How to answer the dreaded salary history question request when applying for a job

nervous frightened aYou are sending a cover letter and resume to apply for a job. The job description requests your salary history. Do you give it?

First rule: never ever give out salary data in a letter!!!

Let’s analyze what happens if you do comply and give your history. One of two things will occur. The response will be either:

  1) “Wow, what a steal! I can get them for an additional nickel an hour (maybe) than they make now, and save all the additional money I was willing to pay!”

  2) “Too expensive. Throw this one out. “

Either way, you lose.  Either you don’t get the job, or you begin your salary at much less than you are worth.

Answering the question in a cover letter with numbers allows you to be “screened out” by a Human Resources temp who might earn the minimum wage, and likely has minimal understanding about the job you seek. Or worse, a computer screening program which deletes your application upon receipt. It never gets to the actual hiring professional–the one with the budget and the responsibility.

In the corporate world, through the interview process employers often change job descriptions and salary to match the hired person’s capabilities. So if the hiring manager really likes your capabilities, the job will often be matched to your skill level, and hence, a higher salary!

Human Resources professionals want you to believe that they salary they award you should be “pegged” to your current or most recent salary. BALONEY! Your future salary is not at all related to what you think you “need” or have gotten in the past, but rather what the company will have to pay the best person they can find to fill that job description (often referred to as “market rate”).

Obviously, the employer wants to get the most qualified person they can for a job…at the least cost. It’s all a big game!! And most of us were never taught the rules.


There’s a salary range in writing already–you just don’t know what it is


All jobs have an initial “range” the employer would like to pay for that job, let’s say $10-15/hour. Obviously they would like to get you for $10 (and their boss would love them if they were successful). But, for the right person they might re-classify the job for $14-18, especially if the candidate has more/different skills than they requested. So, if you’ve been making $9/hour and tell them this, you’ll get $10/hour. Period. And they think you’ll be happy. moneyroll1

So, we want to avoid any mention of salary history—it has no meaning to what the market might pay for the new job you want. I’ve worked with government workers, and they have historically low pay. So should they be penalized for that? Why couldn’t they do a marketing job in the public sector for $20,000 and then command $30,000 for that in the private sector? If you listen to the HR rhetoric, you’ll fall into the thinking that you can never make big salary jumps!

Susan Britton Whitcomb, author of “Resume Magic” conducted a “resume preferences” survey of human resource managers from companies listed in the book, The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America.” One of the questions was :

“If salary history is requested in a job announcement and an applicant does NOT include it but is otherwise qualified, would the applicant would still be called for an interview?”

Survey said: 85% agreed that without salary information candidates would still be called. 15% said they would disqualify candidates if they did not provide the requested information. You decide.


But don’t totally ignore the requirement


So, how should you answer this touchy topic in letters and interviews? I think it is smart to at least address the topic in a letter if it is requested, or else have them think you don’t pay attention to detail.

Here are some ideas:

  • My salary expectations based on the exact responsibilities and demands for the position, so it is hard to discern a market rate based on a basic description. I look forward to exploring how I can contribute financially to the company.
  • From what I can tell, you are a progressive, competitive company and I am certain we can easily reach agreement on compensation if we both agree I am the right fit for the position and can prove my worth.
  • My salary history has shown consistent progression throughout the years, and my research indicates it is in-line with the current market range for this kind of position.
  • (and/or) I would be happy to discuss market value salary levels for this kind of position with you once we figure out how I can help your company grow/change/increase sales etc.


NOTE: Salary negation is always a HOT topic, so stay tuned and I’ll have a lot more posts with fresh ideas and perspective on the topic!


  1. Greetings from the ultimate blog challenge! Definitely bookmarking this as I’m hoping to change jobs in the next few months and never know how to answer this questions!

  2. I work for myself, so I hope I never have to answer this question again! But you gave great advice. I’ll be passing this along to friends who are job hunting!

  3. Good topic! That question was such a bugaboo for me when I was job hunting. I like that you broke out the reasons why responding is risky AND also provided the statistics showing that, most of the time, not providing the requested number won’t automatically eliminate you from the running. I wondered that when I was applying… I knew including the number could hurt me, but I also feared that not including it would send my resume straight to the trash bin. Good to know that’s not necessarily the case!

    I also appreciate the suggested wordings you offered so that a job seeker isn’t left wondering what to do other than just flat out avoid responding. I don’t remember the exact wording I used to use, but it was something along the lines of “I’m seeking a salary commensurate with my skills, qualifications, and the responsibilities of the position, and look forward to discussing those with you in more detail soon.” It seemed to do the trick!

    Great post with great advice!

  4. When I worked out in the “real world”, I always had trouble when it came to discussing my salary. I knew that my skills were worth more than what was initially presented to me–most of the time. My trouble came when asking for what I thought I was worth, because I feared I wouldn’t get the job if I asked for more than they initially offered.

    Very good article.

  5. Great piece!

  6. I think there’s a good argument for the employer here, too, in asking for them–salary requirements are just one piece of the puzzle. Sure, employers don’t want to pay more than necessary, but there’s a lot of information out there on market pay ranges, available to anyone. A smart employer is going to look at your experience, and what you expect in salary terms, and that information is going to go into a part of the evaluation that assesses your realistic expectations–do you have two years’ experience, and are looking for a 10-year salary? If you are, you might make certain your resume reflects what other skills and perspectives you bring to the company.

    My nickel’s worth 🙂

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