Should Recruiters Be Asking You About Your Current Compensation?

February 2, 2016

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Today we want to cover a recruiting issue that’s been a topic of discussion around the office: whether recruiters and hiring managers should ask about a candidate’s salary history during the recruitment process. For a recruiter, this conversation typically happens after an initial discussion about a candidate’s job history, career goals and salary expectations. Typically a recruiter will ask this question when they have a particular job in mind for a candidate. For us, it’s about expediency – we don’t want to waste a candidate’s time presenting them for a job which is well below their compensation. But does this practice shortchange candidates? Join us as we weigh in!

What got us talking about this topic was an interesting and very popular LinkedIn publisher post from 2015 that resurfaced in our network this week. Written by Liz Ryan for her “human workplace” series, the post made an argument the recruiters (and hiring managers) shouldn’t be asking candidates about their salary histories, only about what salary range they’re targeting for a new role. The idea underlying Ms. Ryan’s argument is that recruiters should be able to assess whether a candidate should be presented to a company for a role by assessing the candidate’s skills, years of experience, and targeted salary – without needing to ask about what compensation the candidate is currently earning. The way she argues it, a candidate’s salary history is something that’s private. And asking a candidate about their current compensation is tantamount to asking a plumber how much they charged a previous customer, rather than their going rate.

 Ms. Ryan’s argument rests on a few key points:

  • The only reason hiring managers and recruiters insists on knowing a candidate’s current compensation is because of convention – in other words, because it’s always been that way.
  • If an employer knows a candidate’s existing salary, the candidate has lost leverage in the salary negotiation process.
  • In her eyes, companies (and recruiters) wanting to know a candidate’s existing compensation when interviewing them for a new role is a symptom of an old-school working culture that treats candidates as cattle.
  • Job seekers have more power in the hiring process than the think they do.

Our take is that we agree that asking for a candidate’s current compensation isn’t necessary to the hiring process, and it’s ultimately harmful to insist on this information in a knee-jerk way. We spoke with Argentus recruiters about the issue, and they had some great insights about the topic. “I agree with the article to an extent,” says Argentus Senior Recruiter Adele Casciaro. “I think that knowing a candidate’s existing salary doesn’t mean that that salary is market value or what a candidate should be paid. To Ms. Ryan’s point, a search is about what the client is asking for, and how the individual can come in or bring value more than just what the client is earning. I don’t think a candidate’s existing compensation is the biggest factor. It is a factor, but it shouldn’t dictate what you earn in your next move.”

But we also think that, as recruiters, we ask candidates for their existing salary to help them get a job. There are concrete reasons that help us find a middle point between our clients and candidates.

Here’s what we mean: 

As third party recruiters who hire on behalf of companies, we appreciate that a candidate might choose not to share certain information about their career because they view it as private. But it will also make it harder for us to place that candidate, at times. There are three main factors that go into why we sometimes ask candidates for their current compensation when discussing an opportunity:

  • We’re interested in making sure that candidates get paid fair market compensation. Why? Because a stable understanding of market compensation for a role (and how that compensation is increasing over time) helps us because it lets us act in a consultative capacity with our clients and our candidates. Sometimes a candidate’s high target salary is going to stop them from getting a job, and we need to help them be realistic. Sometimes a company’s low target salary is going to stop them from hiring someone who will be good for the job, and knowing what similar candidates are earning helps us inform clients to have better expectations about the marketplace. Argentus recruiter Ivan Larcombe says: “Sometimes a candidate’s high existing salary can be a leveraging point to get them more money. Information is power. If we have a good relationship with a candidate we can use information about what they’re earning on their behalf with a client.”
  • Recruiters work fast because of competing job offers and the speed at which roles are filled. We don’t want to waste the time of our candidates or our clients. Candidates can be wildly underpaid in their existing roles, wildly overpaid, or everything in between. If a company is offering $95,000 a year for a Director role that usually pays $115,000, we don’t want to waste the candidate’s time. “A candidate’s existing salary can be a pretty good indicator of whether you’re on track in your search,” says Ms. Casciaro.  
  • Ryan’s suggestion that agency recruiters in particular are willing to ask candidates their salary just to turn around and help the company lowball them doesn’t really pass muster. Recruiters are incentivized to help the candidates they represent earn as much money as possible, as well as to act in a consultative capacity by building relationships with clients and candidates. As Argentus senior recruiter Adele Casciaro puts it: “The recruiter is trying to create a win-win where they’re trying to get the candidate market value, and an appropriate amount based on their expectations, relative to the client’s budget.”

With these points of disagreement in mind, we agree with Ms. Ryan’s underlying analysis. We absolutely agree that candidates should be proactive in their job searches, and recognize that hiring is a two-way street. Companies (especially when hiring for a high-demand area like Supply Chain) need them just as much as they need jobs. It’s often said that recruiters are only successful if a company and candidate is happy. And our efforts – including occasionally asking for a candidate’s current compensation – are an attempt to maintain this balance. It’s what makes it so difficult but also rewarding. favicon

A big thank you to the Argentus recruiters who contributed their expertise to this article! 

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