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Your Take: OK to Lie About Previous Salary in Interviews?

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This post about “a little white lie in salary negotiation” sparked a bit of a heated debate in the Daily Worth community (I discovered it through a post on the New York Times Bucks blog). The original post said:

I’d found a position I liked and applied for it. The recruiter asked for my current salary. Let’s just say I inflated the figure—and told her I was earning $5,000 more than I was. (“Everyone does that,” a successful colleague had told me. “Just don’t puff it up too much, so that figure seems realistic.”)

Some people didn’t take kindly to her advice about inflating your previous salary.

I don’t think it’s lying. I think it’s acceptable to lie about your previous salary if you are pushed to give a hard number. I also don’t think it’s appropriate for a recruiter or a prospective employer to ask what you earned at your last job. They have assigned a dollar value to you and they should base their compensation on that value, not on what your previous employer paid you. When you reveal what you earned at your last job, they make take that into consideration when they shouldn’t.

The right thing to do is to decline to answer but if I were pushed for a response, I’d give a range. If pushed for a single number (and I’d find this very inappropriate but sometimes you have to do what you have to do), I’d puff up the salary such that I’d be at most 10% away from what I wanted to earn.

This benefits both sides. First, either they decide I’m worth it or I’m not, in which case they will extend an offer or they won’t. Second, I don’t get an offer I won’t take even with a bump because of negotiation. We all save time and we all walk away happy. Why tell them you earn $40,000 if you won’t accept a job offer for $44,000? Or $50,000? It’s a waste of everyone’s time.

What do you think? Is lying/puffing OK or unacceptable?

{ 117 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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117 Responses to “Your Take: OK to Lie About Previous Salary in Interviews?”

  1. DIY Investor says:

    Unacceptable. Start down this road and the next thing you know you’re taking steroids and hitting 70 home runs a year. You’ll make a lot of money but never get in the Hall of Fame.

  2. “I don’t think it’s lying.”

    Well, it’s not telling the truth. It’s not avoiding the truth. How can it not be anything but telling a lie?

    Don’t do it.

    • Jim says:

      I should’ve rephrased it because it is a lie (because it’s not the truth), but I think it’s acceptable to lie if you are pushed.

  3. ChillyOne says:

    Really? Answering a direct question with a falsehood isn’t lying?

    There are some very good and legitimate reasons for a potential employer to ask that question. For a particular position I hire for (an idustry specific position), I can tell exactly how valuable/how good of an employee was to his former boss by their salary. It’s aslo a good way to find out just how honest you are.

    Also, if I were to ask the question, and you replied with “here’s a range”, I wouldn’t bother with pushing for a number, you’d get tossed in the bin because I couldn’t trust your answer to a direct question.

    You can couch it in “a little white lie” or be less than forthcoming based on some over-inflated sense pride. But call it what it is. A lie.

    • I’m impressed that you’re able to judge value by salary that easily.

      Years ago, I got a roughly 20% bump in salary because the company made a large adjustment to the pay structure.

      So if you looked at my salary the day after the adjustment, you would have thought I was a much valuable employee than I had been the previous day?

    • ian says:

      These reasons for not inflating my salary are the exact reasons why I would inflate my salary when asked during the hiring process.

      If I am looking for a new job, one factor could be my current salary not being in par with my value.

      If I told the truth you would assume I am not valuable. If I gave a range, you are trashing my application.

      By lying, I am representing what I believe to be my fair value, giving you a direct answer to your question and if you find out that I am lying (which you won’t), then I am no worse off than I started.

    • TR says:

      If you don’t pay people what is market, you better expect attrition. My hubby worked for half of market (first job out of college). Imagine his surprise when he started looking at other jobs. Luckily they didn’t ask him how much he was paid. He would have been honest – and not gotten the job he has been in for 6 years.

      I agree that how much a person is paid usually tells how valuable an employee is, but not always. Sometimes, especially in non-profits, departments have very low budgets.

    • GC says:

      hey, ChillyOne, that’s a little extreme.
      People have the right of not answering certain questions, like this one.
      I wouldn’t judge someone to be dishonest just because they refuse to give exact numbers.
      If someone doesn’t protect their sensitive information (like salary), they aren’t likely to protect the company’s sensitive information as well.

      This industry you are talking about is really specific. I have received offers from two (software) companies differing by nearly 20%. Despite what everyone would think, my choice wasn’t easy, nor obvious.

      Numbers don’t give the complete picture about someone and their skills!

    • JB says:

      I’ve heard this highly incorrect from multiple HR people at several companies I was a manager for. Most of the time my most valuable employees were the ones making the least. HR usually operates on the principle that keep them just high enough not to complain. If they are in a tough life situation so much the better as they feel they “need” the job and cant risk getting let go for asking for more money.

      My response was always, “My previous salary has no bearing on this job. The situation is not the same.” Generally, I’m pressed for a number and my response then is, “I won’t consider an offer below $xx” since, most of the time they are fishing for the least they can offer you. This saves everyone time and heartache. If you want more than they are considering, you both save time with a useless negotiation process.

  4. Shirley says:

    If I were pushed for a response, I’d ask, “Why do you want to know?” Perhaps that could spur a more complete conversation and/or explanation of expectations from both sides.

  5. Ron says:

    I don’t inflate, but I DO tell the whole story. Using the words “total compensation package,” I don’t have any qualms about adding back my employer’s SS contribution, his Medicare contribution, the value of his contribution to my retirement program, my annual bonus from the previous year, the value of my company vehicle and its associated expenses, as well as an adjustment for a cost of living increase in a more expensive city (should that be where I’m interviewing).

    Do I tell them everything I’m adding? Of course not. I don’t have to tell everything I know. My last interview saw me get the job as well as a salary increase of more than 50%.

    The company wants to get you as cheaply as they can, that’s why they ask questions like “What salary level do you need to ‘cover your expenses?'” Are you kidding me, I don’t want to just cover my expenses, I want to have a life too.

    • p.helix says:

      The best answer I have read so far…

      I think if you are comparing like-for-like you should quote your whole package.

      With the car, health ins, housing allowance, company share scheme, it all adds up.

      If your prospective employer is not aware, you both lose out.

      Why give up all those benmefits, on;y in order to have to pay for them yourself?

    • cubiclegeoff says:

      Great answer and something I’ll definitely think about in the future.

  6. convextech says:

    In this economy, you are better off asking for more since companies are giving less. If you honestly feel you are worth it for that position, do what you have to get what you deserve. This is called NEGOTIATION.

    • Donald says:

      Negotiation is the name of the game! If you are not using every tool in your “job-search toolbox” then you are not trying. I believe it is rude & unfair for a potential employer to ask the exact salary that you earned at your previous employer. If you capitulate and answer the exact salary question you have lost any negotiating ability you might have had. Game Over-Thanks For Playing.

      Lying is unacceptable, but negotiating from a total compensation package point-of-view is very smart.

  7. billsnider says:

    I have had previous experiences of saying yes to a perspective employee, only to find out later from HR that they caught a lie on their application/resumee. Their offers were rescinded.

    Is it worth lieing????

    You make the call.

    Bill Snider

    • Anon says:

      Out of college I worked for a company for 5 years that was very stingy with promotions and raises.

      I felt a loyalty at first but the final straw was when I found out new hires with less experience were getting paid more than me.

      Then when I changed jobs I jumped from $60K to $80K because I lied about my previous salary (it was what the new hires were making). And from there I’m now making 6-figures, essentially doubling my income in less than 3 years. So for me lying was worth every penny.

    • ian says:

      Reading this I have a hard time believing that the lie was about salary. Lying about experiences, qualifications and certifications is much different from lying about compensation.

      • Anon says:

        I was basically underpaid and my previous company took advantage of that (even after I request raises several times).

        After 5 years of experience I should have been making at least $70K (based on what my peers at other companies were making AND what the new hires at my company were making).

        So when the new company asked what I was making, I knew they would try to base their offer on that and I wasn’t about to let my previous company’s stinginess affect that.

      • billsnider says:

        Depends on the company you worked for. The company I was with defined it as anything. They would not give on this uissue.

        Bill Snider

  8. I won’t comment on the question of whether it’s bad to “puff” your current salary, but I completely agree that it’s a bit odd for the employer to ask. It would make some sense if you were stepping into the exact same type of job, but how often does that happen? Differences in type of work, hours, etc render this fairly meaningless.

    At my current job, the hours are good (OT is rare, other than 2 AM calls to fix things), I can dress in jeans every day, and I enjoy the work I do. If I jump ship to a place where I have to work 80 hours per week and wear a suit, my price goes up. (Nope, no plans to change careers any time soon).

    • Tim says:

      It’s not surprising at all actually that they would want to know – the more information the employer has, the more of an upper hand they have in salary negotiation because you’ve at least partially shown your hand.

      The first rule of negotiating a number like that is always to get the other person to make the first offer.

      Of course, most people think that the question is a bit outside the rules of the game, I think for good reason because it is rather intrusive, but there’s no clear way to deal with the situation if that rule is broken

  9. I’m with you on that one. I don’t think it’s right for them to ask, but if they do (and insist on a number), I would tell the truth. Like bill said, they often follow up on those things, and I would not want the offer to be rescinded.

    • Jim says:

      They can’t follow up, your employer isn’t likely to reveal your salary information to a competitor. That said, if it’s a small firm and they are vindictive, perhaps they might.

      • Anon says:

        Some employers will actually ask for a pay stub to do the validation. What would you do at that point?

        My response would simply be “My current compensation has nothing to do with the position I am applying for. We can discuss the compensation for this position if we both feel the fit might be there.

  10. Traciatim says:

    “I don’t think it’s lying.”

    Could you explain how telling someone else something that is untrue for financial gain is not lying?

    • Jim says:

      I should’ve rephrased it because it is lying, I should’ve said “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with inflating your salary if you are forced to reveal it.”

      As for the “financial gain” piece, you’re not necessarily lying for financial gain. If you say too high a salary, you might not get an offer. The employer has a salary in mind, they’re just trying to get it as low as possible.

  11. zapeta says:

    I’d decline, and then I’d definitely tell them a number that is closer to what I’d want to make then what I currently make. The only place that they could find out my salary is my HR department, and they’d be violating my privacy by telling anyone else.

  12. otipoby says:

    The question really isn’t that easy to answer. I worked in a unionized industry (I was salary). Because of union negotiations, our company gave move paid holidays the company I was interviewing for. This was part of my compensation. Also, healthcare benefits were better in my old company (same reason).
    Somehow, these non-salary intangibles need to be valued as part of the total compensation package.

    So, I did my best to take the old total package, and normalize it to what the new company would give. Is this lying? I don’t think so.

    For example, if you are a waiter, making $2.01 an hour but tips are 80% of your compensation, would you tell your new company you make $2.01 an hour or would you normalize your tips into your compensation?

    But maybe I am just trying to justify telling a lie 🙂

    • Jim says:

      I don’t think that’s lying or puffing, you were just trying to quantify the dollar value of the extra benefits you wouldn’t get at your next job.

    • frannybkranny says:

      OTIPOBY, your waiter’s wages example is an EXCELLENT explanation for justifying your reason for inflating your salary.

  13. Jaye says:

    I always lie about my salary when asked. And I don’t use cute little words like “puff it up”. I LIE! Kind of like how a company will lie to me they tell me they can only pay X amount for this position. When actually come to find out after I turn down the position they “found” an extra $5,000 in the budget for the position.


    Many times you must fill out a computerized application and if you leave the salary blank then you application will not be accepted. I have in the past refused to tell recruiters about pay but I feel like I was labeled a trouble maker and my recruiter was not that helpful in finding a job.

    Most past employers will not disclose pay information, only hire/termination dates and job title.

    Besides why should I let a past dollar amount determine how much I am worth today?

  14. Kent says:

    Ok let’s look at from a different perspective. The employer’s goal is not to offer you what your worth, the goal of the employer is to maximize their return on their investment. The more value you create as an employee the more you “should” be compensated. We see everyday people who are undercompensated for the value they create. Sometimes this is by choice of career, or personal situations, which are beyond their control, but most of the time its the result of bad negotiation skills. Would you play poker if everyone at the table was allowed to see your cards? No way! It’s a game you will never win. So, I don’t agree with the notion that your previous salary has any bearing on your economic value to your potential employer. I think your accomplishments stated on your resume should be a true reflection of your economic value. Unfortunately its hard to put value on abstract terms so many people would rather just standarize a number and say John Doe working in this position for this many years should make this amount of money.

  15. Martha says:

    Isn’t lying part of negotiating to a certain extent? “Under promise and over achieve” is what I’ve always been told to do in order to succeed in the work place. In the strictest terms isn’t “under promising” lying if you think you can do better but are not promising if you are unsure you can make it happen? Just another way to look at the situation.

  16. Though technically it is lying, I see nothing wrong with puffing up your salary a bit. If your current employer is a miser who underpays all his employees, why should you let that infuence what you earn in your next job?

  17. DIY Investor says:

    If your new employer said he would give you a raise after 6 months but then reneged would that be ok? After all he saw nothing wrong with “puffing up the benefits” a bit to get the employee he wanted.

  18. Safeway_Sage says:

    No, no, no! Never tell lies about your salary.

    However, when you are letting a prospective employer your compensation, it is correct to include the benefits you receive as an employee in dollar terms.

    I recently took a job a long time ago and didn’t give my full salary including the benefits to my new employer and actually ended up taking a pay cut. So, include those benefits, but don’t lie.

    People who lie are simply bad negotiators.


    • DIY Investor says:

      How about if the employer says they will pay you $50,000/year and then your first paycheck is based on $45,000 but they say the benefits are valued at $5,000. Is that ok?

      • Theresa says:

        No, this is called OMITTING the truth. Same thing as lying. They implied one thing and then created whole cloth a whole other thing.

        So no, not ok.

        And are you playing Devil’s Advocate here?

  19. Kathy says:

    This whole scenario is not about lying, it’s about negotiation and it’s a cold, hard fact about interviewing. The employer should not inquire what you make at all. If you are pushed, I agree that you should beef it up. Not a LOT, but I for one would take into account that my current employer has frozen all raises for two years straight, so what I make should be more. And this employer could do the same. Up to you, but it’s all about survival and getting the highest number you can from the get-go, because all raise percentages are based on that. Trust me, mostlaws these days favor the CORPORATION, not the worker. Get all you can. All they can do is counter. No harm, no foul.

    • ChillyOne says:

      You can call it turkey dinner if you want, but a lie is a lie and a negotiation is a negotiation. The two concepts have nothing to do with each other.

      If I ask you a direct question, I expect an answer. If what I get is obfuscation, your application is toast. When we enter negotiations, feel free to ask for whatever you want for whatever reasons you want.

      Clearly, you are not an employer, or you would know that laws most certainly do not favor employers. As such it is incumbent upon me to find the best possible applicant from the get-go, which involves weeding out the dishonest.

      • Kathy says:

        And how do you verify what an applicant makes? You can’t. And if you think people don’t combine lying and negotiation, you are wrong. Be real. What employers want is a turkey dinner for the price of a happy meal, oftentimes. Why? Because they want to make money, and as I said, all future raises are based on that first number. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s all just business, on both sides of the interview desk. “Feel free to ask for what you want?” Right. Put the pressure on the applicant who is trying to get in your door.

  20. CreditShout says:

    I am torn about this, though I do agree with you that they’re going to offer you a job based on your resume and interview, and probably not on your salary, I do think that lying could be detrimental if your potential employer was to call your last employer.

    • ian says:

      Corporations will not release prior salary. Generally only confirm employment and date ranges. They can’t / won’t even give performance results.
      Small business is a different animal.

  21. ian says:

    It is just me or reading through the comments are there a lot of ‘I would’ and ‘if asked’ type responses?
    I am surprised to see so many people with feelings on the subject but whom have never gone through this. I work in a large corporation and have interviewed at several others over the past 6yrs since leaving college. This is a standard question. It is always asked.
    It appears to me that those with real world experience do not hesitate to give a response related to their value rather than prior salary.

    • Theresa says:

      In my experience, (is that better?) I have never been asked what I had earned from the larger companies, but rather what I would like to make. Only the smaller more industrieal companies actually force the issue (Customer Service Positions, Blue Collar). Yes, I’ve applied to both.

      Am looking for work now, and in the last phone interview, “What salary range would you be willing to accept?”
      “Oh, say, 36,000-45,000.”
      “Oh, sorry. We cannot accomodate that range. This is an entry level position.”
      “Ah, well, I’ve got several years of experience. I’m definitely not entry-level.”
      Mentally I was thinking, You knew that.

      Sigh… But I digress. Even when you give ranges, there are no guarantees.

  22. AMP says:

    Because you think the question is inappropriate, your first response is to lie? Really?

    So… what you’re telling me is that you don’t know how to gracefully handle basic social situations. A relevant question that’s a little more direct than you’d like should not cause you to tarnish your character. That’s ridiculous.

    • Jim says:

      If that was directed at me, lying isn’t my first response. “The right thing to do is to decline to answer but if I were pushed for a response, I’d give a range.”

    • Theresa says:

      I notice, AMP, that you do not bother to say what your reply might be to the same given situation.

  23. Ty says:

    My current employer has made it very clear that they consider the details of compensation to be confidential, and the non-disclosure agreement that I had to sign says they can sue me if I disclose confidential information outside the company, even after I leave. While I doubt that they would actually do anything about it if I told a potential employer how much I make, I wonder what a recruiter would say if I told them my current salary was confidential when they asked?

  24. cdiver says:

    I dont think it is any of their business what I previosuly made. If I made more they may excuse me, if I made less they may low ball me.

    This is business, not family. They will take you for as low as they can get. Why not take the job for as high as they will pay.

    When it comes to organization vs. family…screw you org.

    • Kathy says:

      Totally agree! Bravo. It’s all business and you should negotiate to get the most money with the best tactics.

  25. Liz says:

    I’ve heard people ask for your salary requirements but rarely for how much you made at a previous job (except federal government applications – they always want to know and can probably very easily verify that info). When asked for salary requirements, I always give a range that is in the middle of what the job listed as the salary. I also try to aim for $5,000-$10,000 more than I am making at my current job to make it worth the move.

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