don't answer."

    3. Harry, we have never worked together, but I always give candidates the salary range. I understand what you are saying, but, even under the new NYC law, if one does not answer about current salary, it is tantamount to declining the job. I have advised candidates for years, even before the law, not to fill out their salary history - it is nobody's business. Besides, the form gets filed and no one ever looks at it again.

  2. "I recently re-interviewed a candidate I met five years ago...but when I asked her this time..."

    Be careful, Paul. It's my understanding that last year's NYCHRL amendment applies to recruiters and third-party hiring services, too – even if you're not working on behalf of a specific client at the time the inquiry is made. I'm not an attorney, and in the absence of case law on the matter, I agree that the courts will ultimately adjudicate the statute. But as I read it, there's potential liability involved for anyone aiding and abetting a violation of the law.

    1. Anon, I am not sure why you responded anonymously, other than the fact your were criticizing me.

      I h have researched this law carefully and, while recruiters are under the same obligations as employers, a candidate may give a recruiter written permission to disclose their salary history if negotiating a candidate's salary. This permission should be given in writing. This permission is valid when introducing a candidate, which is a form of negotiation, or when actually negotiating an offer.

  3. Actually, in the “real world” the law is irrelevant. If you’re out of work and need a job to pay your rent and eat, you answer ALL questions asked, in whatever fashion you choose, or you’re “out”. If you already have a good job, THEN you have leverage and can choose to answer … or not. In either case, it’s a stupid question that only an HR person would ask. The direct hiring manager would be much more interested in whether you could do the job better than most. And if he or she thought so, they would find the extra money, if needed, to get you. And if they didn’t, then the position wasn’t that important in the first place. My best advice to all in answering this question under any circumstances is … ”My minimum base number is ‘X’ and my desired number is ‘Y’, and somewhere in between is the solution.”

    1. All true, Bill. But the point of the post was not about giving or not giving salary information, it was that no matter what, do not lie or exaggerate.

    2. I got your point Paul … But you spent the entire opening paragraph of your post on the illegalities of asking for or revealing specific salary information. Then you touched on such illegalities again in some of your follow-up comments on the comments. Which is to say, you covered a lot of other ground in your post and I was just offering some hopefully practical advice to your readers about salary negotiations and when to walk away. Maybe you might want to consider the order of your paragraphs in future articles and posts. If your headline is about lying or exaggerating salary, why talk about “privacy” laws in your opening? It’s a sidebar at best.

  4. The question gets a bit murkier when one is coming from a consulting role or one where the majority of compensation comes from commission. In these situations, I’ve always adhered to idea one should, if pressed, speak to their median income over their time in the role unless the most recent year was better (assuming that most recent year wasn’t an unrepeatable outlier).

    1. Really good point, Richard. I advise candidates who have been freelancing or consulting that they should average their salary.


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