Asking for salary expectations and history

I don’t know if it is a matter of culture, or just really bad HR policy in Singapore, but as someone who’s relatively junior on the rungs of the career ladder, I’ve noticed some pretty disturbing trends about companies, big and small and recruiting agencies asking for salary history and expectations, either on your cover letter or on your résumé.

When I was still studying at the Polytechnic, one of those general elective courses we had to take in our final year included a small component on crafting your CV and a cover letter. Although most of the stuff they taught us were irrelevant, one thing stood out – never reveal your salary expectations.

Once I got out of the system and had to find a job for myself, the first thing I did was to purchase some books that looked good enough to teach me how to write a good résumé and cover letter. I didn’t have any recommendations, but I bought two books by Martin Yate – this one, on résumé writing and this, on cover letters. There’s actually a third in this series on job hunting, but I presumed the market in America might differ quite vastly from that in Singapore to be of much practical use so I skipped it. And I got a good explanation out of the books, and some other reference materials I read.

The ability to perform in a job is not dependent on your last drawn salary, and in most cases it is considered very bad form for companies to explicitly request for it in the job advert, or to ask it in an interview. Unfortunately, this etiquette faux pas does not prevent some hiring managers from asking them anyway. You don’t want to put a figure and undercut yourself, and my personal opinion of companies that engage in such low-ball tactics to force a hand is very low; I would not want to work for a company that treated me like an exploitable sucker. Companies typically justify it, as in this article, that it’s a way to know candidates better.

Hogwash.

1) “Salary History provides recruiters with a way to screen the candidates quickly and assess suitability for the job.” No. Salaries tell you nothing about the candidate or their past responsibilities. That’s why you have things like CVs and cover letters which, written properly, tells you a lot more about a candidate. You will not know that I serve as Vice-President of two voluntary organisations, or that I have 1 scientific article that bears my name and is in the process of being published in a peer-reviewed journal simply by looking at my payslip for $X, 000.

2) “Salary histories provide a glimpse into the candidate’s past records and potential expectations in a volatile market.” You know, there are better mechanisms to do all these things. It’s part of the elaborate HR ritual. It’s called….interview. There’s another! And this one is called….reference checking. If you want to know our past responsibilities, why there’s a gap period, why did I change from engineering to management and then to pastry making then back to engineering etc, the interview is there to do that job. You ask, I tell. I might not tell you the complete truth, but that’s what reference checks are for. In fact, for a good company with a strong HR team, they go beyond and check references that we never listed – other colleagues that we’ve worked with in our previous company, and the like. It’s actually legal, just very hard work. Using salary history as a proxy is ineffective, and tells me you’re not very diligent in your work.

Oh, and our expectations are always the same regardless of the volatility of the market; If I interviewed for the job I’m doing right now and were offered $1m a month, I will not turn it down because I had an internal HR section within my brain that says market sentiments and HR policies dictate that I must work within a $3000 – $4000 range.

3) “Our HR has a policy of not offering more than 20% above candidate’s last drawn salary.” This is not in the article. This actually happened to one of my friends applying for a senior management role. I’ll save the explanation, but include his response:

“Ok, so you’re telling me this…assuming that I was a director at company X drawing $10k a month and after being retrenched settled for sweeping the roads for $800 a month. Now you’re telling me that your company policy can only pay me no more than $960 for this senior management position? Look, this is a position that requires experience, and I am not an idiot. Don’t take me for a spin.”

That shut him up.

Salary history is something that should not be the business of hiring managers. It’s personal, it’s private and it says nothing about your competence in managing/engineering/writing/whatever else your job requires you to do. Remember that, and next time if you are asked, just put ‘negotiable’ on the application. A good company will never kill a good candidate just because he didn’t fill up a nonessential section properly. In the interview, I would just say it as it is: “My paycheck is not a good indicator of my competence for this job that I am applying for. If you are hoping to assess my suitability beyond what you have already read off my CV, it may be better if I were to explain this project I spearheaded as a manager at Acme, Inc?”

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