can I tell interviewers I’m looking for a new job because of money? — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I have a job, and I think a lot about trying to find a new job.

When I was previously looking for a job, the question “why are you looking to leave your current job?” came up a lot. Trying to answer that question is quite fraught. It’s challenging to say what’s wrong with the current job without sounding like a complainer. Trying to sound always professional and upbeat and very respectful of the people I work with leads to a lot of tricky dancing around actual issues inspiring me to job-hunt.

One thing that I think I should be able to say this time, truthfully and without dishing on anybody or any project, is: “I could be earning more money.” I have skills in a field in which salaries are typically 50% more than what I’m earning currently. My boss tells me that the organization balks at the idea of paying anyone in my group more. After my glowing performance review last spring, I got a 1% raise — not even cost of living. I’m behind on my career progression because of having spent a lot of time being just “Mom,” but I’ve just completed a relevant master’s degree (my second master’s) to try to jump-start things. It’s not all about the money — if I loved my job, this would not make me leave; I am able to live on what I earn — but more money would make it easy to justify making a move.

But a friend of mine (who has a great job, managerial-ish, at a prestigious company, so she should know what she’s talking about) says, “Don’t say that.” Rather than bluntly saying “I could be earning more money,” she suggested alluding to this issue in some much more vague, mealy-mouthed, roundabout way when I get the “why are you looking?” question. Like, “Oh, I just want to see what opportunities are out there for me.”

Is this true? Why? I don’t think my current lower salary should reflect badly on me; my current job is the kind of research-focused lab work typical of STEM-field graduate students. Is it tacky to mention the money dimension of the employer-employee relationship? Are you supposed to pretend that money isn’t a consideration, that you’re just so fascinated by the work that you don’t care? (I don’t think the people hiring actually believe that, anyway. One time I tried to apply to a job that paid less than what I was earning because the work seemed really compelling, and I couldn’t convince the recruiter that I was worth interviewing further — it seemed she couldn’t believe I wouldn’t decide against the move, because of the money?) Are they going to think that, if I think about the money at all, I’m perpetually dissatisfied and will forever be jumping towards higher salary?

I think that answering “I could be earning more money” conveys that I am a serious candidate, worth interviewing because they will think I am likely to take the job if they are offering more money. Also, like many female-presenting people, I should perhaps practice expecting recognition and respect. It does weed out employers who might be thinking that they would offer me only as much as I’m earning now. If there’s a potential job that has compelling other advantages (“save the world doing fascinating work in your own private office!”) then I would name those other advantages and not say anything about money. But until I see that dream-job listing … I’m allowed to want to move up to higher salary, yes?

Yes. You are allowed to want a new job for a higher salary.

That’s always the case, but especially when you’re earning half of what your field normally pays.

It’s true that there used to be a bias against talking about money in job interviews or indicating that money is in fact the primary reason most of us work. (Witness this ridiculous post from 2013.) That was always absurd, but it’s changed significantly in the last 10 years, and particularly in the last five.

“I could be earning more money” isn’t exactly the way I’d say it, though. An interviewer who wanted to really parse that might figure that you could always be earning more money no matter what job you’re in and might wonder if that means you’ll jump ship quickly if they hire you. But you could say it more like this:

“I love my work, but we’re severely underpaid for the field.”

“I like a lot of things about my job, but our salaries haven’t kept up with the market, so I’m looking at what else is out there.”

Those are fine. Those are normal and reasonable to say.

However, as a side note: I wonder if you feel a higher-than-warranted obligation to offer the complete story when an interviewer asks why you’re thinking of changing jobs. Your friend’s suggestion of “I wanted to see what other opportunities are out there” is always okay (as long as you’re not leaving after, like, six months — in which case it would raise red flags about what else might be going on). And you really don’t need to find a way to say what’s bothering you in your current job if it’s tricky to talk about; you can use a blander answer.

But in this case your answer is salary, and it’s fine to say that it’s salary.

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