Should I Tell A Headhunter My Salary?

Don’t withhold your salary from a headhunter. But make sure you ask some questions before disclosing this strategic bit of information.

Should I Tell A Headhunter My Salary?

Question: You’re very clear about telling us not to disclose our salary history to employers because the information will be used against us. (See “Salary History: Can You Afford To Say NO?”) I get that. But what if it’s a headhunter asking? Doesn’t he need the information to negotiate the deal for me? Should I tell the headhunter what I’m currently earning?

Nick Corcodilos: Disclosing your salary history is different when you do it with a headhunter compared to an employer. You’re negotiating with the employer, but the headhunter is negotiating for you, right?

Well, no. A headhunter’s first duty is to the employer (his client), who is paying the headhunter’s fee. Thus, we can argue that a headhunter’s fiduciary obligation is to the company—not to you. However, a good headhunter will find a balance because he wants you to be happy if you take the job and to refer a lot of other good people to him later. Of course, he also wants his client to be happy so that he can get more assignments. His reputation depends both on your satisfaction and on his client’s.

So what should you do when a headhunter asks you for your salary history?

The first thing to keep in mind is that even good headhunters—like most people—are kind of lazy and prefer to pick low-hanging fruit. If the headhunter’s client has defined a salary range for the job, the headhunter will quickly try to weed out people who are outside that range (allowing for a reasonable raise to take the job). It’s just easier to color inside the lines than to cajole a client into considering paying more than planned. That’s why a headhunter will quickly ask what you’re currently (or most recently) earning.

You can plainly see that too high a past salary might rule you out—and that too low a salary history might indicate you’re not “qualified” for the job. Worse, it might put an effective cap on any offer you get—just as it would if you disclosed the information directly to an employer.

We can psych this out another six ways, but that’s a waste of time. There’s no telling how a headhunter will view or use your salary information. But the answer is not to withhold it because when you’re working with a headhunter, he might actually be able to use your salary history to your advantage, simply because he’s a middle man. The best thing to do is ask your own questions before disclosing that strategic bit of information.

This is an excerpt from How to Work With Headhunters, which provides more elaborate advice if you need it (including about how to judge headhunters):

How To Say It **

A good headhunter who is also an effective negotiator will have good answers to both conditions. A headhunter who tells you, “My client requires the information. We can’t proceed without it” has no idea how to negotiate with his client or with you.

Controlling your salary information is crucial when negotiating a new job, even if a headhunter is in the middle of the deal. (See “How Big A Salary Offer Do You Want?”) A good headhunter will use your salary history to gauge how to pitch you to his client—and to clarify whether there’s really a match between what his client wants to spend and what you’re justified in asking for. He’ll be honest with you.

A good headhunter will also be able to explain how he’ll do that. For example, I’ve placed people for more than a 50% salary increase. In one case, I knew the candidate’s old salary (it was very low), but by not disclosing it to my client, I encouraged the client to judge the candidate on her skills and potential value to the company—and I thus elicited a fair offer that was far higher than the old salary. Knowing the applicant’s old salary would have confused my client and biased an offer downward for no good reason. I explained to the candidate that since her skills were exceptional, we would withhold her salary history and emphasize how she’d do the job profitably. We worked together, and everyone won.

A headhunter who is bound to act in the interests of his client can still serve you well. But that means you must first negotiate with the headhunter. Know what to ask for, and expect the headhunter to answer intelligently—or walk away.