Honesty is a virtue, but that doesn’t mean it pays to be completely transparent. In almost every negotiation workshop I teach, I’m met with surprise and skepticism from women when I tell them they don’t have to give a straight answer right away to questions about salary. I’ve had clients say to me, “Well, I had to tell them what I’m making now because it’s a question on the form.” I’ve had clients tell me that they said in an interview, “I don’t have experience in this area, but…” These women sold themselves short without even realizing what they were doing.
I recently spoke with Siobhan Neilland, a recruiter who works for Amazon, to get her perspective from the other side of the hiring and negotiating process. She’s a Forbes 400 staffing consultant with over a decade of experience in recruiting and executive staffing in the tech industry.
Do recruiters really need to know how much you made at your last job?
One of the first questions I asked her was whether she requires candidates to tell her what they were making at their last job.
“I always ask. If someone’s reluctant to give that number, I’m frustrated,” says Neilland. “If you have a good internal recruiter, they are your advocate. We’re not going to punish you if you were underpaid at your last job, we’re going to give you the market rate.”
Why, then, does she as the recruiter need to know how much you were making?
“There are exceptions. What if you came from a startup with inflated compensation?”
My take is that your previous salary is a data point that recruiters clearly want, but that you don’t need to give. If you’re a strong applicant and you know the market rate for your role, focus on figuring out whether the role is a fit for your goals. (By the way, “strong applicant” does not mean you must have 100% of the experience listed on the job description.)
How do you avoid telling them your salary? Simple: “I’m not comfortable discussing salary at this stage in the process.”
How much negotiating leeway does a recruiter actually have?
This is one question I get a lot: how do I know how much to ask for? How much flexibility do they have to negotiate on salary?
Neiland says they look at what level the candidate is coming in at, and make an offer at the midpoint of the range, based on the industry standard and tailored by location.
She sees herself as a matchmaker between the team she’s hiring for and the candidate, so she also looks beyond the numbers. “Most people don’t make the decision to go to a job or leave a job just because of money; there’s an emotional component,” says Neilland. “Your recruiter should want to know what drives you, what makes you excited, what’s going to make you want to be a part of this team?”
Be authentic, but that doesn’t mean lead with your weaknesses
According to Neilland, women say what they’re not good at first. “If there are 10 qualifications listed in a job description and a woman feels like she can do eight really well, but there are two that she can’t do as well, 90% of the time a woman will lead with those two things.”
For example, she’s heard female candidates say, “I know you want someone who can write C++, but that’s one language I don’t know.” She said a man is more likely to lead with “I’m excellent at…”
In addition to her work in the corporate world, Neilland is the founder of OneMama, an organization that brings maternal care and family services to women and their families in rural communities in Uganda.
“To succeed with my work in Uganda, I bring my sense of self and personality along with my business acumen. No one there cares about my skills if they can’t relate to me,” says Neilland. In recruiting, “candidates need to have excellent skills, but it’s not just about the engineering if they forget to bring their authentic self to the table.”
This post originally appeared in Women@Forbes, where Alexandra Dickinson is a contributor. She writes about how to use a negotiation mindset to achieve your goals.