Yes, it’s the dreaded salary question. You may want to avoid thinking about it altogether, but it’s still bound to come up, especially when speaking with a recruiter. As with any other interview question, you don’t need to feel obligated to answer it (though you certainly shouldn’t lie). But instead of just dodging the question entirely, you can turn it around to work for you rather than against you.
“I don’t feel comfortable disclosing that, but what I would like for my next position is…”
When you should answer this way: If you were grossly underpaid in a prior position.
Rationale: If you were making $20,000 in a job that really should have demanded at least $40,000, you’re right to shy away from answering the question outright. All answering the question will show is that you’re willing to work for much less than you’re actually worth, which is never a good thing. But instead of just refusing to answer the question, you still give them a benchmark of what you expect. You don’t have to shut them down entirely: you just change the dialog.
“My salary was $X, with overtime of $X and an annual bonus of $X.”
When you should answer this way: If you were adequately (or beyond adequately) compensated previously.
Rationale: If you were paid a very good wage in a prior position, you should absolutely offer up that knowledge. That shows that another company valued you at that amount. It’s practically an appraisal. And if you are going to state any specific figures, you should always include overtime, annual bonuses and any other relevant income-related information. You don’t need to mention gas mileage (at least, not at this stage), but something like free childcare would be an example of a perk that has a significant impact on your actual take home income.
“I was paid $X, but since then I have…”
When you should answer this way: If you were not underpaid, but have recently become more valuable.
Rationale: If you’re a college student who recently graduated or someone who has acquired new skills, either through training or certification, it’s a good idea to follow up your salary with the reasons that you now deserve more. Yes, you were making $20,000, but since then you have graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree, so now you should be paid more. Utilizing this format anchors your salary in their mind and automatically tells them that you are worth more than that amount. Consequently, it can be more effective than simply saying “I want $40,000,” because it shows that you have proven value and, at very least, a certain amount of minimum value.
With many interview questions, you should be thinking less about the answer and more about the question’s goal. Remember, a recruiter is there to help you find a position that you enjoy and that you’ll feel comfortable staying with for some time. In reality, they are asking less about your last salary and more about what you will be happy with. So answer honestly and make sure that you include any caveats that come to mind.