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NEW YORK (MainStreet) — You're sitting down at a job interview and you get asked the most awkward question of all: "What are you earning at your current position?" It's always a little uncomfortable to get asked what you earn. But it's even more uncomfortable to get asked that by a prospective employer. After all, you don't want to undervalue yourself. And if you know you're not making enough, that makes it even harder to ask for much more should you land the new position. By the same token, admitting a salary that's higher than the prospective employer expected may put you out of the running for this intriguing new position. So how do you respond to this question when you inevitably get asked during a job interview?

Tactic One: Being Straightforward

Patricia O'Neil Messer, an HR consultant with Insight Performancem, says that you should be right up front about your current salary from the word go. "Stonewalling and saying nothing is a really bad idea," she says. "I want to immediately hang up the phone when a candidate does that." In fact, she says that it's a major red flag when it comes to hiring. "They're not telling me for a reason, and maybe they're just very difficult," she added.

So what if you're not making enough at your current job? "If you think you're being paid under market value that's all you really need to say," she says. From there, you start having a conversation about why you think you're underpaid. If you're leaving your current job to make more money, you need to be honest about that. You also need to explain to them why you're worth what you're asking for.

According to EPI, Americans haven't seen a legit hourly raise in 35 years, despite 149% real GDP growth and net productivity growth of 64% since 1979. Our raises are hardly beating inflation, and many Americans took jobs with low-balled salaries out of desperation during the Great Recession. Selling yourself and enumerating the value-add you would bring to the new job is essential in justifying a bump in pay.

On the other hand you might be overpaid and not want to take yourself out of the running. "There are people who are making way more than industry average and need to be up front about that as well," says O'Neil Messer. This includes explaining why you're being paid so high above market average. How is the company going to get a return on their investment by hiring you? That could be that you just work for a company that pays a lot. Or it might be because you've taken on a lot of responsibilities that aren't in the normal wheelhouse of your job description.

Either way, the important thing, according to O'Neil Messer, is to be honest. "Don't lie," she says. "It will usually come out, and when it does, you're going to lose your job. Employers verify."

Tactic Two: Don't Talk About It...

Claire Bissot, a human resources business developer with CBIZ says the exact opposite of O'Neil Messer. "Beat around the bush," she says. "Redirect the conversation." Rather than answering, that means asking questions, like "What am I worth to you?"

"A big part here is the level of the position," she says. "If you're moving from one fast food chain to another, they might pay 25 cents an hour more or whatever." However, when you're talking about senior, or even mid-level positions, there's going to be some wiggle room in terms of what you can request for payment.

Bissot says that when you're asked what you make, it's time to talk about yourself. "What are the benefits of hiring you?" Bissot says. "Why should your prospective employer pay what you're asking? You want to sell yourself and how you can help the business as well as get what you need." So rather than making it about what you're earning now, make it about what you want to earn in the future and why that's your true value on the job market.

"You have to ask yourself if you really want to work at a place that's so focused on the dollar amount," she says. "Are they trying to find the lowest amount they can pay you and get you in the door? That's the difference between being a place in a seat and contributing to the overall success of the organization."

Tactic 3: Focus on the Qualitative...

We have yet to hit the 5% unemployment threshold most economists believe to be "full employment," and that's in part the result of a skills gap -- employers who are unable to find job candidates with the right tools to deliver value. 

In a recent "Talent Shortage Survey," human resources consultancy Manpower noted 39% of American employers found difficulty in finding adequate talent to fill positions. A job candidate needs to stress his individual worth and skillset to entice potential employers.

That doesn't necessarily mean talking numbers; this is a focus not on the quantitative but on the qualitative skills and energy you can bring to an environment. 

Be sure to stress soft skills. In addition to specific hard skills, businesses want candidates who have "employability skills," said Michael Gritton, executive director of Kentuckiana Works, the Louisville, Ky.-based regional workforce investment board. With a particularly scrutinizing gaze at Millennials, managers place value promptness, collaborative teamwork skills and openness to direction from a supervisor, he recently told TheStreet. Focusing on these skills -- along with critical thinking and creativity -- will help direct the job interview conversation in the right direction -- away from the brass-tacks of straight numbers and more toward your true potential for contributing to the new workplace.


No matter which tactic you choose, the underlying principle is the same. If you want to make more money at your new job, it's up to you to convince your prospective employer why you're worth it. The best way to do that is to stand on your record, quantify your achievements as best you can and explain to the interviewer why you're the best candidate for the job at the price you're asking. Anything else is going to leave you in a weakened bargaining position. Indeed, it might mean that you're going to be earning less over the life of your career -- something no one wants to think about.