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Why employers ask about your current salary

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What question do you hate to hear when interviewing for a job? While job seekers everywhere may split on what topics they’d rather not discuss, one interview question tends to stir up a lot of controversy.

“What was your last salary?” (or any iteration of this question) may be widely asked by employers, but not everyone wants to talk about it.

Liz Ryan, CEO and Founder of Human Workplace, discussed this very topic on a post seen on the social media site LinkedIn earlier today, generating a very lively Comments section equipped with a diverse range of passionate responses on the topic. Ryan supports the candidate’s choice to not answer questions pertaining to last or current pay and even provides a scripted, role-play inspired example on how the conversation could be handled effectively by the candidate. She encourages taking this tack, suggesting that there is a level of empowerment, self-respect, and privacy to which candidates are entitled. And, if any employer inquires about it, Ryan supports the idea that candidates should tell employers, quite simply and politely, to step off .

With the debate of whether it is a legitimate question aside, candidates should consider how they reply to the question of pay. No matter how one feels about the topic, there is a consequence of how you choose to answer, and specifically, if you choose to avoid it.

We’ll explore this topic of pay history as part of the job interview from three different angles in future December posts from the Honolulu Career Examiner. Today, we examine why employers even ask this question.

Why they ask

Employers inquire about pay for a variety of reasons -- and trust that they do not always favor your interests as a candidate. As there is no finite list of motives, companies often ask about current or last salary for two primary reasons -- 1) to get a general indication of where you rank in the given talent market and 2) to see where they stack up against competitors from a compensation perspective.

Quite simply, these companies have a philosophy about pay. More often than not, they believe that salary correlates with the caliber of talent they want in their organizations. This idea also applies to other attributes the employer values - for example, certain expertise in a programming language or even managerial experience from a well-respected, revenue-generating competitor might speak for a higher-than-average salary for a given role. In many cases, employers will suspect that candidates with highly desired skills and a demonstrated track-record of success will already be earning compensation higher than their average peers.

Beyond the strategic motives, employers also ask about pay as a basic screening tool. They do not want to waste your time, nor theirs, if a huge gap in salary expectations exist. Companies have budgets and pay practices established by their internal departments that are often under the watchful eye of compliance. Candidates who are rigid about pay requirements and who expect a dramatic increase in salary may raise a red flag to a future employer.

Does this mean, however, that you shouldn't reveal a number? It's up to you. Many experts recommend that candidates take an approach that share their worth, not their history. According to Forbes.com contributor and Fortune 500 company trainer Lisa Quast, the art of negotiation is alive even at the early stages of the interview process. It's important to decide what information you want to provide, and the way in which you communicate it so that advancement in the interview process continues.

Have you been asked about your current pay during an interview for a new job? How have you handled it? Share your thoughts.

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