Dear Joyce: I was outmaneuvered and I took a job at $5,000 a year less than I feel I'm worth. The interviewer pinned me down on my salary history before permitting the interview to continue. What strategy should I have used? H.H.
In these very difficult days, it's time to bring in the heavy artillery -- Jack Chapman's newly revised book with great detail: "How To Make $1,000 a Minute Negotiating Your Salaries and Raises" ($12 prepaid from the author at Suite 2001, 307 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60601). If you hope to be paid market rate or better, you must know what market rate is and have a sophisticated understanding of the underlying dynamics of salary negotiation. Otherwise, you're a sitting duck for low pay.
Hands down, Chapman's book is the definitive consumer work on salary talk. This column reflects his views as well as my own. Both he and I are employee advocates, advising postponing salary discussions until there's an offer so pay agreements can be on the basis of value. To avoid wasting everyone's time, be sure you're interviewing in the right salary ballpark. Accomplish this through research.
In response to our advice, we often receive irate letters from corporate personnel screeners who run ads demanding salary histories before interviews are granted. Their assignment from line managers is similar to an old Frank Buck bring-them-back-alive mission -- "bring us six heads to choose from in the $20,000 to $25,000 range," for example. In effect, they're told to screen for price, and then for ability and credentials. Our personnel critics want applicants to pigeonhole themselves by salary level, thus making their own jobs easier. Otherwise, they say, response letters are tossed.
Your letter may indeed be trashed if you withhold requested salary information. That's the chance you take in attempting to avoid being underpaid. There are ways to finesse this requirement. The best is to figure out who ran the ad and seek a referral interview.
If you can't figure it out, try lines such as "I've had responsibilities of up to $X level but the starting salary really is negotiable." Or, "I guess your request for the salary history has to do with your concern about whether you can fit the candidate into your budget and, from the ad's requirements, I think I'd be interviewing in a range of $X to $Y."
The affordability question is what's mainly behind an employer's craving for salary background. They're rarely worried that you come too cheap -- except when they want a senior person and you're a junior.
If you make it to a meeting and are fairly sure you are interviewing in the right ballpark, when prematurely asked about pay you can say, "I suppose you are concerned about affording me. Please don't worry. If the challenges are what I think they are, I'll be able to make/save you many times my salary. Let's see if you want me -- then the money will handle itself."
An alternative interview response to a premature salary discussion is to turn the tables. Say, "Salary? Good question. You're probably wondering if I'm within your range, am I right? Good, what IS your range?" Then, "Hmm, I think we're in the arena. Let's keep talking. Did I tell you about? ... "
Salary strategy is one of the most important skills you ever can learn. You want to be judged by qualifications and personal chemistry, not by money. Once you understand the principles and you practice improved techniques with family members or friends so that a twist in the conversation doesn't throw you, you'll never be outmaneuvered again. Study Jack Chapman's book. And remember, practice makes perfect. You didn't learn to drive after reading a book.