Ask The Headhunter: Should You Disclose Your Salary to a Headhunter?

BY Paul Solman  August 6, 2013 at 10:45 AM EDT

By Nick Corcodilos

Employers who harp on your previous salary aren’t worth your time — and neither are headhunters who do the same. Photo illustration courtesy of Katrina Charmatz via Getty Images.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979, and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I am a great fan of your newsletter and just read your guides, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How to Work with Headhunters,” and “How Can I Change Careers?”, so I suppose I already know your answer to my question.

I recently had an initial interview with a recruiter to discuss my interests and to find out about the recruiting company. After discussing everything, there was this dreaded, but rather expected, question regarding my current salary. I advised that it is private and confidential, just like the hiring manager’s salary. I know that recruiters and employers will still ask for my salary history, but that does not make it right. I want to make sure I am considered for the role. Is there a better way or another way I can protect myself?

Nick Corcodilos: We have discussed the importance of protecting your salary history before, but it’s worth talking about it again from time to time. Clearly, you already have the answer to your question. Just because recruiters and employers keep insisting and pretending you must hand over your salary information doesn’t mean you must keep coming up with new ways to answer them. The same polite but firm response, even if repeated again and again, is the best you can do without compromising yourself.

How to handle the salary history question when a headhunter asks it is quite different from how to handle it when an employer asks it. It can be beneficial to share your salary history with the headhunter if you trust him or her completely. In a moment, I’ll share an excerpt from the book and tell you how to say it and how to protect yourself.

First I’ll give you a warning: Keeping your salary confidential can lead some employers (and recruiters) to stop the interview process. So you must decide how to deal with this risk. I strongly believe the right approach is to withhold salary history, even if it costs you a job opportunity, simply because sharing your old salary will almost always result in a lower job offer. But you must decide if that’s a level of risk you are willing to accept. Never take anyone’s advice as gospel — even mine — if you are not comfortable with it.

When an Employer Asks for Salary History

After you decline to reveal your salary to an employer, it’s up to you to shift the discussion to support your position. It’s not going to buy you anything to say “no” without helping the employer assess your value.

How to Say It

“I’d like to help you assess what I am worth to you with respect to this job. If you’d like to lay out a live problem you’d want me to tackle if you hired me, I’ll show you how I’d go about it. If I can’t show you how I’d do this job profitably, then you should not hire me. But I think you’ll be pleased. Can you lay out a live problem or challenge that’s part of the job?”

This might be as simple as working through a live problem in the interview, or it might mean spending half a day shadowing the manager or someone on the team. I find that when managers see such motivation and willingness to work together during the selection process, they drop the silly demand for salary history in favor of an actual demonstration of your value.

Again, you must decide for yourself how to handle each situation, because standing firm may cost you some opportunities. That’s a problem not just for you, but also for the employer, because your past salary has nothing to do with the job at hand; it’s your ability to do the work that’s the question. Too many human resources people avoid the work of thorough assessment, using your old salary to determine your value.

(For in-depth discussion of salary tactics, see “Fearless Job Hunting, Book 7: Win The Salary Games (Long Before You Negotiate an Offer)”.)

When a Headhunter Asks for Salary History

While a headhunter’s first duty is to the client who is paying the fee, a headhunter’s livelihood depends on being able to place lots of candidates and on getting good referrals from those candidates for future assignments. A good headhunter would never compromise a candidate’s satisfaction just to close a deal. It’s far better to have lots of very happy placements who refer lots more great candidates than to selfishly talk a candidate into a lower salary. A good headhunter’s reputation and future earnings depend on doing right by both the client company and the candidate. It’s a delicate balancing act, but every good headhunter can do it.

So, assuming you’re working with a good headhunter, here’s what to say when she requests your salary history. This is an excerpt from “How to Work With Headhunters,” which provides more elaborate advice if you need it (including about how to judge headhunters):

How to Say It

“My policy is not to divulge my salary for the simple reason that it could adversely affect a job offer. I am willing to walk away from any opportunity if that’s a deal breaker. No offense intended. I may be willing to divulge my salary to you under two conditions. First, you would have to agree not to divulge it to your client. That’s up to you. Second — and I say this respectfully — you would have to show me how it would benefit my career to tell you what I earn now.”

If a headhunter’s response doesn’t satisfy you, then don’t tell him your salary.

A good headhunter will have good answers for you and respect your position, even if she disagrees with you. If the headhunter hems and haws and chants excuses and rationalizations, she cannot work with you candidly and cooperatively, and my advice is to move on to another headhunter or another opportunity.

Do you disclose your salary to headhunters? What’s the effect? Have you missed out on opportunities by withholding your salary? How do you manage headhunters? Share your experiences in the comments section below.



Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “How Can I Change Careers?”, “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2013 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark. This entry is cross-posted on the Rundown — NewsHour’s blog of news and insight.