"How much do you make at your current job?"

Recently I was with some women who work in advertising and marketing and this question came up –

“What should you say when you are negotiating for a new job and they ask you what you make now?”

The responses varied, from an observation that that very question was now illegal in some states, to a suggestion to respond that it’s personal or not pertinent or none of the interviewer’s business. Or just lie, as a friend leaned over and told me, laughing.

I do a training on negotiation skills for women and address this, and a number of women were asking me about what I thought, so I figured I’d write a post on this particularly vexing question, which comes up in every training I do.

Basically, you need to decide how much you want that particular job and how much you want to make a point about that particular question.

About the question

“How much do you make now” is a question that has been used against us. What a woman makes now should have no bearing on the salary she will make at a new company or at a new job.

It is eerily reminiscent of the old reasoning behind why women were paid less than men – “because he has a family to support” – as if what you do with your money is the business of your employer.

If the job is worth 100k and I have the qualifications, I should get paid 100k, even if I’m currently at a job that’s paying me 80k. If I wanted to make 80k I wouldn’t be looking for a new job. So, yes, it is a question with pernicious freight.

However, the employer often asks it as part of a larger negotiation. They want to pay as little as possible. But they want a good candidate. So they want to know how little they can get away with paying you. They are trying to place you on a salary range, just as they are trying to assess your skills, how your personality will fit in with the team and how much competition there is for your skills in the marketplace.

What do you do?

First, realize that you are up against some barriers in a job negotiation. Studies have shown that women are more reluctant to negotiate for salary and employers are not comfortable with women negotiating.

So even when you overcome your discomfort asking for money and build skills to negotiate effectively, if you are doing it well, it is going to make the person you are negotiating with uneasy.

I tell the women in my trainings to get used to being uncomfortable. You are going to lose points in most negotiations because you are a woman asking for money. It sucks but it is true. Ask for the money. Don’t apologize for asking for money, don’t try to diminish any potential discomfort on the part of the employer about the fact that you have the temerity as a woman to ask for what you are worth.

But pick your battles. Build goodwill where you can in ways that feel authentic, like emphasizing your skills, talking about shared interests, being kind.

What to say

Here are some potential replies to try on if you want the job at the right salary more than you want to make an issue of the wretched question.

“I make 80k a year, with benefits that are valued at $10k and the potential for a bonus of $10k so my current compensation is $100k” Remember, salary and benefits are a package deal – show your smarts by valuing the benefits. Don’t make the mistake of walking away over 5k in salary when the benefits are going to be worth 15k a year to you. Or taking a job that has worse health care coverage and losing out over the long run even if your salary is higher. Always look at the entire package.

“Part of the reason I’m leaving my current job is that the compensation is well below what the market rate is, so I would prefer not to share that since I don’t believe it is a useful data point.” It’s ok to not answer the question, just have a reason for it.

Like anything else in a negotiation, think it through and practice in advance. But remember, the goal of a negotiation is to get the job you want, at the salary that job is worth in your market. The goal is not to make a political point with a snappy comeback about the stupid question about how much you make – even though it is a stupid question.

Make your political point by negotiating so effectively you get paid MORE than a man doing the same job at the same company.





When hating change turns into hating the boss