will it hurt me if my current salary is much less than a job’s posted range? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

You’ve made clear your thoughts regarding employment applications that request the applicant’s current salary. One concern I saw mentioned frequently in the comments is the fear that employers might reject a candidate applying for a lower-paid position, thinking that person will be out of their price range. I have the opposite question.

I had a recruiter contact me with an opportunity, which included the salary range. The application includes salary requirements, as well as current salary. The bottom end of that range is double what I make now. There’s every possibility I won’t even include my current salary, as you’ve often advised, but if I do, I’m concerned that the employer might see how little money I make now and think I may not be as qualified as they originally surmised. Is that a viable concern — something that employers take into consideration — or am I worried about nothing?

Yes, you’re right to worry about it.

Some employers look at your current salary as a proxy for your value and the level of your role. Some will assume that if you’re making significantly less (not just a little less) than their budgeted range, that’s a sign you don’t have the level of professional responsibility and expertise they’re looking for. Of course, this doesn’t hold up in the real world, where people take pay cuts in exchange for great benefits or short commutes, or when someone is coming from a field with a wildly different pay scale (for example, many nonprofits), or when someone is leaving specifically because their pay is spectacularly under market (and if they’ve stayed in that job for years, that discrepancy can be large).

A little of this is understandable. It’s human nature to assign meaning to the facts we learn, and if you see someone has been earning $35,000 as a llama groomer, it’s natural to wonder if they really have the depth of experience for your $150,000 llama grooming job. (You might think a resume should tell you that, but resumes don’t always make it clear how much responsibility someone truly had, or with what type of workload or clients or so forth.) Ideally you wouldn’t reject that person outright but would explore those questions in an interview — but if you’ve got eight other strong candidates who seem well matched, you might not bother.

So yes, it can hurt you.

This is one of the many reasons to welcome the increasing trend against requiring applicants to provide their salary history (along with the ways it’s been shown to harm the wages of women and people of color).

But since you’re still being asked, try to refuse if you have that option. Ideally you’d sidestep the question entirely by focusing on what salary you’re looking for now. If you’re still pushed to give a number, you can try the advice here and here for declining. But if the employer holds firm and you feel you have to answer, you can try something like this. (That’s much easier to do in person, so ideally you want to be able to hold out until you meet. That’s not always possible if it’s a required field on the application though.)

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