Is It OK To Lie About Your Salary History: A Friday Chat

Ester: Good afternoon, Nicole! Is it ever okay to lie about your salary history when applying for a job? Conversely, is it expected that you should or already do?

Nicole: Wow, that’s a big question for a Friday afternoon! I’m going to say no, no, and no. I don’t think it’s okay to lie, and I don’t think that it’s “expected” that people will lie. Do you?

Ester: I was rather surprised when a friend brought this question to me yesterday, because my default, if perhaps naive, assumption is that of course it’s not okay to lie and of course it’s not assumed I will lie if I am engaged in negotiations.

However, perhaps everyone else is lying and we are getting left out in the cold! FWIW, my friend, also a nice writer-type woman, had been told that “of course” she should lie in an upcoming salary negotiation, and she was surprised to receive this advice. Then again, she, my friend, is a bit on the honest/naive spectrum herself too. Perhaps we should ask someone more worldly-wise?

Nicole: We absolutely should. I do think, by the way, that there is room for — what’s the right word — a range of truth around your salary history, in that it is appropriate to give a previous salary range, a la “My previous salary was in the $70,000–80,000 range” even if you only made $72,000.

Ester: Definitely. There’s room in honesty for both tact and spin. I think in negotiations it helps to have a story that you want to tell, like, “Although I was willing to accept a lower salary to work for [X] nonprofit / hospital / school, they were able to compensate me in addition with a schedule of ⅘ time, or great benefits and flexibility [or whatever], so that my effective salary was [Y]. Going forward, I am looking for [Y+].”

Nicole: This is clearly where everyone should become a freelancer, because at this point I just say “My standard rate for this work is $Y” and then let the other person figure out what to do next.

Ester: Yes. And that “standard” rate can be your hoped-for rate, the rate you think you deserve, even if your last couple of clients haven’t been able to pay it.

Nicole: It is interesting, though, how clients suss that out. Like, at one point early in my freelance career when I was earning 4 cents a word, I thought, “What if I just told clients that my rate was 16 cents a word?” It didn’t work. They saw my true market value, or something. (Now, I regularly earn much more than 16 cents/word.) Do you think that’s the same for salaried jobs? That the market will always win out?

Ester: If often does, probably, but that can work in your favor too.

Nicole: Wait, does that mean I just admitted to lying about my salary, even though I said two minutes ago that this was totally wrong? Does it count when you’re a freelancer? I have so many questions.

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