There are many hurdles to clear on your path to getting your dream job, at a dream salary. However, there’s one barrier that consistently stands in the way of your prize, and can upend your strategy before you even get out of the starting gate:
How to bypass the dreaded “Salary Expectations” question on an online job form.
Most applications usually start off pretty much the same:
- Basic personal information, such as name, address, email, and phone
- Education, including degrees earned, and special skills
- Detailed work history of past jobs
But then they proceed to give you an innocent-looking field asking for “salary history,” “current salary” and/or “desired salary.”
Although it’s easy to answer the question — just type in how much you’re being paid right now or want to make — savvy job seekers know that this is an incredibly important question.
How you fill out this form is crucial, for 2 reasons:
- It will affect how you are screened for the job and whether you’ll even make it to the next round
- If you do make it to the next step, your answer immediately sets a framework for how much the company will pay you and what title you’re considered for
Knowing these rules, but with that question staring you in the face, you ask yourself,
How do I avoid revealing my salary history on a job application?
To be clear, this is sort of a no-win situation from the start. Many will say that the current HR hiring process is broken.
Why would a company force you to reveal private financial information? Is that legal? How can they judge your worth before even meeting you? Shouldn’t they be the ones that have a budget in mind already?
The truth is, in many cases you’re forced to play the game. The question is, do you want to adhere 100% to their rules?
Here are several ways you can respond:
Option 1: Respond with a phrase
If you are filling out an application on paper, or if the online form allows you to type in whatever text characters you want in that field, then leave an open-ended response that defers the answer until later.
For example, you could write “Negotiable” or “To be discussed during interview” or answer the question with a vague phrase, not a number, such as “Entry level.”
“Cheryl” is 25 years old, working in her second job at a major corporation, and got an interview for a really great job. With her meeting pending the next day, she started freaking out when she realized that the topic of salary might come up. She had no idea how to handle the question, so she called me for a 1:1 consulting session and we did a crash course phone call.
She had been given an employment application to fill out, and sure enough, they requested a job history, along with an area to disclose what her salary was at each position. How should she handle this?
Because this was a paper form, it meant that she wasn’t forced to write in a specific number.
I advised her to fill it out as follows:
Job 1: Smith & Company
Salary: Entry level
Job 2: ABC Corporation
Salary: Contract to full time
Cheryl then brought up a legitimate concern. At the bottom of the application was some scary legal jargon. Something to the effect of:
I certify that all statements are true and complete to the best of my knowledge and that I have withheld nothing that would, if disclosed, affect this application unfavorably. [The Company] is authorized to investigate said statements, and any misrepresentation or omission will cause either refusal to hire or discharge whenever discovered.
She was worried that dodging the question would be an issue. Here’s my take:
- First, that information is probably the same boilerplate language used on many legal documents. It is put there as an overall safeguard for the company. Whether you’re renting a car or going bungee jumping, I’m sure you’ve seen something much scarier than that, and my guess is you didn’t give it a second thought.
- Second, she did answer the questions (thus, not omitting anything), the statements she put were true, and her answers to them would not affect her application or qualifications for the job in any way.
- Lastly, what they’re really looking to protect themselves from are the major issues from other parts of the application. For example, if you conveniently omitted that you were convicted of a felony, your title at your last job was Senior Manager but claimed you were a Director, or you said you graduated summa cum laude from MIT when in reality you flunked out of FIT. Another no-no would be lying about your previous salary, adding an extra $10,000 because you feel you were underpaid. That will come back to haunt you.
We’ll look at how Cheryl addressed her answers with HR later in the article.
Option 2: Use a nonsense number
But what if the “desired salary” field on an online application requires you to enter a number, and it won’t let you proceed without entering something?
Your next option is to enter a “nonsense” number… essentially any kind of number that alerts HR that you are purposely avoiding the question. Your options include:
The hope here is that HR notices this and immediately realizes that you are an intelligent negotiator and don’t want to reveal your salary. A smart company will see that you are a good businessperson, look beyond this field to your actual qualifications, and then ask you about it later during your interview.
The risk here is that you trip up the applicant tracking system. For example, if they have some kind of flag and know they don’t want to pay more than $75,000 and the system sees $1 million, then you could be eliminated by a robot. Or, HR sees this number, thinks you’re being a wise-ass, and eliminates you based on that.
The best thing to do if possible, is to find a text field somewhere on the application that is empty (notes, questions, etc) and write something like:
*** In regard to compensation in Section 6, I am willing to discuss salary during a live interview once I know more about the position. ***
Option 3: Enter a numerical range
If you cannot enter text but are allowed to enter characters such as a dash, you can give a range. For example, $40,000-$55,000 or $60000/$70000.
The key here is that you need to have done your homework, know your value on the market, and have a decent idea of what the position pays. From there, you’ll probably want to slide the scale so that your best guess at their initial offer is in the lower end of your range.
For example, if you think the position will pay in the low $40s, then a range of $40,000-$55,000 shows you know your value, while giving you upside at the top end.
One strategic way to answer the question if you are not allowed any non-numeric numbers at all is to run your range into one number. For example, let’s say you were making in the low six figures at your last job and are seeking a significant increase. Your research has indicated that positions are paying anywhere in the middle six figures.
When asked for salary information, you could put 125160. HR might assume that you were paid $125,160 at your last job, and later offer you a salary of $130,000. However, you can state that what you meant was that you were looking to put a range of $125,000 – $160,000, but their (stupid) form didn’t allow you to do so, then show your industry research and make a counter-offer in the $140,000 to $150,000 range.
Option 4: Enter specific numbers
Not ready to play this game? Ready to go the honest, direct route and assume HR will take care of you when the time comes? In many cases, it makes the most sense to be straightforward and just answer the question and move on.
If you’ve done your research and aren’t dramatically over- or under-paid in your field, being straightforward can get you through the process and allow you to negotiate harder once you’ve received an offer and they really want you for the job.
However, it’s pretty amazing how many times someone making $40,000 plays it safe and enters a desired salary of $45,000 and low and behold! Oh my! They get an offer for exactly $45,000. (What… you thought HR would be generous and offer you $50,000?).
If you are going to keep it simple, here are 3 pointers:
- If you’re able to use a range for desired salary, do so
- When stating your previous salary, never lie and dramatically inflate it because you were underpaid. If the company goes back and verifies your past income – whether it’s next week or next year – and finds out you lied, you’ll most likely lose the job
- However, you can still have some leeway with the wording. Let’s say you make $70,000, you’re interviewing in October, and the company asks for current pay. You tell them that your “total compensation package” is “around $90,000.” Later in your conversations, or if they are going back to verify, you can explain it as follows: Your base pay is $70,000; your entire medical, dental, and misc benefits package are worth $17,500 based on a ratio of 1.25x to 1.4x base, as estimated in the Boston Business Journal and MIT’s Sloan School of Management; and you estimated a year-end bonus of 10% ($7,000), but can’t be sure as it’s not yet the close of the fiscal year.
Option 5: Don’t be in that position in the first place
Does all this sound like a horrible game that is difficult to win? Of course it does. So why play by those rules?
When you look for positions on job boards, and apply through an online application, not only are you fighting against dozens or even hundreds of other candidates, but the chances that you’ll make a mistake and get screened out (or low-balled) increase dramatically.
The fact is, as many as 80% of all jobs are found through networking.
What happens when you network? You can often bypass all the forms and algorithms. You get a personal introduction to a hiring manager. You might even sneak by HR and get to meet the decision maker in person right off the bat. That gives you a chance to make a good impression first, and negotiate your highest salary later.
Handling the negotiation once you get past the form
Let’s go back to our friend Cheryl, who refused to list a number on the form, and instead put “Entry Level” and “Contract to full time” under the previous salary field.
So she makes it to the interview, aces all the questions, and then the hiring manager leans back and says:
“Well Cheryl, sounds like you’d be a great fit here. I noticed you didn’t fill out the salary section of the application, can you tell me what you’re making at your current job?”
What I tried to emphasize was that she shouldn’t view this as a horrible, anxious moment to be afraid of, but rather an amazing opportunity to practice the negotiation skills she had just learned.
It’s really a change in mindset… put aside the thoughts of “Oh no, they’re going to call me out on this, I’m in trouble” and instead think, “Oh boy, this is my chance to address the salary issue in a professional, business-like manner and ensure that I get paid fairly.”
She should respond along the following lines:
“Well, I’m really glad you brought that up, as I wasn’t exactly sure of the best way to answer that. For the first job at Smith & Company, I was right out of college and you know how it is… you’re just excited to get your foot in the door, so it was really entry level. I think the pay was in the mid $30s or something, and I gained a lot of great experience there.”
[The tone here is to be a bit vague but accurate… almost like you’re nonchalantly blowing off the question as silly… it shouldn’t matter and if you don’t put a lot of focus on it, neither should they].
“For my current job at ABC Corp, it was a unique situation because I started out on a 6-month contract at an hourly rate with no benefits, had 2 different bosses, and we weren’t even sure what was going to happen after the program ended.” [This was 100% true].
“Luckily, although they did away with that group, I switched over to full time with benefits in a completely different department. To be honest I was just looking over the employment contract that I signed and there’s a lot of confidentiality wording in there so I don’t believe I’m allowed to reveal that information, which is why I didn’t put a number.” [This is also 100% true; ABC Corp was a private, family-owned company].
“But what’s most important is that I really want to focus on bringing my skills to THIS job and making an impact HERE. So while I’ve done a lot of research, if I can ask you, what type of salary range did you have budgeted for this position?”
In this manner, the hiring company reveals the salary range first, and you don’t get caught saying a number that is too high or too low.
The key? You need to believe it.
I advised her to practice those few lines repeatedly until they came out naturally and in her own words, and to truly believe in what she was saying.
Everything that she was saying was true, so she should confidently state her position.
- She DID have a weird contract/full time/benefits situation in her last job, including her supervisor being laid off in the middle of the program
- She DID sign an employment contract with the company
- The company IS a private, family owned business that doesn’t want their salary information known to their competitors
- It DOESN’T MATTER if she made $25k or $45k or $65k at her last job – what’s important is what the new company has budgeted
- She IS genuinely focused and excited about the new job
But what if they push back? While you don’t want the conversation to turn confrontational, there is no law that says you need to reveal your past salary, so I recommended staying strong and using a similar response at least once more:
“Well, as I mentioned I did some compensation research in preparation for this interview so I have an idea of the range, and I’m not sure that my current salary is a true reflection of my value on the marketplace. It’s tough for me to say what the value is until I learn more about the particulars of this job, is it ok if we continue talking more about that?”
While it’s never easy to hold your ground in a tense situation and navigating the dreaded salary history box on an application can be tricky, the right mindset and a few tips can give you the best chance to get paid at the highest end of the salary range.
Negotiating a top salary if you’ve revealed your pay already
So what if you got to this article too late, and you’ve already spilled the beans on all your numbers? Are you doomed to accept whatever they offer based upon the data you previously provided? Heck no!
The key here is to keep things light, downplay the initial form, and hammer on your industry researching moving forward.
So let’s say you revealed that you made $70,000 at your last job, and are offered $77,000. You state that you were looking for more, and HR pushes back and said that you listed your previous salary at $70k and that this is a 10% increase. However, you know that you are worth $85,000 or more. You might respond,
“I understand that I listed my previous salary as a formality when filling out that form several weeks back when I first heard about this position. However, since that time I’ve been able to meet with your team three times and get a much fuller understanding of what the job entails. Knowing that information, I was able to more accurately research comparative salaries in the industry, and also discover that I was underpaid at my previous job. Given that I’ll be coming into this position not only with marketing research and analytics, but also with a design background, I’d like to discuss a salary in the $80,000-$90,000 range.”
From there, I would present my salary research document and keep directing the conversation not to your past pay, but your current skills and value on the market for THIS job.
While I’d love to detail every additional scenario, there are too many nuances to list in a blog post. Throughout my courses and via my 1:1 consulting, I can work with your specific situation in order to navigate the dreaded “desired salary” box.
Note: Versions of this article first appeared in posts for TheHiredGuns.com and Salary.com.