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The question

I am writing for some advice on how to handle the salary question during a recruitment process.

I work in a senior public affairs role at a non-for-profit organization in Toronto, and similar (in terms of seniority, number of direct reports, etc.) roles in the private sector pay anywhere from 25 per cent to 50 per cent more than what I currently make.

I have had many interviews for senior public affairs roles in the private sector, and I stall every time the salary question comes up. I feel that I am taken less seriously when they hear my current salary, and I also feel that I will get a much lower offer since they know how little I make now. So I have a few questions:

• Am I put at a significant disadvantage when I answer that question honestly?

• Can I refuse to answer the question? (I don't think this would go over well)

• Can/should I lie?

• What is the best way to answer it?

Thank you for your consideration.

The answer

You are quite right that refusing to answer the salary question would not go over well. It is a question you have to deal with. Equally inappropriate, would be to lie. Lying is never a good strategy. If you choose to lie about one area, where will your boundaries be and what does this say about your personal integrity? Honesty and integrity are important but simply answering the question (what did you earn in past/current salary) would be an insufficient response in an interview. You need to be confident in conveying the skills, experience and value that you would bring to the role and that you are a candidate worthy of consideration and for fair market salary.

As to whether you would be at a disadvantage because your past salary within the not-for-profit sector was lower than similar roles in the private sector, I think this would be a limiting belief worth challenging. Your past salary is not an indication that you are a lesser candidate.

I asked Janine Turner, vice-president at executive search firm Mandrake, to weigh in on this. Janine brings more than 20 years recruiting within the communications, public affairs and HR fields to the discussion.

According to Janine, organizations are very aware that individuals may choose to work in roles within the not-for-profit sector for lower compensation for many reasons. This may include choosing a role that speaks to one's interests or a particular passion. In other instances, a role at a lower salary may be worthwhile to an individual in order to gain experience within a particular area or set of skills that they may later bring to a subsequent position at a higher compensation. Additionally, she says, "While it is true that not-for-profit sector and professional associations may pay less than the private sector, that range is usually about 15 to 25 per cent – sometimes more, depending on the size of the organization and complexity of the role."

Ultimately what is most important is that you present confidently throughout the interview and know your own worth. Hesitating or wavering on salary questions or any other matter can undermine your chance of success. Your hesitation may raise signals of doubt. Consider these tips.

• Speak honestly about past salary while acknowledging that a similar role within the private sector would pay more.

• Share why you chose your past role and more importantly, emphasize how the skills, experience and exposure in this role has prepared you with for the role you are now interviewing for. Be prepared to offer concrete examples, such as achievements, or situations that you navigated that demonstrate your abilities, approach, etc.

• Prepare yourself in advance by knowing the salary you are aiming for and what range the prospective new role may offer. If you can't find out the salary range in advance, then ask the employer what their range is for the position (when asked about your salary expectations). It's fair for you to ask for a range to know if this is suitable to your goals, experience and expectations for your next role.

• Show confidence! It's important that you know your own value and capacity to meet the responsibilities of the role so that you can be more assertive and confident in the interview. If you are unsure – then your lack of confidence may not be about compensation, but perhaps related to other concerns worth exploring. Is there a skill that you need to further hone? An experience gap?

Ask others for feedback. It's important that you do an honest, rigorous reflection about your ability to meet the job requirements so that you can put your best foot forward and engage meaningfully in the interview process.

Best of luck to you!

Eileen Chadnick is a career coach and principal of Big Cheese Coaching in Toronto.

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