Don’t let a high salary history derail your job search

A high salary history can knock you out of contention for the jobs you want now. Here’s how to handle this sticky situation during your job hunt.

Don’t let a high salary history derail your job search

When the job market gets tight and lots of employees are sidelined, competition from other job seekers can lead to lower salaries, meaning you may not be able to find a job that pays what you are‚or were—making. Wages have dropped in many industries, especially those related to financial services, says Josh Warborg, Robert Half International’s district president in Seattle.

“Some people who were very highly compensated are going to have to be adept at helping an employer understand that they’re ready, willing and eager to take a position at a lower pay,” he says.

Are you really willing to take a lower salary?

Even if you’re OK with taking a step down in compensation for your next job, employers may not be willing to hire you if you’re going to earn less in your new job than you did in your old job. “Companies shy away, because they know those people jump ship when the market picks up,” says Jonathan Mazzocchi, general manager of accounting and finance for staffing firm Winter, Wyman in New York City.

Before you apply for a job with a lower salary, honestly consider whether you can be happy earning less and whether you have a choice. Will you be looking for a better-paying job the week after you start? And is it just one employer that won’t match your prior salary, or has the going rate for your job dropped throughout the industry?

“If you feel you need $100,000 and you settle for $80,000 and you are constantly looking for more, will you be engaged in the new role?” asks Mark Szypko, managing director of international compensation for “And how likely are you to perform and get increases to bring you back to what at one time was an appropriate rate?”

Talking money

Recruiters disagree about how to handle the higher-prior-salary issue during an interview. “I think a candidate should acknowledge this up front with an employer instead of leaving the employer to think about it once they’ve seen the candidate’s salary history,” Warborg says.

Mazzocchi has a different view. He says you should avoid bringing up a prior salary unless you’re asked directly, and even then, you can be creative. “If you were making $100,000 and you think this job pays $80,000, you can say, ‘I’m fairly flexible and open-minded on the opportunity, so I’d be curious what the position is paying,’” he suggests.

If the employer continues to push for a salary history, acknowledge that you were making more, but then go on to explain why you’re willing to work for less, says Brendan Courtney, president of recruiter The Mergis Group in Fort Lauderdale.

At its core, your explanation should focus on the job, not the money. But if you do talk about money, talk about what the employer is saving by pitching yourself as a good resource available at a reduced rate, says Ed Navis, author of Confessions of an HR Professional: Secrets for Getting Your Foot in the Door.

No matter what your reason for taking a job with lower pay, emphasize why it’s a good opportunity for you and the company. Don’t oversell, and do have a plausible argument for why you’d take the job. Try these lines:

  • I’m looking to grow and learn, and I can do that here.
  • I was earning more, but right now I’m focused on finding the right job at the right salary.
  • I’m three to five years away from retirement, and I’d like to spend that time working as part of a team.
  • The quality and solid growth of your organization attract me.
  • Switching into your industry will send my career in a new direction, and you’ll benefit from my prior experience.
  • Your company’s educational benefits will pay for me to earn an advanced degree, which will make me a more valuable employee and assure I’ll be here for three or more years.
  • I realize things have changed in terms of what labor rates look like.
  • Compensation rates have changed in today’s market, but I’ll be here for the foreseeable future and then some, based on my exceptional past performance.
  • The commute to your company is much shorter for me, and the extra time with my family is worth more than the salary differential.

As you offer up your justifications, be careful about any that involve work-life balance. “You have to read the tea leaves a little bit,” Mazzocchi says. “If this person is going to be your supervisor and you’re talking about work-life balance, you don’t want to give the impression that you’re going to be a clock-watcher.”

Finally, if salary issues are completely derailing your job search, consider looking for contract positions, Warborg says. “Maybe the smartest thing to do is [work] on temporary or consulting engagements so you have some income while you’re looking, instead of just taking something so you have a job,” he says.