How to Answer the Question, “How much did you make at your last job?” (Part I)

I recently came across an article titled, “How much you made at your last job”. The article was obviously catered to job seekers in the hopes of helping them answer this difficult interview question. As you’ve likely experienced, this question can cause anxiety for interviewees. The perception is if you answer this question incorrectly, you could potentially leave money on the table because you made too little at your last job or you do not know the best number your potential new employer is willing to pay.

Well, before I tell you what the right answer is, let me tell you that I wasn’t impressed with the advice I read in that article. I have been in the IT industry for quite a few years and for most of those years, I’ve been in management. I’ve hired many talented individuals over the years, and I’ve switched a job or two here and there as well. So I would say that I have some good experience in this area, but more importantly, I’m passionate about all forms of negotiations, and don’t let this one fool you, interviewing for a new job is very much a negotiation.

So, first things first. If you happen to be a job seeker, don’t be anxious. I know, I know, it is easier said than done. Anxiety however comes from the fear of not knowing. I hope after you read this post, you will go from not knowing to knowing, thus eliminating some of your fears and anxiety, well at least on the topic of salary. (You will still need to prepare for other tech or non-tech related interview questions; those are not the scope of this article. Come back often as I plan to cover those in the future.)

When it comes to answering this difficult question of “How much did you make at your last job?”, there are generally two schools of thought.

Image courtesy of Ambro/freedigitalphotos.net

Image courtesy of Ambro/freedigitalphotos.net

The first one is this: Avoid the question. Don’t say how much you made, but in whatever ways you can, turn the table around and make the employer tell you first how much they are willing to pay. This is not a bad strategy, unless they insist you tell them first how much you made. As you can imagine, if both sides insist on the other side telling the number first, it could get a bit awkward. And let me be frank in telling you that since you are the one looking for a job, and they probably have 300 other candidates waiting to be interviewed, the odds would not be in your favor.

The second school of thought is: Lie. Lie about how much you made and come up with a number you think will give you better leverage during the interview. Well, I highly discourage anyone from going this route. It is really easy to find out how much one makes these days. Most established companies do have a background check in place in their standard hiring process. You might think though that by the time your background check comes around, they have already given you a formal offer and everything should be fine. No, it is not fine at all. Most offer letters do have the clause in there that says the offer is valid providing the background check clears. Clearing the background check includes not providing false information, such as the salary you put down on your job application. Should the HR department of this company you are applying for find out that you provided false information, they have every right to retract their offer. That is not a situation you want to get yourself into.

As you can see, these two options of avoiding the question and lying about your previous salary are not the way to go.

So what is the proper way to answer the question, “How much did you make at your last job?” Well, the answer is really much simpler than you think.

Just tell the truth.

WHAT! Wouldn’t telling the truth potentially leave money on the table? Or, what if you made too much at your last job and they think you are overqualified. Well, no. Because telling the truth is only the first step in establishing a trusting relationship, where then the real negotiation can begin.

In my next post I will share about the steps you should take to prepare yourself for a salary negotiation. Please click this link to read Part II (click here: Part II)

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