Salary Expectations: Addressing the Dreaded Interview Question

We've all been there before.

You're excited about a new opportunity, rocking a preliminary phone interview, and feeling confident about your experience and fit with this particular company. The big picture is coming together in your mind, and you're confident that this could be a phenomenal career move for you!

Then the recruiter drops the bomb:

"So, let's talk about salary for a minute. What are you making in your current role?"

All of a sudden, your confidence evaporates and you wonder how everything went from fantastic to terrifying in the span of two sentences. Also, when did it get so hot in here?

The good news? You're not alone. Addressing salary expectations is a universally dreaded experience for job seekers. 

The conversation generally starts in one of two ways: 

  1. What are you making now?
  2. What do you expect to make in this role? 

No matter how it is presented, the salary question is one that consistently catches job seekers off-guard and puts them in a difficult position. And truth be told, there is good reason to take the question seriously; there is a lot at stake, a lot riding on the content and delivery of your response.

Let's visit the potential--and common--negative outcomes for a moment:

  • You aim too high, and the company can't afford you.
  • You aim too low, and the company wonders what's wrong with you.
  • You aim well, but lose your negotiation ability by providing a specific figure or range.
  • You fumble over the question, mumble your response, and the company doubts your self-confidence and overall value as a new hire. Will you be this twitchy on the job?
  • You get a little too heated in your response, and suddenly the tone of the conversation balances on the edge of a knife. You've put a bad taste in the recruiter's mouth, who now sees you as a self-defensive hiring risk. 

When you look at that list of outcomes, it's easy to see why the salary question is so troublesome for job seekers--there are countless ways to get it wrong! But that doesn't mean that the question is impossible to prepare for, or that you are automatically backed into a corner with no way out. Let's back up for a moment, and zoom in on the heart of the problem.

Root Problems in the Salary Conversation

There are a number of root problems in the salary expectation conversation, on both sides of the table. 

The Hiring Organization

The motives of the recruiting company can vary, but often the hiring side is worried about wasting time and resources on you as a candidate. It is the most economical and effective choice if they can determine your affordability upfront, before they spend time vetting you in-depth.

The hiring side also holds a lot of power at the interview table--and with power comes the opportunity to abuse it. Job seekers, from a position of perceived powerlessness, are easily manipulated into sharing more information than they'd prefer to. As a result, it is unfortunately quite common for recruiters or hiring managers to bully you into caving under pressure in an interview setting.

The Job Seeker

The greatest obstacle for the job seeker is ignorance--many job seekers assume that they are required to divulge their salary history in an interview, which is simply not the case. You are never obligated to share your salary history; this is private information, and the hiring organization does not have any right to the data. 

So if caving and providing your salary details isn't the solution, how should a job seeker address the salary question?

Nailing the Salary Conversation

The key to addressing the salary question well is simple:

  1. Have a plan.
  2. Do your research.
  3. Adjust your strategy as-needed.
  4. Always keep it positive. 

Preparation is your greatest tool for interviews in general, but it is crucial to prepare your strategy in advance for the salary conversation. Consider the two possible ways that the question will be presented, and prepare thoughtful, rehearsed responses. Write them down verbatim, if you need to! This one is worth getting right.

Here are some basic sample scenarios to help you get started and deflect the salary question:

EXHIBIT A: SALARY HISTORY - BASIC DEFLECTION

Hiring Manager: "Let's talk salary. What are you making in your current role?"

Job Seeker: "You know, this opportunity is not identical to my current role. Let's discuss my qualifications for this particular position, and we can discuss what a fair and appropriate salary would be based on the responsibilities of this job."

EXHIBIT B: SALARY EXPECTATIONS - BASIC DEFLECTION

Hiring Manager: "Okay, let's talk about salary. What are your salary expectations for this role?"

Job Seeker: "My greatest concern is finding an opportunity that best suits my skills and experience. I'm confident that you are offering a fair compensation package for this opportunity. I'm open to discussing the complete package when we get to that point." 

Basic deflection is a good tool to have on hand, particularly early on in the process. Whenever possible, it is in your best interest to avoid discussing salary before the company has fallen for you as a candidate. Sure, you might have to discuss details later--but to the best of your ability, delay that conversation until they've gotten to know you better. Later in the process, they are more likely to value you as a candidate. 

Spoiler alert: nobody is going to be happy about you deflecting the salary question. You are going to get some pushback, and the recruiter is going to press you for some specific numbers. If you're definitely interested in the position and want to keep the conversation moving forward, there are ways to humor the hiring manager without showing all of your cards.

This is where research comes in. Before you get into an interview conversation, do your research to identify a fair salary range for the role you're pursuing. Websites like Glassdoor are good resources for finding salaries at the company you're applying for, as well as for similar companies. Find some solid data, and determine a decently-wide range based on your research. For full-time salaried positions, I'd recommend cushioning your range with a span of $10,000-$15,000.

Let's look at a specific scenario to apply this to, using an extended version of Exhibit B:

EXHIBIT C:  RECRUITER PUSHBACK

Recruiter: "Okay, let's talk about salary. What are your salary expectations for this role?"

Job Seeker: "My greatest concern is finding an opportunity that best suits my skills and experience. I'm confident that you are offering a fair compensation package for this opportunity. I'm open to discussing the complete package when we get to that point." 

Recruiter: "Yeah, but let's be honest--it's a waste of everyone's time if our budget doesn't align with your expectations. What do you think would be fair for this sort of role?"

Job Seeker: "Well, from my research, it seems that an appropriate salary for this sort of role would fall in the $50,000-$65,000 range. I'm sure you are offering a salary that is competitive and appropriate for the industry."

The beauty of this strategy? You demonstrate your own industry savvy, while also proving that you are a solid negotiator who is not willing to buckle under a little pressure. You've done your research and are willing to stand your ground. The recruiter's appetite for specific salary data is sated, but you've managed to withhold your personal salary details. Everybody wins!  

Special Case: Required Application Fields

There is no greater opportunity for a hiring organization to abuse their power than in the web-based job application. Technology is a great ally in this effort. 

Don't be surprised when you run across restricted, required fields demanding a single figure as a salary expectation. Yep, you heard that right -- those monsters won't even allow you to enter a range

When possible, thwart the system. Enter "Negotiable" or "Open to discussion" in unrestricted fields, or provide a wide research-based range when you are forced to provide a range of numbers. Fair warning: the more you bend the rules, the more likely it is that you will irritate someone on the receiving end. Arguably, it is still in your best interest to keep your salary history and ideal salary to yourself for as long as possible. 

If you absolutely cannot avoid entering a single salary figure on the application, rely on your research, and aim above your ideal salary within that range. I would argue that it is better to overshoot and affirm your professional value, rather than undersell yourself. 

Friendly Reminder: Context Matters

As helpful as some of these tools and examples may be, there simply is no universal "correct" response to the salary question.

Be present in your interviews, and always keep the tone positive. When it's obvious that the recruiter is not going to be pleased until he or she gets a range out of you, offer the research-based industry data. Pay attention to the context and tone of the conversation, and be flexible with your approach. No two job interviews are ever going to be identical. 

And if you've done your homework, but are still feeling unprepared? Consider enlisting the help of a coach to practice various interview strategies and develop some confidence at the negotiation table.