Asking for Current Salaries Without Putting Candidates Off

Kate Weimer Kate Weimer, Recruiting

Recruiting is all about talking to people: talking to candidates during the whole process, talking to hiring managers as you move candidates along, talking to your teammates about different strategies for clients, and the list goes on. With all the people recruiters talk to and all the different conversations they engage in each day, perhaps none can get as uncomfortable as the topic led by the question, What’s your current salary?

Though every recruiter knows what I’m talking about, take this conversation I had with a recruiter from a company I was interviewing with a few years ago as an example of exactly how uncomfortable the conversation can get:

Recruiter: So what is your current salary?

Me, a broke postgrad still living in my college town: I’m on hourly pay still, I make $9 per hour.


Recruiter: So, is your family secretly wealthy?

Me, completely unable to process in the moment what that question even means: *awkward laugh* Um, no, I just happen to live in a very cheap town and am making it work.

Recruiter: Oh, okay. So the next steps…

If you’re cringing, that makes two of us.

Recruiters asking candidates’ current salaries is a step in the recruitment process that I will always stand by. Among other situational things a candidate’s salary can tell a recruiter, there’s the bigger picture of saving everyone’s time. In most cases, candidates are not willing to take a pay cut, and if the recruiter doesn’t know off the bat that the job they’re hiring for is in line with a salary a candidate might expect, they could take that candidate all the way through the process before finding out the candidate currently makes a much higher salary than what they’re going to be offered. Now everyone from the candidate to the hiring manger loses out.

HOWEVER – when asking a candidate’s current salary there are right ways to do so and very wrong ways (see above) to do so. With that in mind, here are some of the top things to consider when asking a candidate’s current salary:

  • You’re asking for your information—it’s not your place to judge the candidate’s currently salary. This is the obvious place that the recruiter in my case slipped up. Chances are if a candidate seems to be making a low wage or salary, they know it and they don’t need you as a recruiter to confirm it. Ask the question and move along without commentary.
  • You may want to preface why you’re asking the question. A lot of candidates clam up when they are asked for current salaries, and may even question your motives behind asking. You can avoid the discomfort of the question by easing into with an explanation such as, “Just to make sure we’re on the same page with compensation, what is your current salary?”
  • You’re bringing up current salaries—there’s a good chance the candidate may come back at you with a salary question. With money talk on the table, many candidates may see this as an open invitation for them to ask what salary they will be looking at if taking the job. If you don’t know the salary or aren’t ready to talk about it yet, be ready to have a clear way of steering the conversation away; if you do know the answer and it’s much lower than their current pay, be honest and upfront—they’ll respect you more for it and now you haven’t wasted any time.

Salary talk is always going to have an uncomfortable edge to it, but that doesn’t mean you as the recruiter can’t take charge and come to the table prepared to smooth over the conversation. Whatever you do, don’t add in extra commentary to make it an even more uncomfortable conversation.