career transition

When Your Career Doesn't Fit

Being in a career that you hate is the absolute worst. I get it--I've been there. On top of my personal experience, I find that many of my clients feel stuck in careers that just don't fit their unique skillsets and personalities. They are 100% sure that they don't like what they're doing, but they also don't know what career would be better to move into, so they feel even more stuck.

Feeling trapped--with no light at the end of the tunnel--is a serious downer, and a pervasive problem that is worth solving.

While there are obviously lots of contributing factors to discontentment in the workplace including office culture, management styles, working conditions, and much more, career choice itself can certainly be the problem. In this case, I'm talking to those of you who might like your boss, but don't like your job. You like your coworkers, but have no interest in the work itself.

A lot of us got pushed into making a career decision during our undergrad, long before we blossomed into fully-functioning adults, and we find ourselves stuck on that trajectory, years later.  When clients bring up this topic in our conversations, I generally say something like this: "I'm not a licensed career counselor, but I am passionate about professional identity, individual gifts, and career transition. I geek out over personality assessments. If you're up for it, let's chat and see what we can come up with."

I enter into this conversation with others--formally and informally, personally and professionally--because I know the discomfort of being in the wrong profession. It took me years to figure out that I was wired to work at home and run my own business, and now that I'm finally in a career that aligns with who I am as a person, I'm blown away by the positive impact on my life! It's been radically life-changing, and I never dreamed I could be this satisfied with my career. I never thought I would want to work, but I almost always feel energized and ready to go! Why wouldn't I want to share that experience with others, and see if we can unearth a career that will provide the same freedom and peace in their unique professional journeys? 

In light of all this, I decided to create this post as a practical guide for the career-haters out there. For those of you who feel stuck in your career (not job--career!), let's dive right in. I'll cover two truths to keep in mind, as well as three steps to take in order to make that big career change. 

2 Important Truths to Keep in Mind

1. You're Not Alone

If you found yourself reading the intro to this post and nodding (or crying) along, the first thing I want you to know is that it's not just you. You are absolutely not alone in hating your job.

Believe it or not, you're actually in the majority! 

A recent Gallup poll suggests that 70% of Americans are disengaged and discontent at work. 7 out of 10, people! That's a whole lot of unhappy employees. While I theoretically knew that a lot of people didn't like their jobs, I never felt like I was part of any sort of majority. I looked around and saw people who could be content in the same office, who were much more professionally satisfied than I was. I felt like I was missing something that everyone else seemed to innately understand, and it was overwhelmingly isolating.

Whether they're sitting next to you or not, however, it's clear that a lot of people out there are looking for something better, too. So don't believe the lie that it's just you!

2. You're Not Stuck

For the career-hater, it's tempting to feel hopeless, because there doesn't seem to be a way out. Family obligations, financial restraints, and the huge time investment associated with changing careers--not just jobs, but industries--feels like too great a distance to leap. There just doesn't seem to be a way to the other side without going bankrupt, or disappointing loved ones. Why bother?

While some career transitions are harder than others to make, this is simply not true. You're not stuck! There are a lot of options available to you, especially when you're not sure what you want to do next. And when you do find the career you want to move into, there are options available to you to make the change a reality. It's just a matter of how much you're willing to invest in the process, how patient you're willing to be, and what you're willing to sacrifice to land a position in a career that fits.  

So how exactly do you bridge that gap and make it happen? Where do you even begin? 

3 Steps to a Better Career Fit

1. Get to know yourself.

If you're feeling like your career isn't a good fit for you, the first step is to stop nitpicking the career you know you hate, and instead, look in the mirror. Get to know yourself. How are you wired? What realities about your personality, skill set, and values inform your career preferences? What makes you tick? 

There are several ways to go about this step of self exploration. I'll briefly hash out 3 of my favorite methods here. 

Assessments

I am a self-declared assessment nerd. While they certainly don't tell the whole picture of who you are as a person, assessments can provide some valuable insight into the overarching trends of what makes you, well, you. There are a bunch of assessments out there, varying wildly in terms of quality and accuracy, but the big buckets that you want to assess and explore are personality, values, and behavioral style. 

If you don't feel like sifting through the massive pile of web-based assessments on your own, here is a solid sampling of the five assessments I recommend taking. The first three assessments are free, and the last two are paid tests:

If you can swing it, take all five assessments. Spread the assessments out over a period of a couple of weeks. Take your time, read the directions carefully, and answer honestly.

When you have all of your results in hand, comb through the results carefully. Highlight the descriptions that are spot-on as they apply to you, ignore the stuff that isn't accurate at all, and notice trends that are repeated across multiple sections in a test report, and especially across multiple assessments.

What have you learned about yourself? How do these concepts apply in the workplace? Start to put together the pieces, and see what you come up with. 

Job History Exercise

This is one of my favorite exercises for career direction, and has been one of the most fruitful in my personal experience. My dad actually suggested this activity years ago, when I was feeling especially lost in terms of my career. The exercise was a game changer for me, and I hope it is helpful for you as well.

Write down every job you've ever had, all the way back to your high school days or first part-time gig. Depending on your situation, it might be good to include volunteer experiences as well, or involvement in extracurricular activities.

For every job or activity on the list, answer the following questions:

  • What was your favorite thing about the job? What did you enjoy the most? What energized you?
  • What were you most proud of in that role? What project, result, or client interaction makes you smile the most?
  • What do you miss doing? What do you wish you could do all over again?

After you've answered these questions for every job, look at your complete list of highlights. What trends do you see? Are there obvious themes or careers that are closely related to the tasks and projects you've highlighted? See where this path leads you, and take some time to explore the new opportunities that you identify along the way.

Survey Friends and Family

Sometimes we can't see ourselves as clearly as the people who love us most. Asking friends and family for feedback might provide some helpful insight as you study yourself. This suggestion comes with a big caution flag, however, because some of your family and friends might not be helpful in speaking into your strengths. In fact, in some cases the 'advice' from loved ones might be downright harmful. To mitigate against any unhelpful responses, I recommend coming up with a list of 5-7 people you trust the most and feel safest with. Include people from different seasons of your life, in different roles. Make sure every person on that list is really 'for' you. Do they celebrate with you when you win? Do they grieve with you when you're dealing with a loss? 

When you have your list, ask those individuals if they'd be willing to speak into your professional identity and unique personal characteristics. If they're willing to help, provide them with a list of questions, and ask them to consider them carefully. Here are a few ideas to get you going, but feel free to add your own based on what you want to pinpoint or understand about yourself:

  • When have we been talking, and the conversation caused me to lean in, talk faster, become increasingly animated? What topic(s) seemed to draw me out?
  • What dreams have I mentioned in passing to you, that I (or others) may have brushed off as silly or impossible?
  • When have you seen me be really proud or satisfied with my own work or achievements? 
  • Where do you think I thrive? Excel?
  • From what you've observed, what do you think I'm uniquely wired to achieve? Where do I naturally perform well?

Collect this feedback from your friends or family, and see what stands out. Trust your gut--take what is helpful, leave what is not. What surprises you? What sparks your interest?

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By the end of your self-reflection period, the goal is to arrive at a list of possible careers that incorporate the elements of self that you've unearthed. You've taken the time to explore who you are, and now you have some ideas about what might be a good career move for you. How do you choose from the short list? How do you even know you're on the right track? 

2. Test the Waters

"The grass is always greener on the other side" is a nugget of wisdom brimming with relevance for your career journey. Don't leap into something new on a whim, just because it theoretically sounds better; of course it sounds better! You don't know anything about the industry yet, and only see the shiny fun stuff. But career changes are a big deal. Slow down, and safely explore your options before you decide to make a full transition.

There are several ways to explore a career without actually changing careers. Perhaps you can identify a volunteer opportunity inside of the new industry. Get your feet wet in work relevant to the jobs you're considering, and get a peek behind the curtain, so to speak. See what surprises you, what interests you, what concerns you.

Another option is to set up some informational interviews or job shadowing with people in your target industry. If you have a friend or colleague who can make a networking introduction for you, that is certainly best, but cold calls aren't out of the picture, necessarily. As long as your motivation is truly to learn and get a feel for the career (NOT sniff around for job openings), it's likely that the professionals in that industry will be open to helping you out in some capacity. Ask challenging questions, like, "What is the worst part about working in this industry? What challenges do you meet in this job consistently? What trends do you see in your field? Where do you expect this field to be in 10 years? 20 years? What do you think it takes to enjoy this work, and succeed in the field?"

If the industry you're considering is really different from everything you've done historically, consider taking some courses in the subject area. For example, if you've worked a 9 to 5 your whole life and are thinking about being a full-time gardener instead, find a free online class in botany or horticulture. Does the subject matter interest you, or are you bored out of your mind? Does the class inspire you to dive deeper and learn more? 

The point of this 'trial period' is to confirm your interest, and narrow down your short list. Admit you're wrong when an industry isn't actually good for you, and move on to the next career on your list. When you find something that stands out above the rest, it's time to move on to the final step.  

3. Invest in the transition.

Career transitions aren't going to happen overnight. You have to be patient, and be willing to make the change at an appropriate pace. That doesn't mean you're just sitting around passively, though! There's a lot to do as you invest in the process of changing careers. Here are a few things you can do to make the transition happen:

Network.

Okay, so you shuddered at the mention of the word 'network.' That's fair! Most people despise the concept with a passion. But it is still a beneficial practice, and one that doesn't have to make you beat your head against a wall. Try to have a positive perspective on this one, for your own sake.

LinkedIn is your friend here -- figure out what connections you have to your new industry/potential employers, and ask your existing friends or colleagues to make an introduction on your behalf. Have coffee with strangers. Go to industry-specific events. Put yourself out there a little bit! A future blog post on networking will dig into this more deeply, but for a full-blown career change, you're probably going to need an internal referral for someone to take a chance on you. In order to find a solid internal referral, you have to network. Period. 

Pursue training as-needed, but don't make assumptions.

A lot of my clients say things like, "I guess I need an MBA now," or "But I really don't want to go back to school!" In some cases, yes--they really do have to go back to school. You can't be a doctor without the degree. But in a lot of other cases, a traditional degree might not be necessary. Is the degree you assume you need preferred, or actually required? Can you supplement your existing education with something other than a traditional degree? 

Maybe you need some specific skills for your new career--let's say you want to get into mobile app design, but have no coding experience. Your first inclination might be to go back to school for a Computer Science degree. BUT instead, if you did a search for any free or reduced-cost bridge programs in your new industry, you'd find LaunchCode, a nonprofit organization providing FREE classes and job-transition support for careers in technology. They have classes in St. Louis, my friends! They actually put people in jobs. Good jobs. It's a no-brainer! And this is not the only bridge program out there. Explore the possibility before you shell out the cash for a full university degree.

Maybe your desired career utilizes a specific type of software, and a lot of companies consistently use the same program across the board. Take Salesforce, for example, a popular CRM platform in sales and marketing. Did you know that Salesforce offers free online certification? Why not amp up your relevant skills by pursuing your Salesforce certification, while you apply for new jobs in your field? If nothing else, it's a great resume and interview talking point that demonstrates your commitment to making the career change. 

The opportunities here are tremendous. Look for professional associations certifications, apprenticeship programs, bridge programs, training courses, etc. before you commit to a more traditional college degree. Think of the time, money, and sanity you could save in the process! 

Update your resume.

Your resume might be perfect for your current industry, but you have to look at it from a totally new perspective if you're planning to switch careers. Each position in your job history needs to be re-examined, and re-framed according to the context of new job opportunities. 

If you're moving out of sales into social work, nobody is going to care (as much) about your sales results data. They want to see a commitment to people, an emphasis on relationship, and a willingness to work hard. You might find that your resume bullet points need to be "flip-flopped," or re-written altogether. This will help people reviewing your resume as they look over your application--if you don't do this work in advance, you're bound to get tossed aside after a resume screener ponders aloud, "Why is this person applying for this job, anyway?"

Make your intentions clear. Tailor your resume to speak the language of your desired industry, not the career you're leaving behind. 

Consider 'stepping stone' roles. 

If you're making a really big change, you might want to consider doing it in stages. This is especially true if you're looking to move into a competitive company, the ones on the "Best Places to Work" list. Let's say you're a contract manager at Purina, and you're looking to make a transition. You've done your homework, you've narrowed down your list, and you know you really want to land a training and orientation job at World Wide Technology. That's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and you won't settle for less. It's great that you know what you want--but unfortunately, you have no direct training experience, and everybody on the planet wants to work at World Wide Technology. 

Instead, you could consider applying for a management role within your current department at Purina. Get some training experience. Ask your supervisor for some training responsibilities within your existing role--whatever you can swing, make it happen. Put yourself in a position to be more qualified when your dream jobs opens up. You could also apply for a contract management role inside World Wide Technology, with some management responsibility. Then, it's much easier to make an internal transfer to a different department for that 'dream' training role. 

"But that will take forever!" you say. Yep. Like I said, it isn't going to happen overnight! But that doesn't mean it's impossible. Are you willing to work for a new career, even if it might take some time to get there?

That brings me to the interim. The waiting period when you're still sitting in the career you hate, while you're dreaming of the job you think you'll love.

End well. 

Your current work matters. Your current job performance matters. You're still working for your most recent referring supervisor, my friends. You do not want to give them a reason to discredit you in the referral process. Instead, harness your existing workplace relationships (secretly, of course!) to improve your experience as you wait. Ask for new opportunities that relate to the new field. Request a schedule shift so you can attend a class. Do whatever you can to maximize your opportunities within the bounds of your current work environment. 

It's not necessarily going to be easy, but a career that suits you is still possible. Wait actively. Look forward purposefully. Engage in the process, knowing that it is an imperfect journey.

If you ever doubt that it's worth it, or forget exactly what it is you're aiming for, come back here, and I'll remind you. It is a fantastic experience to be in a job that suits me as a person. The results are life-changing, and every day, I know the journey was worth it

The #1 Most Important Fix for Your Resume

Between my work as a Career Communication Coach and previous roles in executive recruiting and HR, I've seen a whole lot of resumes.

Today, I'm going to let you in on a little secret and share the #1 resume problem that I regularly encounter with clients, along with a few easy steps you can follow in order to address the problem in your own resume.

The Problem: Emphasis on Responsibilities

Most people that I work with for resume writing don't demonstrate a lot of confidence in their work experience. In fact, a lot of the comments that they make are downright apologetic:

"Oh, I know I haven't done a lot in that area. I should've done more." 

"Yeah, I guess I did that, but it wasn't a big deal."

"I don't really think I'm good enough for the positions I'm interested in."

I've mentioned before that one of the best parts of my job is the client reaction--that moment when a client sees his or her professional identity written out accurately, clearly, and confidently for the very first time, whether it be on a resume, a new website, or a grant proposal. Most clients are startled, and they read over the content a few times before saying, "Wow, did I really do all of this?" 

I generally laugh a little, and say, "You tell me. Is anything inaccurate, or even exaggerated?"

They hungrily pore over the details, and are confused when the answer is "No! I actually did all of that, didn't I?"

The resume issue in this scenario is almost always an overemphasis on responsibilities, duties, or tasks. Many people approach their resume as if it were a job description -- they try to capture all of the check-list items they're responsible for, and list those as resume bullet points. 

The problem with this approach is that every single person with a similar role and/or job title has exactly the same list of responsibilities. There's nothing in that list of tasks that sets a candidate apart from other applicants, or leaves any sort of impression on the reader.

Quite frankly, this approach is 100% ineffective. The recruiter or hiring manager reviewing your resume is going to be bored out of his or her mind, and will likely move on to another candidate immediately. On average, recruiters will only spend 6 seconds looking at your resume. While other factors like formatting are definitely part of the solution, responsibility-heavy content is definitely not helping you stand out from the crowd. 

The Solution: Emphasis on Results

The fix for responsibility-focused resumes is a perspective shift toward results.

When I'm chatting with clients about their job history and achievements, a lot of them groan when I ask about results, or just look at me with desperation and shrug. Many people aren't accustomed to thinking about their professional achievements as results, so at first glance, it's hard to come up with anything to share.

But that doesn't mean there's an absence of results.

Many clients shy away from the results question because they're not in a traditional, numbers-driven role like sales. The word 'results' carries with it an expectation of hard numerical data: percentages, dollar signs, you name it. Some of those figures are obvious, as they can be in sales, but they don't have to be. If you're not consistently thinking about measurable definitions of success, then you're bound to be caught of guard by the request for proof of your success.

So how do we solve the problem?

Step 1: Define Measurable Success

Let's say you're considering a role where you're responsible for managing volunteers. Great--you manage volunteers, but so do a lot of other people. How can you measure and demonstrate that you managed those volunteers successfully?

Think about all of the potential measurable components that are involved with managing volunteers. Here are the ones that come to mind right away:

  • Number of volunteers you work with on a regular basis
  • Volunteer retention over time 
  • Volunteer engagement, or the rate at which volunteers choose to donate their time
  • Average monthly hours of volunteer time from the beginning of your tenure, versus the present
  • Increase in the number of volunteers over time
  • Increase in engagement over time
  • Volunteer satisfaction data collected from feedback surveys

As you can see, an area of responsibility that doesn't inherently lend itself to measurable results can definitely be measured. That said, if you're not actively measuring these areas, then there's no way to demonstrate that you've succeeded. 

This leads us right into Step 2.

Step 2: Start Measuring with Intention, and Do it Now!

Imagine looking at a resume that hasn't been touched in 15 years. As much as we wish we could, it often isn't possible to dig up the data retroactively. Think of all the achievements and professional highlights that could be lost over time!

Most of what you're able to measure in order to demonstrate success needs to be measured with intention, on purpose, while you're working on the given project. Take some time to define measurable success metrics at the beginning of each project, measure as you go, and record the results.

Your efforts will spare you a lot of professional regret down the road during your next job transition, and will also help you identify professional wins that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. 

Step 3: Look for Ripple-Effect Results

Sometimes the most significant results of your work aren't directly numerical. In some cases, they might be entirely anecdotal. On top of that, something great can happen in response to your work that you didn't intend to happen at all! Should we bury these situations or neglect them as professional achievements, simply because they aren't traditional, direct measurements? Absolutely not!

Perhaps you planned and oversaw an event for your non-profit organization. It wasn't a fundraising event specifically, but one of the attendees was so impressed that they decided to make a significant contribution to the organization. You didn't directly solicit the donation--you're not even on the development team, perhaps!--but your work still resulted in a major win for the organization.

Or, let's say you work for a youth development organization, and you've been investing a lot of time and effort in community outreach. Your main goal was to increase visibility, and make sure the community is aware of your programming. During your outreach efforts, you happened to develop community partnerships with a few local businesses. Those partnerships led to unexpected enrichment opportunities for the children in your programs, creating new, fun ways for them to learn and grow. 

I like to call these sorts of results ripple effects. Because of your actions, something unexpected or indirect happened, and there was a positive outcome. There might not be numbers involved, but that doesn't change the fact that something good happened! You should absolutely keep track of these ripple effect results, even if the result is purely anecdotal. Results are results, intentional or not! 

Responsibility vs. Results in Your Resume

In today's job market, it isn't enough to just write down what you do every day and call it a resume. As much as we don't like to do so, you have to take this opportunity to brag a little! Your resume is designed for this--it isn't arrogant to accurately and confidently convey your professional achievements.

It's a good and rewarding experience to be proud of your work, and to communicate your results effectively. I invite you to consider your own achievements today, and how you might better present those career highlights in your current resume. You never know--those examples will very likely come in handy some day!

Capturing Your Professional 2017: End-of-Year Reflection

There are less than 3 weeks remaining in 2017 -- can you believe it? Before you let your mind race ahead to your personal holiday festivities, Christmas shopping, and the inevitable feasting to uncomfortable fullness, I invite you to take a moment and reflect.

Sure, you have personal goals that you want to identify based on the previous year, and resolutions that you want to set for 2018. 

But friends, don't miss this opportunity to reflect on your professional 2017. 

What are you most proud of in your work this year? What have you achieved? Perhaps you'd rather skip all of that and dig into the holidays with your families--understandably so! Sit tight for a minute and allow me to present an argument for professional reflection and proactive resume updates as we celebrate the close of another calendar year. 

End-of-Year Resume Updates

Though December is always busy and chaotic, this is absolutely the best time to sit down and document your professional achievements for your resume. Whether you are an active job seeker or 100% content in your current role, periodic resume updates will serve you in the long run. 

Why now?

There are 3 primary arguments in favor of end-of-year resume updates, regardless of your job status:

  • Fresh perspective on the closing year's activities
  • Availability of metrics and specific results
  • Avoided frenzy and effort in the event of a future job application

We've all been there. For years, you never expect to leave a job, and all of a sudden you realize it's time to move on. You happen to run across your dream job in a listing on LinkedIn, and you realize that the application deadline is tomorrow.

Frantically, you dig through your computer files and an eternity later, you locate your most recent resume draft. You groan as you review it--you haven't updated it at all since you accepted your current position! You rack your brain, trying to come up with some impressive-sounding bullets for your current role, with the clock ticking down in the back of your mind.

That doesn't sound fun, does it? On top of the experience factor, the resume points that you develop in a pinch will not be as compelling or accurate as they would have been if you'd done them periodically throughout your tenure. 

Although keeping a pulse on your achievements throughout the year is ideal, end-of-year is a great time to consider your professional highlights and to document them thoroughly. Look back on the previous year, referencing your calendar, documents, and other materials as needed, and consider the following questions as they relate to your professional 2017:

  • What are you most proud of this year?
  • Where did you grow professionally this year, and what efforts are evidence of that growth?
  • What projects stretched your skills this year?
  • Where did you see the most noticeable and satisfying results, such as an extremely satisfied customer, major financial savings, etc.?
  • Are there any efforts for which you received formal or informal recognition? Don't overlook 'less significant' recognition, such as a heartfelt thank you note, or a particularly thoughtful comment from a coworker, supervisor, or client.
  • What were your most significant projects this year, in terms of both effort and impact

Reviewing this list, it's easy to see that you are best equipped to answer these questions and identify the relevant metrics now, as opposed to months or years down the road when you find yourself ready to apply for a new opportunity with a fast-approaching deadline. Keep your resume fresh, and capture the best details by reflecting on your achievements in a timely, proactive fashion.

How do I document my professional 2017?

So you're sold on the idea--you're ready to sit down and capture your year. How exactly do you go about doing so in an effective way?

Take a look at those reflection questions above--take some informal notes electronically or by hand according to your preference. Don't worry about getting the language 'resume ready,' or stating your achievements as spectacularly as possible. Just get a good sense of your 2017 highlights.

When you've got a good list of your major projects and 'wins' for the year, sit down and answer the following questions for each project:

  • What was the context? What was the major problem you needed to solve?
  • What obstacles did you face, and how did you achieve your goals?
  • What results did you achieve? Consider measurable data points such as financial savings, increased sales, or event attendance. Also consider 'ripple effects' that occurred as a direct result of your work--perhaps a donor was impressed with a project, and decided to make a significant contribution as a result. 

Your goal in answering these questions now is to 1) get all of the results documented while the data is fresh and available and 2) capture all of the details you might need for future interviews. The STAR method is an approach to behavioral interview questions ("Tell me about a time when...") that highlights the Situation, Task, Action, and Result of any given project. As you look over your details, be sure you've touched on each of these categories for your project summary. 

At this point, you've got a big, messy list of notes related to your professional year. That's great! I highly recommend storing that original note document in addition to your working resume--throw it in a file folder with your professional documents, or keep a digital copy stored in the cloud. 

Finally, it's time to add a few bullet points to your resume. Focus on the highlights of the year, and create a bullet point on your resume for each of your major projects. As a guide, the following fill-in-the-blank format is a good starting point:

"Led the team to (ACTION), resulting in (MOST SIGNIFICANT RESULTS)."

For example: "Led the creation and execution of the special event series, leading to 50 new community partners and $1,000 increased annual sales." Don't forget to include any formal recognition or awards you may have received for your efforts.

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That's all there is to it--you're done! Save your draft, save your notes, and take a moment to sit back and celebrate. It's so easy to get bogged down in your to-do list, the frenzied pace of the holidays, or the upcoming year. But take a few minutes for yourself, and acknowledge what you've achieved in 2017. It's a beautiful thing to feel proud of your work, my friends. 

If you have any questions or thoughts about the resume update process, I'd love to hear them in the comments below! 

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.