Don’t worry, Bill. I’ll work for you. I’m under no illusion that my employer would be paying me as much as it does if it didn’t have to.
Folks, the whole point of the salary is to get you to do work for them, and if someone just as good as you is willing to do it cheaper, they’d be silly not to take them up on it. So it stands to reason that if you yourself were willing to do the job for less money, they’d prefer that too. The point of the negotiation process is that you try to get yourself the best deal you can, and they try to do the same. You’re right that they don’t generally act like this is what they’re doing, but that’s simply because “making you feel like they care” is part of the package deal, since if you don’t feel like they care, you might not accept their offer.
Do they really care? Some do, some don’t. It doesn’t really matter. Once you’re hired, it’s a good idea to keep your distance from the HR people anyway, for your own sanity’s sake.
Regarding the OP, if you’re in this type of negotiation with someone, it becomes acceptable for them to ask you certain questions that wouldn’t be acceptable normally. For example, social conventions normally prevent you from asking how much someone’s house is worth, but if they put it on the market, suddenly it becomes fair game to ask.
If a prospective employer asks you your previous salary, you’re at liberty to withhold that information, but then the employer is left asking himself why you’d do that. “That’s personal information” doesn’t make any sense, given that, if you’re hired, this guy is about to know exactly how much money you make. So the conclusion the employer draws is, “he must not have made much before.” In which case, the offer is liable to come in low.
While we’re on the subject, I’d like to throw out my favorite tidbit of job-hunting advice: Never turn down a job. Just ask for a lot of money. Basically, if you’re interviewing for a job, it’s a given that you’re at least somewhat interested. If you decide you don’t want it, it could be for a variety of reasons, like the pay is too low, or it’s boring, etc. At this point, you ask yourself: how much would they have to pay me to make me want this job? If you can come up with a real truthful answer to that question, just tell them you want that much. Either they think you’re nuts and you don’t get a job you didn’t want anyway, or they say ok and you make a lot of money (enough to make this otherwise unappealing job appealing). I’ve known people who employed this method and ended up making way more money than they realized they were worth.