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Pay Follows You: Taking Less

December 10, 2007

When interviewing for a job, you will inevitably be asked the following question: “And what is/was your current salary?” If you’re not in the industry, this might not seem particularly relevant. If you are, it’s more relevant than you might know.

First off, you will always be asked this question when you interview for a new job. You don’t have to answer it, but it’s pretty challenging not to do so. I’ll get to that more in a sec.

The set up – I once accepted a full-time design gig that paid about 15% less than the job I was in at the time. The job wasn’t my only choice, mind you. There were a few jobs that I could have considered. However, I accepted it over others for a few significant personal reasons, and the company genuinely felt like a place I’d like to work. In fact, I did immensely enjoy my time there.

Anyway, when it came time to look for a new job, I was always asked, “How much are you currently making?” Like I said, you don’t have to answer it, but it’s challenging not to do so. You will be asked over and over and over again by people who have a +10 Charisma and a bonus for extracting said info. Eventually, I felt compelled to reveal the information. The whole interview process felt stuck on that point.

While future employers do give credence to the East Coast vs. West Coast salary disparity, there’s something to be said, and potentially to be lost, in accepting a lower salary. I have no concrete way of knowing, but I always felt that accepting that lower paying gig affected my salary in future gigs. Afterward, I felt as if I were playing catch up. Your salary is a strong indication of how much someone values you, and your value is not attached to your personal reasons, significant though they may be. After all, your employer didn’t have those personal reasons in mind as a part of your compensation package.

If I had it to do all over again, I’d still do the same thing. However, I would have at least taken into account the affect of my current earnings on my potential future earnings. Maybe it was a rookie mistake, but I didn’t actually consider that when I accepted that gig.

While money isn’t everything, it’s a lot. It’s an indication of your value. There are a dozen reasons (probably a dozen dozen reasons) why you might accept a lower paying gig, though:

  • Security
  • Time off
  • Opportunity to work with an industry rock star and learn from him or her
  • Location

… and the list goes on and on.

For me, though, the lesson was an important one and potentially cost me a few bucks here and there. The moral of the story is this – if you’re considering taking a lower salary than you are making now, at the very least, be sure that you consider the affect this might have in the future.

In a separate post, several of us are currently discussing pay in the game industry and how much game designers make. You might also be interested in that.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2007 9:43 pm

    Interesting. I actually haven’t had the experience of being asked what my previous salary was. I’m a bit shocked, actually; I think it’s a rather personal question.

    If I were asked, I’d respond by trying to find out what it is that they REALLY want to know. Probably what they want to know, more than my value (I would certainly HOPE that others in the industry could recognize that salary isn’t everything — else, why not ask for the total compensation package, salary + benefits?), is what my expected salary range is.

    If you can shift the conversation from previous salary to expected compensation, you win. Here’s why.

    First, you shouldn’t even be TALKING about expected salary until the company has already decided to offer you a job, and you’re haggling on price. If they’re figuring out how much to pay you, does that mean they’re ready to make an offer? If so, that’s great, let the negotiations begin. If not, that’s also great, because it means they need to shut the hell up about salary and start making the actual decision of hire vs. no hire. Sometimes you need to help keep the interviewer focused on the task at hand, because people who don’t do HR for a living usually suck at giving interviews.

    Second, there are a whole host of ways to sidestep the issue of expected salary by turning it around to make them give the first number:

    “You want to know my expected salary? Why, what’s the salary range at this company for this position?” (If they’re dumb enough to give a straight answer, it tells you something about how much they value you when you make an offer!)

    “I’m sure that when you make me an offer, it will be fair and competitive given the position and the market conditions.” (What are they going to do, tell you that you’re wrong and that they’re going to lowball you?)

    “Talking about salary is a bit premature, unless you’re making me an offer already. We can talk about that when we know that we’ve found a good match.” (The old standby if you just want to shut down this line of questioning and shift to another topic. Forces them to make you an offer on the spot if they insist on probing deeper.)

    “Salary is only one of many considerations I’m looking for, so the amount I’m looking for depends on other factors.” (Leads the conversation towards what’s important to YOU, in terms of work environment and project, as opposed to what it’ll cost them.)

    “Sorry, that’s confidential information and I’m still under NDA.” (Another way to shut things down, and makes sure they won’t come up again.)

    Now, when you DO get to the negotiation step, one thing I’ve noticed is that driving a hard bargain to get a higher salary isn’t always a good thing. Yes, it’s more money, and if you’re convinced that you’re worth it (and more) then you may as well. But especially for first-timers in the industry, inflating your value makes it that much more likely that your ROI won’t be favorable compared to your co-workers, which paints a big target on your forehead if your company has to lay off half the staff and they’re figuring out who’s pulling their weight. Starting with a higher salary also makes it much harder to get a 10% or 20% annual merit raise, which can send just as powerful a message to future employers as a high salary (although of course you may not get a raise no matter how hard you work if the money isn’t there, so I wouldn’t recommend this as your sole strategy). Also, if you accept a lower salary, you might be able to negotiate other things that might make more of a difference: maybe an extra week of vacation a year, or flex time, or your choice of projects to work on, or something else that doesn’t have immediate cash value but that still makes your life that much more pleasant.

  2. December 11, 2007 8:08 pm

    This is incredibly important to me not because of the money but because of the privacy concern. I tend to get touchy when anyone tends to ask personal questions uninvited. A company I’m interested doing this before they have even offered me a job would be a big turn off. Sure maybe it seems to be a relevant topic to the interviewer but to the interviewee it seems more like an attempted invasion of privacy. I would assume most companies would not want to reflect any poor character in their interviewing process so I’m not sure it is a wise business choice to invade one’s privacy before you even hire them.

    The idea of taking less money for more benefits or a working environment that suits your personality seems smart to me. Not only will it most likely improve your quality of life but it will probably improve your quality of work and productivity.

    My main concern when looking for a job wouldn’t really be about the money but rather the company. I would want a limited invasion of privacy paired with the opportunity to prove myself worthy to earn a promotion. Everything else is important but those two things take the cake so to speak.

    ai864 –

    Those response recommendations are extremely helpful. If this situation ever arises I’d most likely use one of the following:(or some variation on them)

    “I’m sure that when you make me an offer, it will be fair and competitive given the position and the market conditions.”

    “Salary is only one of many considerations I’m looking for, so the amount I’m looking for depends on other factors.”

    Don’t get me wrong the others seem to be good responses but these tend to match my personality more than the others.

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