Job market Mojo

 Human Workplace Fan Club at 8wall.

When I was a kid working at Burger King, the minimum wage was $2.75 an hour. I didn't last long at that job. I got fired for calling in sick to go see the rock band Boston play at Madison Square Garden. Nonetheless, if the US Federal minimum wage had risen at the same rate as inflation, it would be over $20 an hour by now, instead of seven dollars and change.

What does that tell you? Real wages have dropped like a stone since I rocked out with my North Jersey homies in the nineteen-seventies. Annual salary increases at most large and medium-sized employers have plummeted or disappeared altogether. That means your best hope for keeping your income in line with the cost of living is to change jobs every now and then.

There's only one problem with that plan. When you apply for a job at a new company, their first question to you is likely to be "What were you earning at your last job?" The less you earned, the smaller your new job offer is going to be. Your past, unexciting wages will dog you forever!

If you were earning $52,000, your new job offer might come in at $53,500. If you earned two hundred and forty-five thousand dollars a year, expect a job offer around two-sixty. Notwithstanding the exacting pay grades, salary charts and ranges laid out by bureaucrats the world over, the strongest predictor of a new hire's starting salary is whatever he or she was earning at the last job.

That's discouraging - and pathetic! If an organization doesn't know how to value your talents other than by looking at what somebody else paid you in a completely different situation, they don't know squat about the talent market. How are you ever going to increase your earnings if every time you change jobs, you get a tiny raise over what they paid you at the last place?

Drinking toxic lemonade over the years, we've gotten used to the idea that the question "What were you earning before?" from a prospective employer is perfectly reasonable. It's not, of course. Your personal finances are your business.

When we call the plumber because our tub drain is clogged, we don't ask "What did you charge the guy down the block to unclog his drain last week?" If we do, the plumber is going to say "My rate is $95 an hour. Do you want me to come over, or not?"

Plumbers have avoided the weenification process the rest of us have subjected ourselves to. I'm generalizing, of course - I haven't met every plumber in the world - but my impression is that plumbers and other tradespeople are way ahead of the suit-and-tie crowd when it comes to saying what they think. They don't become mealy-mouthed and hesitant the way business people so often do when they really should speak up, on the job search or on the job.

They don't fawn and grovel the way job-seekers have been taught to do, and are still being encouraged to do by experts who tell them to please everyone, say anything, and be anyone the employer wants them to be, just to get the job. That's what passes for job search advice today -- advice about how to scrape and bow and beg for a job. Sickening, isn't it?

We can de-weenify ourselves any time we want. The first step in draining the toxic lemonade from our veins, of course, is to realize it's there.

For some reason nearly all of us have come to believe that the most intrusive personal questions are perfectly fine when they're asked in the context of a recruiting process. That's ridiculous. You already know my feelings about the heinous interview questions "With all the talented candidates, why should we hire you?" and "What's your greatest weakness?"

The question "What were you earning before?" (or the variation "What are you earning now?") falls into the same category. These are all questions that one adult lacks the social right to ask another. Yet we happily bleat "Oh, I was earning sixty-eight five over at Miles Prower Products" because we believe that in the hiring process, employers have the upper hand.

Employers will have the upper hand in your job search as long as you give them it to them. When you decide that you have something valuable and unique to bring to your next organization -- when you really believe it, and act out of that conviction -- you'll quickly move past the managers who don't deserve you, and focus on the ones who do.

You won't hand over confidential information about your past salaries, because that's nobody's business but your own.

Here's what you'll do, instead. You'll give your prospective next boss the information s/he really needs to make the Go/No Go decision, which is your target salary level. With that number, your boss or recruiter can quickly determine whether it makes sense to keep talking with you or not.

They don't need your past salaries to make that call. So why hand your personal information over? Here's a script to illustrate how your conversation might go.


IVO, a programmer: Ivo Sega here.

CAROL, a company recruiter: Hi Ivo! It's Carol from Vector Industries. Thanks again for coming out to meet everyone last week. Josh, our CTO, was really happy to meet you.

IVO: No problem. I was happy to meet him too. You've got some interesting projects going on. It could be a lot of fun to tackle one of them.

CAROL: I'm glad to hear it. Can you come back and meet more of our team next Tuesday at three p.m.?

IVO: I'll have to check. I have some things I have to do on Tuesday afternoon. Can I ask you a related question?

CAROL: Shoot.

IVO: I want to check on the salary range for this position, so that I don't waste your time or Josh's if we aren't in the same ballpark. Are you the right person to have that conversation with, and is this a good time to do it?

CAROL: I can get into that topic. What were you earning at Sonic Systems?

IVO: In this job search I'm focusing on jobs in the ninety-five to a hundred-kay range. If this job is in that ballpark, it makes sense for me to come back for a second interview. Is this position in that salary range?

CAROL: That could stretch the budget a little bit, but it isn't out of the question. What were you earning over at Sonic?

IVO: You know Carol, the key for me is to make sure we're close enough to continue the conversation. It sounds like we are. Do you want to double-check that salary range with Josh before we set something up?

CAROL: I can do that, but I can't help but notice you're avoiding my question. Do you want to share your last salary with me?

IVO: I really don't, because that information isn't relevant to our conversation and frankly I'm not going to ask Josh what he paid the person who had this job before me. You've got confidential information that you can't share, and I'm in the same position. Over the years I've had royalty arrangements and incentive programs and base salaries that all made sense for me and the organizations that paid me at the time. I wouldn't expect any of those arrangements to map to your situation, and that's why I like to check the salary for each new gig against what I need to earn.

CAROL: I know that some of our departments do salary-history checks as a part of their background check. Would you give us permission to verify your past salaries at Sonic and your other employers, and/or could you bring us a W-2 if we needed it? I'm just checking. I don't know Josh's thoughts on that issue.

IVO: Thanks so much for asking, Carol. I definitely wouldn't be comfortable with that. Like I said, I'm not asking Josh to open the vault and tell me what he pays my prospective co-workers or what he pays the contractors who work for him now. That isn't any of my business, and I feel that my past salary information is confidential too. I'm sure you understand.

CAROL: You're not the first person who's shared that point of view with me, and I do understand. Some of our managers are pretty old-school in that respect. I will pass on the information to Josh and confirm that he wants to do a second interview, and my gut says that he will.

IVO: That sounds fine. I'll wait for your call.

No one is going to overvalue your services, but plenty of people will undervalue them. You have to value them first, and valuing yourself includes knowing when to say "I'm not comfortable with that request."

When you find your voice, your muscles grow. When you cave and cower and pretend that going along with any off-the-wall request or demand is the safe -- and therefore best -- option, your flame will shrink.

You will take less and less appealing and lucrative projects because you won't know where your own bottom line is. That is the opposite of empowerment. You will be a pawn in somebody's else game until the day you say "No." You will find your line in the sand, that day.

You will find that keeping your head down and going along with presumptuous requests -- whether someone wants your salary history or expects you to work until midnight on your birthday -- is not a viable career strategy. It's bad for your income, your health and your precious fuel tank. Your parents didn't raise you to be a wuss, did they? You can start draining the lemonade from your veins right now.

You'll be happy when a recruiter or hiring manager says one day "What, you won't share your past salary information? Well, you're out of the running here, in that case!"

You'll be elated to hear that, because you'll know that you would have hated working for people who value your privacy so little and whose gauging-a-candidate's-market-value skills are so weak. What could you learn from such people? If you're not learning, your flame is dimming, and you don't have time for that!

If you balk at our script and think "That will never work in real life," be assured that this approach works brilliantly for job-seekers every day, but only for people who have healthy self-esteem. If you have been so beaten down by the Godzilla world that you believe you have no power in the employer-employee equation, then your fearful conscious brain is going to scream "I could never say that!" That's okay. It takes time to build your mojo after it's been squashed.

You can keep your compensation history to yourself, the way every plumber and consultant does. Your muscles and mojo will grow when you do. It's a new day, and the Human Workplace is already here. Will you rise to the occasion?

Note: in the illustration at the top of this story, Liz drew a manager interviewing a job candidate across his desk. Of course, we don't actually recommend that you interview a candidate with a desk between you. Get out of your chair, walk around the desk and sit down with the candidate in your extra visitor chair. That way you can have a level, person-to-person conversation. Get the desk out of the picture! For more guidance on Interviewing with a Human Voice, the Human Workplace interviewing program, write to Michael Wilcox at

About Liz Ryan and Human Workplace

Our company is called Human Workplace, and our mission is to reinvent work for people. Our CEO, Liz Ryan, was a Fortune 500 Human Resources vice president for years. Now she is the world's most widely-read career and workplace advisor and an electrifying public speaker.

You can invite Liz Ryan to come to your city and address your company or conference audience. Liz will get your audience on their feet! If you have never seen Liz Ryan live, you will see what the excitement is all about!

Liz Ryan uses a mix of theatre, business education and evangelical fervor to create an electric spell in the rooms where she speaks. She'll sing, draw, make you laugh, make you think, and shift your lens on business, work, life and your own path.

Here are more ways to connect with Human Workplace:

1) Check out our Winter Holiday Special offerings! This is a great time of year to reflect and make a plan for 2014!

2) Join our LinkedIn Group, where we distribute a new, free downloadable Mojo Builder exercise every Saturday!

3) Partner with Human Workplace to help us design the blueprints for life and work in the 21st century! JOIN us as a free Friend member, a premium Individual member or an Employer member and bring Human Workplace materials and tools to your own career, job search and team!

4) FOLLOW Liz here on LinkedIn and on Twitter: @humanworkplace

5) LIKE our Facebook page!

6) LISTEN to Liz Ryan's podcasts on Soundcloud.

7) CHECK OUT our colorful Pinterest board to get some inspiration!

8) REACH us to talk about your own reinvention, your Team's Mojo or Sticky Human Issues in your workplace. Or, download our Whole Person Job Search and Reinvention Catalog and browse it for ideas!

9) START a Human Workplace Fan Club or discussion group at your workplace! Ask our Operations Manager, Michael Wilcox, how to get started:

10) JOIN a Human Workplace 12-week virtual coaching group like Reinvention Roadmap, Job Search after Fifty, Grow Your Thought Leadership Flame or Breaking into the Hidden Job Market!

If this column makes you frustrated, sad or angry, or if you think Liz's advice is utopian and unrealistic, take a look at the Reactionometer below! If your fearful conscious brain says "I could never be so bold," then it will also tell you that Liz's advice is impossible. Will you let your fearful brain boss you around, or employers for that matter? That is the question!


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