By Katherine Spencer Lee | January 2008

I've been employed as an IT director for several years, but my company is going out of business. Because the firm has been on its last legs for nearly my entire tenure, I haven't received raises that reflect my performance. In fact, I haven't received a raise at all in three years.

How do I present this when prospective employers ask for a salary history? What are they really looking for, and how can I avoid locking myself into a less than satisfactory pay scale?

Katherine Lee Spencer responds:
For prospective employers, your salary history can provide considerable guidance about your compensation expectations and whether the current salary range budgeted for the position needs to be adjusted. Keep in mind, though, that it's only one of several factors a hiring manager will likely consult when formulating an employment offer. The firm may also consider the going industry rate for the position, demand for the skills involved and the salaries of other employees in the department. Your history alone won't lock you into a low rate.

The whole truth
While detailing your salary history might make you wince, it's best to provide one if it's explicitly requested in a job listing. The easiest applications to discard are those that don't include all the requested information. You should also resist the temptation to beef up the numbers. Prospective employers can easily verify this information, even after your current employer ceases operations.

Don't assume that a humble salary history will prevent you from landing the interviews you want. In fact, a track record of high pay and frequent raises might be just as limiting, since it suggests the need for constantly escalating rewards - not exactly an appealing prospect for hiring managers with strictly controlled budgets.

In addition, don't hesitate to explain the unique circumstances of your previous job to a hiring manager when the topic is raised during an employment interview. Let the potential employer know that your firm could not afford to offer raises and that you feel the fair-market value of your services is higher than what you earned.

Providing the context
Instead of inflating or omitting your salary history, focus on portraying your experience in the best possible light. Remember that the raw numbers are only a small part of your story. Your cover letter, resume and interviews should all be geared toward highlighting the positive aspects of your track record.

For example, you might portray your long tenure with your current employer as evidence of your loyalty and ability to self-motivate. Explain why you stuck with the company even when you might have been offered better pay elsewhere.

Since you can't use your compensation as evidence of your excellent performance, can you point to other forms of recognition, such as awards, project results or specific benefits to the company's bottom line? Your situation is likely to place extra weight on the reference-check process, so be sure to have the best people fully prepared to speak on your behalf.

Don't get ahead of yourself
Having established an accurate picture of your salary history, it's tempting to jump ahead to your salary expectations in the new position. But there's no good reason to broach the subject until the company has expressed serious interest in hiring you. If you bring up the topic in your resume or cover letter, or during an initial discussion with a hiring manager, you might come across as more interested in the pay than the position.

That being said, you should come to any employment interview with a desirable but realistic pay range in mind, in case the hiring manager asks about your salary expectations. Research the going rate for your position and location so you have concrete data to back up your request. Salary surveys, such as Robert Half Technology's annual Salary Guide, and online calculators can help you factor in geographic and other variables. Always note that your requirements are flexible, as other aspects of an employment offer, such as benefits or perks, could make up for a below-average salary.

The right match
A new employer should be as excited to have you on board as you are to be joining the team, and a fair wage is a big part of establishing that relationship. If an employer bases its offer on your salary history and won't take into account other factors, you might ask yourself whether it's a company you really want to work for. After "taking one for the team" for so long, do you really want to move to a firm that's trying to lowball you?

Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a leading provider of IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in North America, Europe and Asia.