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Great advice from The Lawyer Whisperer

February 11, 2016

I left a lucrative contract job for a low paying full-time position with good health insurance in order to cover a needed surgery. I’m on the market again, and have omitted my salary on job applications because I’m embarrassed by it. I think it’s cost me interviews so how do I get around this?

Julie Q. Brush

Your transition to a lower paying full-time position with health benefits to cover your important surgery was the right decision. Why? Because if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything. So getting this health issue resolved was important – and the benefit you received from your current employer was material. But it sounds like there were some other financial and career trade-offs with your decision – particularly with regard to your salary.

While you may feel embarrassed about your current compensation, the feeling should not prohibit you from moving forward confidently in your job search. You have a good explanation for your situation and just need the opportunity to tell your story. You believe that omitting your salary information on a job application is likely the reason you are not receiving interviews. This may be the case, or it may not be. At the very least, it raises a potential flag…and an eyebrow that there may be something amiss, which places your candidacy at a competitive disadvantage.

So how do you get around this?

The best path to take is one of transparency. And if asked your salary on a job application, my advice is to be honest and provide the information. The reality is that employers are far less worried about candidates with low salaries than they are with high salaries. And for some employers, your below market compensation could be attractive because it would cost less to bring you on board. So there is more upside with including the information than omitting it. If the application allows you to provide additional information, place an asterisk next to the salary numbers with a brief explanation along with your higher, historical compensation.

Once you receive an interview, you will likely have to address your below market compensation and your expectations. When the time comes, here’s how to navigate those waters:

Explaining Your Low Salary:
When asked about your salary, keep it simple and high level. It’s not appropriate to go into the weeds on all the details. Explain how your current role has helped you develop and what you have learned. You can also mention that while the salary was a bit lower, the company provided good benefits, which increased your overall compensation.

Pre-Offer Compensation Discussion:
An employer will want to discuss your current comp and expectations before an offer is extended. And when this inquiry occurs, many candidates have not been provided the comp range for the role. In this situation, it’s ok to hold off on an answer until you have received that information. When asked, a sample reply could be: “Sure, I’d be happy to. But I haven’t been able to assess my expectations yet-as I don’t know how the company is valuing the role in terms of a compensation range. Could you provide me with this information?” Once obtained, you can then have a more meaningful discussion regarding salary. Below are two sample messages:

Sample #1: “My current base compensation is $110k with a 10% bonus. My base compensation expectation for this role given my background and level of expertise is between $150k-165k. I understand that this may seem like a bit of an increase compared to what I’m currently earning, but my current compensation is quite a bit below market compared to what other companies are paying for attorneys with my experience. I was willing to make the cash trade-off in my current company because excellent benefits bridged the gap. I also received the opportunity to expand my skill set which allows me to contribute greater value to your organization. So I believe $150k – $165k would be a fair reflection of my value to the company.”

Sample #2: “My current total compensation is $140k. This consists of a base compensation of $120k and a bonus of $20k. In my next role, I’m seeking to increase my base compensation to more accurately reflect the market rate for someone with my credentials and experience. For this position, I would like to earn between $150k-$165k as a base salary.” Silence…

Post Offer Discussion:
If the offer you receive is disappointing, discuss it with the employer and ask for what you want. Be respectful and express your appreciation for receiving the offer. In addition, reiterate your excitement about the opportunity, but explain that you would ideally prefer a base compensation in the range of [range provided previously]. Ask if the employer would be willing to move within this range to create a win-win. Then see what happens.

You’ve had to make some tough tradeoffs as it relates to your health and your career. And while you received the benefit of good health insurance, which paid for your surgery, you are in a job with a low salary. Despite feeling embarrassed about it, it is in your best interest to be transparent about your current salary and the reasons for it – whether on a job application or an interview. The odds are low that your below market income will kill your candidacy, but being opaque about it most certainly will. So move forward confidently – and make no apologies about where you’ve been, where you are…and where you want to be.

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