The Most Dangerous Job Interview Question (and How to Dodge It)

Getty Images

You’ve almost made it. You’re in the final stages of the interviewing process, sitting across from the person who could be your next boss, and then comes the zinger, the most dangerous question of them all: “How much did you make at your last job?”

Negotiation experts will typically advise you to dodge the question at all costs. But new research from PayScale shows that for half the population, that’s the wrong move.

When a woman is asked about her salary history and refuses to disclose, she earns 1.8 percent less than a woman who offers up the numbers. When a man is asked and declines however, he gets paid 1.2 percent more.

Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy for PayScale admits the finding threw her for a loop. “We’ve always offered ways to disengage from that question: ‘I’m super excited about this opportunity, and I’m open to discussing a competitive offer,’” she says. “Giving women this advice — maybe it wasn’t the right advice?”

Maybe not. The good news is that, as employment-and-labor-news junkies likely already know, the salary history question is on its way out of bounds in a handful of cities and state. Massachusetts, Philadelphia, New York City and, most recently, San Francisco — have made it illegal for employers to ask for a candidate’s salary history in hopes that it will continue to close the pay gap.

Until this goes into full effect — and becomes widespread — here’s what you should do:

First, know the job’s value, and then how you add to it.

Before you apply for any job, separate yourself from the position and research its market value. “It’s not what you’re worth, it’s what the job’s worth,” says Katie Donovan, negotiation expert and founder of equalpaynegotiations.com.

“We act like it’s some crazy idea for a job to have a value. It’s like a house, it has a market value and it changes when there are too many and too few [available].” Once you know the job’s value, then start thinking about how — much like renovations to a home — your skills and experience add to it. Use sites like GlassdoorPayScale and Fairygodboss (which is specifically for women) to hone your numbers. And don’t anchor yourself to your previous salary. The market could have changed since you were last hired. “It’s really important to discuss the value of the position — not the value your last employer placed on your skills,” says Frank. Also understand where you’re going company-wise, industry-wise and the actual location. All of these should factor into expected compensation.

Applying online? Zero it out, and never lie.

When applying online, if you can skip the salary quesiton, skip it. If it’s a required field, then try entering in zeroes across the board. “More often than not, that will take care of the requirement, but [whatever you do], don’t lie,” advises Donovan. “People like to inflate and it’s a risk. If they find out you lied, that’s cause to rescind a job offer.” (The same, by the way, is also true in person.) If the form doesn’t allow you to zero it out, then tell the truth.

But if and when you get to the interviewing process, Frank suggests saying something along the lines of: “‘Based on our discussions — or descriptions for this position — I think the range should start here — do you agree?’” Shift discussion away from your personal salary history by talking about the research that got you to your numbers in the first place.

Use recruiters and headhunters as allies.

These same rules apply when you’re talking to recruiters and headhunters, as well as prospective employers. Recruiters can be in-house or agency-based — and while they serve as intermediaries between you and the company, keep in mind they’re not always a reflection of the company itself, says Frank. You want to get as much information from a recruiter as you give out. So, ask about the company, the position, the benefits package and specific salary guidelines they’ve been given, so you can better gauge the number you should expect to hear.

And if he or she is aggressive about getting your number, again, you can say something like: “This is what I was making, and I don’t think it’s current market value for my position. This is more what I’m thinking…” For the headhunters you reach out to, consider them more as your advocates and be as honest as possible. This is where you say: “‘I know I’m a woman, and I want this job to be paid appropriately and with parity. Help me, guide me and make this as equitable as possible,’” says Donovan. “You’ve asked them to be a true consultant to you: ‘I’m making $80,000, and I should be making $100,000 — how do we address [the fact that] I’m underpaid?’”

Before offering numbers, boomerang the question.

Now, let’s say you’re in the interview with a potential employer and the question is asked. Before taking a shot, put the ball back in their court. “Just because you’re asked the question don’t hesitate to boomerang it,” says Rachel Bitte, chief people officer for Jobvite, a software and recruiting corporation. “It never hurts to ask the employer: ‘You know the position, the company and you’re getting to know me as a person — what are you thinking?’”

She adds: “I’d rather the employer say a number before you start talking what you’re going to make. Unless you’ve seen what the budget is, you’re going to underestimate.”  

If necessary, hit the pause button.

Even though you want to avoid saying a number first, don’t leave the compensation discussion until the end. You don’t want to go through the entire interviewing process to find there isn’t going to be a match. It’s a waste of everyone’s time. However, if you think you’re nearing the number you want to hear, but you need a little more time to seal the deal, then take a pause, says Bitte. “If you find yourself across the table and you don’t think it’s going to be fruitful — you two are not going to be able to meet in the middle or sign on a napkin — don’t ever hesitate to say: ‘This is a really important decision, we’re both excited and I want to be thoughtful about this. I want to come back to you and make this work. We can talk about this tomorrow.’” This move can buy you time to go over expectations, criteria and practice what you’re going to say. It also sets up the conversation to be over the phone. “[Sometimes] people are better negotiating on the phone with a script and data — you’re able to hide the sweat. That’s advice I’ve leveraged and advice for women in general — it’s good for the pleasers in us. When someone asks me a question, I think I’m supposed to have an answer. Just because someone asks you that question, you don’t have to answer it immediately.”

With Kelly Hultgren