How do you avoid appearing ‘difficult’ when declining to tell a recruiter your last salary?

August 13, 2014, 5:23 PM UTC
Photograph by Bart Sadowski—Getty Images

Answer by Michael Wolfe, startup founder

People will rarely call you “difficult” because of what you say. It will more typically be because of how you say it. Are you sure you weren’t defensive or combative? I hope you didn’t say you “can’t” reveal your salary. You are only choosing not to. It would have been better to say that you’d prefer not to, explain why, then ask the recruiter to help you work around the problem you perceive it will cause.

Have an honest and frank discussion. You could have been very specific about the salary range you are targeting, then engage the recruiter to help you get it (remember the more you get paid, the more they get paid, if they are contingent).

Also, remember that most recruiters (especially contingent) are hired guns: they don’t represent the company well or have deep roots in the company. The hiring manager may not even know or like the recruiter, and the recruiter may be representing multiple companies at once. Don’t worry that you’ve burned bridges unless the recruiter is in house and seems to have a relationship with the hiring manager. Be professional and get her on your side, but don’t worry too much about her.

I also have to say that using terminology like “play ball” and “team player” makes me wonder how professional this recruiter is and whether she has much respect from the companies she works for. There are many good recruiters, and a qualified candidate has many options. If you are not comfortable with her, then jump.

Answer by Mary Carello, recruiter for Silicon Valley-based firm

When it comes to the topic of compensation, I can give you one rule: clear and simple. The less energy (and amount of words) devoted to talking about money, the better.

I’ve had this conversation with hundreds (if not thousands) of people. The people who walked away with the biggest salaries and stayed in the most positive light did this:

Never actually told me their salary. They let me know they did their research about the position and said what their expectations were for it, and left the door cracked open if the available salary was not in line with their numbers. An example: “My expectation is that this position will be paying around X amount, which, from my research, seems to be in line with industry standards for the role and is very close to my compensation now. If this is outside of what you or your client were thinking, I’m happy to have a conversation about it and regroup if it’s a good opportunity.”

Never said anything about their “target salary.” For some reason, it comes across as suspicious. It can be a giveaway that your pay now is far different than the number you just mentioned.

Never got into conversation about how/why they were underpaid if indeed they felt they were. This is like going down a rabbit hole; you’re bound to say something that comes off negatively. Less is more. Try not to open Pandora’s box – nobody needs to know you are underpaid or how undervalued you are or that your company is in financial trouble and recently asked you to take a pay cut. In fact, that’s often private information, which if you read your employment agreement documents, can violate non-disclosure agreements you signed when you accepted your job.

That brings me to the last point: It can be acceptable to say that you are unable to reveal salary information due to privacy agreements you signed with your company. If you’re really backed up against the fence, you can revert to this but only if you can do so tactfully. As Michael Wolfe mentioned above, it isn’t what you say, it is how you say it. An example of what I wouldn’t mind hearing: “I’d like to partner with you to explore this opportunity, but as it relates to salary, I’m a little limited with what I can share due to the non-disclosure agreements I signed when I first joined my company. The payment and bonus structures at my company is considered by them to be private/inside information, and they have asked us to keep that confidential. I know that can be a bit difficult on your side, so the total number that I would be expecting is X amount. If that’s not possible for your client, we can have a conversation about what they were thinking, but that’s close to what I make now and what I would consider for the new position. Just let me know if that is not possible.”

On a positive note, it sounds like the recruiter you are working with is a permanent placement recruiter – she will get paid more if you get paid more, so it’s in both of your interests to get a good salary you are happy with.

Answer by Rob McClinton, executive manager

I’ve been on both sides of this question as a candidate and a hiring manager.

As a candidate, I answer with my target compensation by saying “My total target comp is X amount. If I’m pressed for the exact amount for my current position, I’ll answer with the knowledge that if I’m having the compensation conversation later things have obviously gone well. I can address any discrepancies between my target and their offer with a discussion of my value and ability to address their needs.

As a hiring manager I accept the total target comp answer without challenge. I respect if a candidate knows their number and can speak to what they’re seeking. I know there is padding and I know what I’m willing to pay. If we want to make it work, we’ll get there.

All of that said, I would coach any of my mentees to proceed with caution with any organization that places their value below their cost.

Answer by Erin Wilson, recruiter

As a recruiter, I ask every one of my candidates what their current compensation package includes. We cover exact base salary, benefit coverage, benefit contribution, bonus structure vs. actual bonus paid, vacation days, 401 K (matching or not and what level contribution, matching), whether or not you are able to work from home, and last but not least any other soft perks like free meals, onsite massages, commuter program, etc.

I feel it is important to have this information for a couple reasons. One, I hold myself accountable to knowing my candidates and truly understanding their current situation, as well as their current objective. As recruiters we understand everyone would like a raise when switching jobs, and as Michael Wolfe put it, the more you make the more we make as contingent recruiters. That said, each time I discuss compensation it is a new conversation including that company’s budget, the business need, candidate’s current salary, candidate’s salary expectation, the value a candidate proposes by joining the team, and how well the interviews themselves go.

I’ve rarely had a candidate elect not to give me that information, as they understand it is to help them in the end. In very rare instances, I felt a grand sense of reluctance and in those cases I did the best to explain why it would limit my ability to represent them. At the end of the day, it is your job search and you should feel as comfortable as possible in what can already prove to be a frustrating, irrational, unfair, process.

Hiring managers are bombarded with phone calls all day long. Not just from recruiters, but every possible sales call, vendor and service provider you can think of. It is up to the individual calling to quickly showcase skills, add value and build credibility. If I do not know exact data points on my candidates, someone I’ve met face to face with and say I am representing, that is embarrassing. Instead, with the knowledge we can be confident, fact-based, logical solution providers for candidates and clients alike, and come from a position of strength.

Lastly, if the way that situation was handled was to tell you “you’re being difficult” or I need that to “play ball” then I’d say the recruiter has some work to do. It is our job as recruiters to be the best communicator in the hiring process. There is a necessity to articulate our thoughts, and reasoning, to candidates and clients alike on behalf of another human being.

General rule with recruiters: If the recruiter cannot provide you with logic-based reasons on why they need a piece of information, it is probably not in your best interest to disclose it.

This question originally appeared on Quora: How can you avoid appearing ‘difficult’ when you tell a recruiter you won’t reveal your last salary?