Job interview question and answer: What did you earn in your previous job?

Earning peanuts?
© Akhilesh | Dreamstime.com

Things can get a little uncomfortable when a potential employer asks you this question. If you’re applying for a job with a significant pay increase, divulging your current or previous salary may have a negative effect on the interviewer’s perception of your worth or what they’re willing to offer you. If your previous role paid much more than the job you’re interviewing for, this could make the interviewer assume that they can’t afford you, which may mean that you miss out on the position.

Popular wisdom says to never be the first to bring up a figure when negotiating. You’re not obliged to reveal your salary to the interviewer, but refusing point blank to do so if asked directly may make you seem evasive and shifty. There are, however, some useful strategies to apply when faced with this question in an interview.

The first thing you need to do is research: look at other positions at a similar level of responsibility and see what they are offering, and talk to people in the industry. You need to have a good idea of what your ‘market value’ is now, and what it would be in the prospective role.

The timing of the question will help you figure out why they’re asking it. Is it a screening question to determine whether or not you’re too expensive for them to consider? One thing you don’t want to do is rule yourself out of a job you want because your current salary is higher than what they can offer.

If the question comes later in the interviewing process, it may be because they are seriously considering giving you an offer. If your stated salary is low, they may decrease the amount they originally had in mind.

The best strategy is to put it back on the interviewer. You could say, ‘My salary was in the appropriate range for the industry at my level of experience’, and you could then ask them: ‘What salary range did you have in mind for the position?’ and take it from there. You don’t have to enter into a negotiation until the employer actually offers you the position, and your previous salary should not form the basis of your new salary anyway.

If you are pushed to divulge a number, you could give the interviewer a pay range in which your current or previous salary fits in order to avoid limiting yourself and leave space for negotiation. Alternatively, you could simply state what you, based on your research and past experience, believe would be a reasonable and acceptable range.

You may also want to emphasise that salary is not your only consideration, either in previous roles or in the one you’re interviewing for. Other factors may come into play, such as benefits, training opportunities or flexible working arrangements.

However you choose to answer, be sure to use the question as an opportunity to exercise your skills in diplomacy, negotiation and communication.




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