When I was applying for my first jobs after university, I was always stumped by the salary expectation part.
I’d never had a salaried job before; I’d only ever been paid an hourly (minimum) wage in my part-time retail/hospitality jobs.
My parents were no help as they’ve always refused to talk about money, so I was well and truly stuck.
I applied for a job at a local call centre and to this day, I don’t know if I got screwed over with my salary as I didn’t have a clue what anyone else earned.
Once I’d got past that battle, applying for jobs beyond that (I couldn’t work in the KFC maintenance call centre for the rest of my life, I was vegetarian) involved filling out the ‘current salary’ box, which brought with it all sorts of new questions.
If I was honest and gave my actual salary, would a company use that as an excuse to offer me a poor salary? If I lied, could I potentially screw myself over by going too high? Could I get in trouble for lying?
When I put this dilemma to the good people of the internet, there were differing views.
Journalist Charlie agrees that the whole situation is murky, and questions whether we should even be asked the salary question at all.
‘Surely a company could end up paying you less because you’re on less than they were expecting to pay you?’ she says.
‘Or they could discount you from a job because you’re on more than they’re willing to pay?’
However Michael, who works in marketing, reckons it’s an opportunity to get more money.
‘The key here is that there’s absolutely no reason or requirement that the answer is an honest one,’ suggests Michael, who works in marketing.
‘If anything, it gives an interviewee the chance to “ask” for their desired salary without explicitly doing so. I’ve always used this as a chance to ensure expectations and reality align before moving forward with any conversation.
‘There’s nothing (bar a moral obligation to be honest and potentially shaft yourself) stopping anyone from doing the same.’
I’m freelance and haven’t been in a salaried job for years, so the thought of all this salary business still makes me feel uneasy.
Because I’m a grown-up (LOL) and because it’s Money Month, I decided to face my fears, once and for all.
I asked Helen Floor, managing director of 1-1 Recruitment my biggest questions.
How do employers use the information given in ‘current salary’?
They shouldn’t be using this information as a deciding factor, that’s for sure.
‘It’s short-sighted to use money as a factor in hiring people,’ explains Helen.
‘No two companies are the same, no two working environments are the same, and the reality of carrying out superficially similar roles between one company and the next is never the same.
‘Salaries should reflect the challenge and requirements of doing a job for a particular employer – in other words, employers should look at the market, decide what they want to pay and then be prepared to offer that.’
So technically, if you’re being paid less than they’re prepared to offer, then that shouldn’t be a reason to negotiate you down and offer you less. Technically.
If a candidate gives a current salary that is higher than the amount being offered for the job, will they still be considered?
They can be – but it’s down to the discretion of the company.
‘There may be scope to offer a higher salary for an exceptional candidate,’ Helen explains.
‘I know of organisations who are so interested in people’s attitudes and “fitness” for the brand or company culture that they will offer more than they originally intended to pay if they find someone they really like whose attitude is exceptional.
‘And that works both ways – some people will work for less for a job that really appeals to them.’
Do HR departments check with the previous employer that the candidate has given the correct current salary?
‘HR could not compel an applicant’s current employer to answer that particular question, and I don’t believe they do check this very often,” says Helen.
‘Although HR departments can ask what an individual was earning as part of a reference check, it’s not uncommon today for companies to provide either no references at all or very limited information. They may only confirm that an individual worked for them, when and for how long.
‘The easiest way to check this (outside of referencing) though is when an applicant has to produce their P45, which shows an employee’s earnings from their previous employer.
‘It’s certainly not easy to check salaries before the referencing process, with no guarantee of ascertaining the truth until you see a P45.’
Ah, I didn’t even think about that – your P45 will snitch on you.
Can an applicant get in trouble for lying about their current salary?
‘While it is unlikely to happen, an applicant lying about anything could land them in trouble if the lie is discovered,’ explains Helen.
‘It goes to the heart of the fundamental relationship of trust between employer and employee. In terms of what “trouble” could be, that would depend on the nature and extent of the lie.
‘If it is quite minor, I imagine most employers would do very little about it, but it is quite easy for an employer to dismiss someone with only a short period of service with them. However, it is not something I have seen happen often.
‘If the candidate does a good job, really you should just be happy that you’ve got somebody good who is happy with their salary! It’s a tough and competitive market out there and good people are worth the money.’
Is it expected that applicants are lying about their current salary?
Helen doesn’t think so.
‘It happens, but in all my time in HR and recruitment I haven’t come across many people who have been caught in a lie about their salary,’ she says.
‘Really, the best thing an HR department can do is to ensure they know the market well – check the market rates and understand the market as well as they can. And be prepared to pay the market rate.’
However, most people I know, when questioned, admit that they do say their current salary is more than is, as they assume that employers expect them to.
It seems like one big old game. With a very unclear winner.
But how do we rectify the situation?
‘I think more companies should advertise the salary they’re offering when they put out the application,’ suggests Charlie. ‘So many just say ‘dependent on experience’, but how is that fair if you have to tell them how much you’re on but they won’t do the same?’
Maybe that’s the key? If companies were more open with what they’re prepared to offer, then maybe candidates would be more honest?
Plus, it would help people work out if applying for a job is a waste of their time or not, because let’s face it – most people wouldn’t bother applying for a job that paid less than their current salary, would they?
It sounds like adding a couple of thousand won’t hurt, but you’re playing with fire if you increase the amount too much, as your P45 will dob you in. The little snake.
This article is part of Money Month, our month-long series of features, advice, and experiences about our tricky relationship with all things money.