On Salary: A Rebuttal

Liz Ryan has a long post on how to dodge the “how much do you make” question during the interview process. http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20131217070749-52594-how-to-answer-the-question-what-was-your-last-salary. Check out her graphics; really nice hand-drawn pieces!

I don’t normally reply or even read them, but seeing that I’ve got kids entering the workforce, and I’m talking with friends at various stages of job careers, I read through it for any pearls of wisdom I might glean.

I respectfully disagree with Ms. Ryan, although it does raise many legitimate issues and concerns. Having been an employee for about 38 years at positions as varied as tech writer to running a piece of the business, I’ve been on many different sides of the issue, from absurdly in demand to long-term unemployed. When I was early in my career I danced around the “how much are you” question making a lot. I was trying to make sure I was earning enough to pull myself up to the next level, while at the same time not self-confident enough to stand my ground on remuneration.

Two decades in I shifted gears: I use transparency to gauge a company’s interest to commit. Interchanges like the following:

HR: So, what was your previous salary?
Me: Let me tell you straight up that I expect to be paid what I’m worth. I am making $xxxK a year plus benefits. The minimum that I need to change positions is $yyyK. Am I in your company’s ballpark?
HR: Well…
Me: That’s the minimum. I know that the average salary for someone of my skill set here in town is $zzzK plus benefits. I’ll leave it to you to make an offer that shows your interest in me.

I used this approach in the 90’s to receive $100k is salary raises — plus over $200k in bonuses and options and stock grants. I used the same method from 2010 to the present to triple my salary to one that I believe is more than fair — I’m appreciated by my current company and I’ve the paycheck to prove it.

I used that exact same approach for many years as a hiring manager — I’ve managed and hired hundreds of employees over that last 20+ years. I first figure out how much this employee is worth to the company a year. I might need to LOWER the pay range, even if it’s less than the going rate, because there’s no point in hiring someone whose position is not worth the money. Temping, outsourcing, using interns and cross training administrative folks are all legit ways of filling those kinds of gaps.

So I’m blunt about asking for salary needs in the interview, and I stress how I do the process. I try not to reveal maximums, because that puts possibly false expectations in the candidate’s head. But I always see relief in the face of the candidate when we get that out of the way. And most candidates have been surprised when the offer was for more than they expected. And that kind of surprise brings loyalty and commitment along with it for the ride.

Being this transparent means doing a couple of things:

1. Owning what your _REAL_ lowest salary is. It might be lower than what you’re currently making. Remember that salary isn’t a “how low can we go” decision for companies: it’s getting the right talent to do the best job. Otherwise Williams and Sonoma would be out of business and everyone’d by from Wal-Mart. Own that number. But know that number well — under-guessing is deadly.

2. Get the stats on what’s going on in your town. If your salary target is 30% more than the local salaries for a person applying for the job, you’d honestly better have the right chops to be worth it.

3. Being prepared to let go of that gnawing worry that happens after buying a car: did I get skinned? Did they give a number based on how low they could go, or what is their “real” number?

“Worst” case, here’s what happened to me: I was hired in a place where I was paid $40k less a year than other programmers at the firm doing a similar job (B1 imports, no less). But you know what? I’d given a level that I felt I could live with, and they offered more than that. I agreed to it, even though I was below the mark, because it looked like a fun and challenging job. And it was.

My current job ways a good prevailing wage for my skills and it’s constantly a place where I’ve offered opportunities to ‘spread my wings.’ And while I’d gladly take a pay raise (and see it as a sign of my continued usefulness to the company), it I were flat for a year, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Bottom line: We don’t need to keep up with the Jones’, or even inflation. We have to keep even with what we feel we need to live a fulfilling and happy life. My number is different from anyone else’s. Yours will be too.