Five Things Your Salary History Says About You


Dear Liz,

I generally love your advice but I strongly disagree with your take on salary history. You say that a person’s salary history is private. Why should it be private? It’s part of your professional persona. Should your work history also be private? Of course not.

As a hiring manager I need to know what other managers paid you in the past. Don’t I deserve to know what level of experience and quality I’m getting in a new hire?

A candidate’s salary history tells me a lot about them. It tells me when and how much they grew over their career. I want that information and I’m dismayed that you keep telling candidates to keep that information away from me (and other hiring managers).

Where’s the flaw in my argument?

Thanks Liz,


Dear Noah,

There is no flaw in your argument, because there is no argument. People who say, “I want it — give it to me!” are generally either three years old, or considered immature by other people.

You want someone’s salary history and therefore you should get it — that’s your argument?

People in Hell want ice water, so they say.

Let’s flip the roles and see if your “argument” holds up. Job candidates would love to know what you and your fellow managers are getting paid. They would love to know how much money your company made last year, and how much of that money went into the pockets of the company’s executives.

They would love to know how much your personal compensation is affected by your ability to manage a budget, including your willingness to pay employees below-market wages.

None of that information, of course, is available to job applicants or to employees. It is unreasonable to ask for and expect information from the candidate while sharing nothing whatsoever with that candidate regarding your company’s financial situation, its executive comp plans or even information about how your current employees stack up relative to the local labor market. It’s heavy-handed. It’s unfair.

Only weak and inexperienced recruiters and managers need to know someone’s salary history in order to evaluate that person’s market price tag. I am confident talking to anyone for ten minutes and then telling them what I think they can command in the job market. You can cultivate the same skill if you want to!

Here are five things a person’s salary history says (and doesn’t say) about them:

1. A person’s salary history tells you how much they got paid at each job they’ve held.

2. A person’s salary history doesn’t convey their worth to a new employer in a new role. There are many reasons people take jobs below their capability (and market value). Every assignment is different, and the level of pain also differs from organization to organization.

3. A person’s salary history doesn’t tell us how good they are at their job.

4. A person’s salary history doesn’t convey their passion, enthusiasm or teamwork.

5. Salary history is useless as a gauge of a person’s talent. There are overpaid and underpaid people everywhere.

I used to hire engineers and IT folks from all over the world. Many of them had no idea what they were worth in the U.S. labor market. We had to pay them fairly.

We hired brilliant folks coming out of school. They had no useful salary history. So what? We still had to pay them a fair market wage for their contribution.

When you hire career-changers, people returning to the paid workforce, returning military service members, new grads, former consultants and any other type of non-cookie-cutter candidate, you are going to have to assign a market value without being able to apply their salary history even if you know it.

It’s a good skill to learn!

Step out of fear and into your leadership power. The air is much clearer up here. Try it and you will see!

All the best,


Liz Ryan is CEO/founder of Human Workplace and author of Reinvention Roadmap. Follow her on Twitter and read Forbes columns. Liz’s book Reinvention Roadmap is here.


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