Thursday, September 14, 2006

Ask the Administrator: Salary History

An occasional correspondent writes:

I'm writing to ask you (and also your readers) about an odd
thing I have come across in my job searching - the salary history
request. There are two jobs which ask for this - both are educational
outreach positions in science museums - and I don't really know how to
handle it. I've done some reading and I get mixed reviews - it seems
in business you can "make a stand" and refuse to divulge your
"confidential salary history" and that this can even work to your
advantage because you somehow "take control" of the application
process. It seems that in most cases though, the search committee
wants to weed out people they can't afford. I'm very interested in
these positions and I guess I don't mind if they know how much I made
as long as that doesn't prevent me from being considered for the job.
I have no concept of how the salary I was making in my previous job
relates to the normal salary range for these positions thus I feel
unprepared to make a decision about what to do. The other piece of
relevant information is that my job search has taken longer than I
expected and so I really need to secure a position soon. So while I'm
tempted to ignore what I think is an unfair request, I feel incredible
pressure to not anger the search committee at these museums by
'failing" to follow instructions.

My questions for you and for your readers are: 1) Is this a normal
request (to me it seems somehow illegal or inappropriate)? Maybe it's
specific to museums and other non-profit type sectors? 2) How should
I deal with this? Should I just indicate my desired salary range or
should I tell them exactly what I made at each position? Or, as some
things I have read indicated, do I have any ground to stand on if I
refuse to give my salary history in the initial application if I
indicate that I'm interested in the position and am willing to discuss
these details later?

I hate the 'salary history' question, because there's no way to get it right. If you come in lower than the employer expects, you'll have a heck of a time bargaining up. If you come in too high, the employer might very well skip you altogether, on the theory that you wouldn't take the job anyway. The strike zone is probably quite narrow, and, depending on the position, impossible to know from the outside.*

When I applied for my current job, the ad called for salary history and expectations. On the initial application, I put 'available on request' and 'negotiable,' respectively. It was my way of acknowledging that I had seen the request, but I didn't want to tip my hand too early.

On the occasions I've had input into ad copy, I've never requested either salary history or requirements. The former doesn't tell me anything I need to know, and the latter will become clear eventually anyway if it's relevant. Given the nature of teaching, it's not unusual in certain fields for people with experience in professions to want to teach their field, and to be willing to take significant pay cuts to do it. (I'll add that sometimes they're surprised at just how significant the cut actually is.) Salary requirements, in an initial application, always strike me as presumptuous (probably because they're almost always way too high). At my previous college, I remember an applicant for an entry-level assistant professor position in the social sciences stating a required minimum starting salary in the $70's. The committee had a belly laugh at that, and promptly relegated it to the reject pile. Had he not specified, we would have at least read the rest of his application.

Specificity on these issues at the outset may be irrelevant, or it may hurt, but I can't imagine how it could help.

If dodging the issue altogether is too risky for you, an alternate strategy is vagueness. Give very round figures, or, if you're especially gutsy and you work at a public institution, give the salary range for the rank you hold. (At my college, the salary range for an Assistant Professor is something like $32k to $90k. Don't ask.) You're technically answering the question, but you've left yourself a lot of room for negotiation.

If I were King of Academia, I'd make a rule that applicants should be told no later than the first interview what the position would pay. (If an institution wants to customize salaries according to some internal rubric about experience and degree status, it should do that before bringing people in for interviews.) If the salary doesn't meet the candidate's needs, she can withdraw gracefully at a moment when the institution still has other options. The 'car dealer' school of salaries – haggling, brinksmanship, etc. -- strikes me as dishonest, barbaric, and discriminatory as hell. This is especially true at the entry level, where the marginal differences between candidates are relatively small. (Named chairs and the like may still have to be customized.) Salary compression – in which newer people are sometimes hired at higher salaries than their senior colleagues – may still happen, depending on market conditions. That's a separate matter. But at least we'd inject some honesty into the process.

Reader, I answered her. What do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

*Even at public colleges! When I applied for this one, I called HR to ask the salary range. It was 30k wide. I could have looked up the salary of the previous occupant of this office, but given how heavily seniority weighs in these things, that only would have set me up for disappointment. “Transparency” is a relative term.