Should you tell a recruiter your salary?

This is such a perennial issue in the headhunting world I’m surprised it’s taken this blog so long to get round to covering it. Before I became a headhunter, I would never have dreamed of asking someone how much they earned – it just isn’t done in polite conversation. Now, I have to do it dozens of times a week. The vast majority of candidates answer without batting an eyelid, but a handful still bristle at the question, or refuse to answer whatsoever. This is understandable, but ultimately misguided.

The most common reason given for the refusal to disclose salary is that candidates fear putting themselves in a weaker negotiating position when it comes to the offer stage. In a decade of headhunting, I’ve never worked with a client who would even agree to meeting a candidate without knowing their salary. Far from putting you in a stronger negotiating position, you’re more likely to remove yourself from the table before you’ve even started.

A lot of the time, those who are particularly reluctant to reveal their salary turn out to be paid roughly the market rate, or even overpaid relative to their responsibilities. You also need to consider the impression that flat-out refusal is going to give the recruiter – it may be evidence of negative personality traits that affect your ability to work collaboratively or manage staff effectively.

A more convincing reason for not wanting to divulge is based around the issue of gendered pay. As we’ve covered here before, women are still paid at on average nine or ten per cent less than men at the same level. This is unacceptable, and has no place in the modern world. But is withholding your salary at the interview stage the way round this?

In my opinion, it’s best to be transparent. Most people who are underpaid tend to be painfully aware of the fact (although one or two have had no idea how underpaid they are). Tell the recruiter your salary, but follow it up with, “I know I’m underpaid”. It doesn’t hurt to tell an interviewer what you will and won’t accept in financial terms – in fact it actually makes things easier later down the line.

Ultimately, we want candidates to be happy and motivated in their new job – it doesn’t suit anyone if they aren’t. We advise clients to offer a decent enough uplift on a candidate’s previous earnings precisely to avoid long drawn out negotiations. But we can’t do that unless we know what the candidate’s earning.

One friend, when venting his frustrations about contingency recruitment consultants, said to me “why don’t they just tell me how much it pays?” And with more junior positions, I can sympathise with that. But more senior roles tend to have a wider salary range, depending on experience and achievements. If you tell people that range, they can be disappointed if they aren’t made an offer at the top – it creates a hostage to fortune situation that can cause problems later down the line.

However, it does ring alarm bells if I headhunt someone and their very first question is “what’s the salary?” We don’t expect most people to want to make a sideways move, and money is always a motivation, but we’re looking for candidates who are going to be excited by the job as well as the pay packet. If they aren’t excited by the task itself, they’re probably not the right person. As an old mentor of mine used to say, “never sell a job on money alone”.

Overall, then, the balance between the candidate’s expectations and those of the client need to be broadly aligned for success. As a candidate, being clear about both your existing salary and your (realistic) expectations from the outset will generally ease the process, and will ensure that the relationship with your future employer gets off on the right foot.