Tell Us What You Make!

There’s a common conversation on Hacker News and the like about whether you should tell a recruiter what you’re paid. We ask this of virtually every candidate at the end of our first phone call with him/her: not at the beginning (so it doesn’t seem we’re just on the phone for a transaction). We try to ask it in a way that’s not aggressive, but where the question and the reason is clear: something like “just so that I can make sure that we’re in range for this position, can you let me know what you’re making today and what you hope to make?”

I’d say about 90% of our candidates answer this question, and they seem to be mostly honest about it, and over time you get pretty good at detecting shiftiness – plus if we haven’t built a relationship by that point, the answer doesn’t much matter. (I expect our percentage is higher than average since we ask at the end.)

We do still occasionally get the candidate who refuses to answer: “I just want to see what the market will value me at” or “I’d rather not give a range” or something like that. I’m here to convince you this is a bad idea with a bit of empathy. (Note that I’m talking mostly about agencies here, though most of the arguments apply to in-house recruiters as well.) Here’s why:

  • The recruiter’s goal in this conversation at this point is not to nickel-and-dime you. They care more about the placement in general than the specific margin at this point (just like a real estate agent wants the sale, not the extra $10K on the sale price). The recruiter’s goal is to figure out if she has a chance of making this position work for you. With that number, she knows; without it, she doesn’t. You become a more difficult candidate at that moment, and will be prioritized behind other candidates – not because she will make less money, but because you have either created more risk for either the client (“turns out he wanted more money and didn’t take the job”) or for the recruiting firm (“she wanted $80/hour and we can only bill the client $75/hour”).
  • Your goal of any conversation with a recruiter is to make sure that you aren’t wasting your time. If they can’t pay you what you want to make, you are wasting your time. If you have five more conversations, and then you get an offer, and then it wasn’t what you were hoping for, you have wasted a lot of your time. You need to know if this will meet your pay goals.
  • You sound like a newbie. Some candidates seem to think using these sorts of lines makes you sound savvy: it doesn’t. Knowing what you want to make – i.e. your interpretation of your worth in the market – makes you sound savvy. Great contractors say “I made $59/hr on my last job, I’d like to make $62-65 on this next one.” Everyone knows what the equation looks like at that point. I promise you that executive candidates do not go into negotiations without an anchor price. You should have one as well.

The key is to make sure to answer both parts of of the question – what you make/made now and what you hope to make. If you say “I make $40/hr right now, I think I’m underpaid for my skill set, I think I should be making $60,” we can tell you if you’re right – and we’ll write both down. By the way, if you don’t know what the market will bear – you’re in a new city, you think you’ve been underpaid, etc. – it’s ok to ask. We get no value for lying to you, because you will go somewhere else.

The consistent argument I hear about keeping your own pricing opaque is that you might you end up in a scenario where you quoted too low a number, and so the recruiter will take advantage of you and pay you less than you might have made if you hadn’t said anything. I’m sure that can happen. But that’s why you ask for what you hope to make – so that you can make a contract with yourself about what matters to you, rather than just relying on a system that spits out a number without your influence at all.

In the end, if you don’t trust a recruiter to make sure you’re being paid fairly, you should walk from the role. It’s a sign about the people you’re working with or the people that the client chose to work with – either way, bad scene, get out. But if you do trust that person, then answer the question.