a candidate lied to me about salary (maybe)

A reader writes:

We recently offered a candidate a position and offered a salary that we know is fair for the experience and skill set she brings, as we know of 5-6 other similarly sized nonprofits in the same field and their pay scale. She came back saying she was excited, but that her current salary was $7,500 more than our offer. She said she can verify this.

I was very skeptical of the salary she gave, as it is way out of line with all my experience with this organization. I verified with a contact I have there, and she does in fact make only about $3,500 more than offer. It appears she inflated her salary by $4,000.

My initial inclination is to rescind the offer, but she claims she can verify her salary. Should I give her that opportunity? Be transparent about my hesitancy? We did an extensive interview process and I’m disappointed now because it’s such a bad sign if she did lie, but I’m not 100% certain she did.

Well, first, I want to note that, in general, basing salary offers on a candidate’s previous salary isn’t a great idea. You should determine for yourself what a candidate is worth to you, and that’s what you should offer. Is she suddenly worth $7,500 more to you just because you learned that’s what she’s currently making? Setting salaries this way is a recipe for paying people more (or less) than they’re worth to you, creating unwarranted salary disparities on your staff (will she be making more than others doing the same work just as well or better?), and relying on your competitors to set your salaries for you rather than figuring them out yourself.

That said, I get that this happens all the time — I’ve been there myself. You make someone an offer that you think is fair, discover that it’s less than they’re currently making, realize that you can’t expect them to accept a new job for less, and decide that you can find it in your budget to match or slightly top their current salary so that they’ll come on over. (And this is far more understandable with a sum like $7,500 than it would be with a sum like $20,000, of course.)

But I do want you to factor this into your thinking, because you don’t want to get so focused on getting her to accept the offer that you forget to ask yourself if you think it’s fair and reasonable to pay what she’s asking you for — whether she’s earning that now or not.

As for what to do now … if you’re willing to pay her that salary if she’s truly making it now, but you have suspicions about whether she really is, you’re in a sticky situation. If you accept her offer to verify it for you, you risk finding yourself in a situation where you don’t believe her “verification,” whatever it might be (documents that you don’t think are real, for example), and then what are you going to do? Alternately, you could tell her you’ll do your own verification and do a more formal verification — with her permission — with her employer (more formal than just reaching out to your contact there, like you already did) … but I don’t really like that solution, because I don’t actually think it’s appropriate for prospective employers to do that … although if you’re really going to base salary on what people made previously, that’s the position it sticks you in.

So you’re probably left with just being transparent. Say something like, “My understanding is that your role pays $X. What accounts for the discrepancy?” You might find out that she’s lumping in a bonus or something like that into her overall salary figure. (You can ask, “Is this all base salary, or does it include bonuses or other compensation?” to find that out.) Or you might find out that she’s talking about a raise she’s been told she’ll get in three months if she stays. Or, yes, she might be lying.

If she’s lying, it should absolutely be a deal-breaker. But I don’t see how you’re going to find out without engaging in actions I really don’t like (getting formal verification from her current employer). So I think we’re back where we started — offer her a salary that you think is fair and reasonable for the position, independent of what she’s making now.

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