how to answer questions about your salary expectations

by Alison Green on August 26, 2013

featured-on-usnMost job seekers are eager to hear employers talk about the salary for a job but are hesitant to discuss their own salary expectations – rightfully fearing that they may inadvertently undercut themselves or ask for something wildly outside a company’s budget. But increasingly, employers are demanding that candidates talk salary first, before they show their own hand.

As you probably know, there’s a lot of advice out there that advises candidates to refuse to give a real answer to the salary question – for instance, say that you’re flexible, or that you’d like to learn more about the job first, or simply turn the question around and ask the employer what their budgeted range is. You can certainly try these tactics – but many, many employers will insist on knowing what your salary expectations are before proceeding. In fact, many online applications won’t even let you apply if you don’t include a number.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about what to do if you’re in a position where you have to name a salary range. You can read it here.

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{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

Joey August 26, 2013 at 11:44 am

I think it might be better if you think of the question this way: “what will it take to retain your skills for this job in this job market?”

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Steve August 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm

I hate the situations where they insist on knowing what you’re currently Earning. Is it really relevant to THIS job and conversation that as my current company started having financial difficulties I took a $10K pay cut, no longer had 401(k) matching, lost half of my paid vacation time, and now cover 2 other jobs as well as my own – in order to have a safety net while I search for something else?

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Yup August 26, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Agreed. Especially irritating when “below-market compensation at current job” is the reason you’re looking for a new job in the first place.

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Jessa August 26, 2013 at 12:29 pm

Exactly. The whole point in a lot of cases is you’re moving becasue well your company has had bad times and has not given out raises in pay in years or something.

Not to mention this perpetuates discriminatory pay scales. If what you earned before matters, and you are a woman or a person of colour or immigrant, or other discriminated against class, then your new salary will perforce be lower than it SHOULD be by market value because you’ve always been vastly underpaid to start with. Unless you’re very lucky.

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Felicia August 26, 2013 at 12:30 pm

I hate that too! Especially when they don’t actually ask what you’re looking to make at your new job. What you currently make is irrelevant and when they ask it makes me think they’re using it as a factor. I wish everywhere would just say “we’re willing to pay between x and y, are you ok with that?” Some places treat what they’re willing to pay as top secret when it would save everyone a lot of time if they were up front about it.

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Mavis August 26, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Just because they don’t ask doesn’t mean you can’t tell them. Always make the high end of your desired salary range the first number you mention. Something like, “Based on my skills and experience I feel that I am worth Y in the role of chocolate teapot maker, and that number is within the range that I would accept if offered the job. I make Z in my current position, which is below market. I’m very excited about the opportunity with your company and hope that we can come to an agreement. Is Y within the budgeted range?”

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Greg August 26, 2013 at 2:13 pm

I hate it, too, but I once got dinged on an interview where, after we discussed my expectations and their range, and concluded we were both in the same ballpark, he asked my most recent salary and I refused. It’s completely ridiculous — the only reason for asking in that situation is to get a lower anchor point for any potential negotiations — but after that I realized that you can stand on principle, or you can do what it takes to get the job, but you can’t always do both.

One thing you could try in that situation — and again, no guarantees that it will work — is to smile when they ask and say, “Are you making me an offer? Are we starting our negotiations now?” But you have to be the type of person who can pull that off without sounding like a smart-ass.

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Lauren August 26, 2013 at 12:09 pm

AAM – Sometimes you offer to do resumes for $. Ever offer to do a salary analysis for individuals?

I would pay you to do a salary analysis based on my location, current / wanted job title, experience, etc. It’s all about knowing what you are worth in your market, but i’d like to see how an HR person would view my worth.

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OliviaNOPE August 26, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Have you tried Glassdoor?

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Lauren August 27, 2013 at 10:34 am

I have but my job can be $10/ hr or 150k/ yr and every job description is basically the same. I am at a weird point where I can’t seem to get past being told jobs are only 60k (i make 75k), when my coworkers with less experience are being presented with 90 -95k for the same job! No offers, just being told salaries by recruiters. I get they are men and that I am automatically going to be given a lower range as a woman, but come on. We talk about who gets called and what is offered, and its so discouraging hearing that the women are given a diff range than male counterparts without even giving resumes to the recruiters.

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Joey January 6, 2014 at 1:54 pm

Years of experience is only one factor. Are you missing some real qualification those folks have that you don’t? But I don’t doubt that it could very well be sex discrimination. Certain fields are notorious for it.

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Ask a Manager August 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm

Not really my area of expertise — would take a LOT of work to get to know fields that aren’t my own.

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Cali7 August 27, 2013 at 8:14 am

Or look it up with O’Net On-line

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Sunshine DC August 26, 2013 at 12:11 pm

It’s so much harder if you work in International Development (even if with an American org.) You need to know if it’s a “local salary” in the country you might be based in (so could be $17,000 a yr for a senior professional!) or if it is in line with major global orgs (same job could be $90,000+ a yr) and if it includes housing stipend (very common for SOME orgs which could add anywhere from $3000 to $18,000 a year on top of salary) and whether or not it includes things like annual home country leave travel costs, childrens’ private school costs (again, these are norms for SOME orgs.) I have found salary-benefit differences for nearly identical positions, in terms of experience, status, etc., to be as much as $50,000 or more between one job and the next – for roles that, if and when they interact during inter organizational collaboration would be, in effect, peers. It’s easy to presume the pay level for a World Bank job, but for other, smaller orgs in the same realm? If you can’t find a post volunteered on Glassdoor or some site and have no contacts there… how to know whether to ask for $50,000 or $110,000? You might be willing to work for $50,000 at an org where that is the norm, but certainly would not accept that from the org where the larger figure is standard…. *Sigh*

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V August 26, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Any thoughts on how to explain to an employer that I care more about vacation time, flexible hours, and a good work environment than the salary when this comes up? I’d take an interesting job with a generous vacation policy and flexible hours at 80k, but if you want me there 9-5 every day and I only get two weeks off, I’d need 120k+ to seriously consider that.

At the moment, I care about the maternity leave policy a lot (there’s a good chance I’ll be using it in 2-4 years). But there doesn’t ever seem to be a good way to bring that up.

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BCW August 26, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Maybe say something along the lines of “My salary would depend on my total compensation package. The lowest I could go is 80k, but that would have to be made up by other benefits”. Not perfect, but then they would at least know the lowest they could get you for (which is really what they want to know anyway) while also letting them know that they would need to give you a lot more in total, which I think many places are at far more liberty to be flexible with.

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Elle August 26, 2013 at 2:09 pm

40k swing in my book is huge – 80k to 120k seems like a steep jump. From an employer stand point, if you wanted more PTO I would divide your salary by weeks and figure out what that addtional cost would be. Then I could see talking about telecommuting or flex hours, but that to me would not amount to 40k. I would be ready to either start negotiations at a higher amount or be able specifically quantify dollars you are expecting. I think you should be able to get a good sense if the job requires a lot of in office time or straight 9-5 time from direct questions in your interview and maybe that could help you better shape your range.

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V August 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

Thanks! I probably wouldn’t give an employer 80-120 as a range, but it’s what I’m mentally thinking about. For the record, 90-100 is probably a reasonable salary for my location / education / experience.

Here’s my thought process: for me, 80k is enough to cover all my bills and leave me a reasonable amount in savings each month. I’d rather have a job I enjoy at 80k with good benefits and a lot of flexibility, than a job at 90k which I didn’t enjoy much without that flexibility. On the other hand, for an extra 40k a year I could put up with a lot for the 5 years it would take to get my mortgage paid off and a nice savings account set up.

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Bryce August 26, 2013 at 1:51 pm

V and BCW, you are right on the money when it comes to taking “non-salary” factors into consideration. That’s because people’s happiness/misery on the job is significantly influenced by things like work-life balance, commutes, bosses and coworkers, and organizational culture/mission/values, even more so than salary. Earning a higher salary may not make up for a 2-hour commute, mean boss/coworkers, long hours or work that’s too difficult/too easy, or worse, unethical (think tobacco companies and subprime lenders!)

That said, I’ve been in two sticky situations with respect to negotiations: where you’re currently/recently earning less than you’d like/a job pays, and its counterpart, where your current/recent earnings were more than a job pays. In the first situation, this may be what you may need to say:

“I took my current/recent job at Salary Q because I wanted the chance to learn about Discipline X, work at Company Y, and/or work for Boss Z.” Or “I took my current/recent job at Salary Q because I was looking for a stepping stone until I found the right position/figured out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to work. This position looks like a good fit for you and me.”

“Now, I’d like to be paid fairly. What’s the salary range that’s been budgeted for the position?”

For the second:

“In my current/recent position, I was paid more than this position can pay. I recognize that the job market is tougher now and, in addition, I’m excited about this job, so I’m willing to accept a lower salary.” Or “I’m willing to accept a lower salary in exchange for the chance to learn about Discipline X, work at Company Y, and/or work for Boss Z/in exchange for the chance to work at home/work for a startup/you name it.”

Your thoughts?

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Greg August 26, 2013 at 2:06 pm

I’m surprised Alison left out the most important piece of advice, especially since I’ve seen her mention it elsewhere: Never lie. That is really the single worst thing you can do. If the company does a background check (and the larger they are, the more likely they are to do one) you can have your job offer rescinded even after you’ve already accepted and given notice at your old job. The key is to keep the focus on your expectations, since no one can accuse you of lying about that.

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Ask a Manager August 26, 2013 at 2:08 pm

I left it out because I was talking about salary *expectations* rather than salary *history*. But yes, never lie about your salary history; you can lose the offer entirely.

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Mavis August 26, 2013 at 7:10 pm

I agree that one should never lie about salary history. However, the information is not *always* verified. I have worked for more than one very very large company and recently went through the on-boarding process at one of them. I was drug tested, fingerprinted, credit checked, etc. but my salary history (which I didn’t lie about) was not verified. I have also seen hiring managers request that in-demand or undercompensated applicants overstate their comp history as it is difficult to get increases over certain percentages approved by compensation committees (crazy, I know.)

That said, I would never misstate my salary history (or any other information on an application). I have also seen offers revoked or W-2s requested; the trigger is typically a salary demand that is far outside the normal range.

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J August 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

What’s a good range to give when discussing salary expectations? Should it be a range of $5k, $10k, more?

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Greg August 26, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Depends on the total amount: $125K-$150K may make sense; $30K-$55K won’t.

Also, as Alison said, most people will focus on the part of the range that’s most important to them. If you see a job that pays $60K-$70K, you’ll think, “I can get $70K from them, or maybe even a little above that.” If you tell them you’re looking to make $60K-$70K, they’ll figure they can offer you $60K (though hopefully NOT less than that).

In other words, your range doesn’t really matter all that much, other than as an anchoring point for future negotiations. I don’t have hard data to back this up, but my guess is that people who say $40K-$50K get higher offers than people who just say $40K.

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Greg August 26, 2013 at 4:13 pm

Actually, now that I think of it, if your main concern is to avoid sounding naive, $10K is generally going to be safe, and maybe up it a bit as you move up the salary scale. Even at the lower end, I don’t think saying $25K-$35K is going to make you look bad.

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J August 26, 2013 at 5:07 pm

Thanks for the input, Greg! I’m looking at entry level so it sounds like a range of $5-10k might be okay to use.

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Manda August 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm

#2 is pretty tough when you’re looking for entry level jobs. There is simply no such thing as people in my field I could ask. So the only available sources of info are the small handful of jobs that list a salary range and salary websites. All that does is give me a vague idea. Attempting a Google search usually just results in a bunch of useless job postings on Indeed.

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Ask a Manager August 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm

There are people in your field, just at different levels. Ask the higher up ones.

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Anonymous August 26, 2013 at 3:42 pm

I’ll admit to some trepidation here; I work in the nonprofit industry. As you note, salaries and titles can vary wildly in terms of actual scope. We have a local college that does an annual nonproft salary/benefits survey, but you have to pay to get access to the info. Approaching anyone in the local nonprofit community makes me nervous because I can only imagine how quickly it would get back to my boss.

Either way, I’m genuinely curious: how do you even approach someone with this kind of request? How do you start that conversation in a way that gets you the info you need without you sounding like you’re just fishing?

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Ask a Manager August 26, 2013 at 4:02 pm

You can just say, “I’m thinking of applying to a job doing XYZ for a Y-sized organization. I’d love to get a sense of how much a job like this typically pays.”

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Mrs Addams August 26, 2013 at 4:22 pm

Personally, I wouldn’t just ask anyone higher up. Ask those who have recently budgeted for and hired people for the jobs you’re going for. Just asking higher ups in general, you may find they tell you their own entry-level salaries which, if it was several years ago, could be way out of line with what current salaries are.

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Mavis August 26, 2013 at 7:23 pm

This, exactly. One of the reasons that you want to build a strong network is for gathering this type of information. Alumni groups can sometimes be helpful in this scenario if you are just starting out.

I recently called my former boss, who now works for another company. “I’m negotiating an offer for position Y with competitor X. I know I’m undercompensated in my current position and i need to correct that. What is a fair salary for position Y?” Then silence. He told me, and that number is now my new salary.

The key is to ask someone who views you favorably and has nothing to lose by telling you. People really do want to help other people.

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Manda August 26, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Except that it isn’t that simple. Since I have not yet gotten into any particular field, the concept of “my field” is meaningless. Sure, there are people working in fields I might want to get into, but I don’t know any of those people. I can’t think of anyone I know who works in an industry or does any type of job that would interest me. I’m also not limiting my job search to any specific field right now. Wherever I start out might not be an industry I want to stay in either. Most of the jobs I’ve applied for aren’t related to what I studied and I have no contact with anyone I went to school with. I honestly don’t think there is anyone I could get helpful information from.

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Rich August 26, 2013 at 9:22 pm

It’s my experience that you can name something that might be considered “too high,” but also say in your cover letter and/or interview that you are willing to negotiate if you’ve named too high a price.

I interviewed for a retail position, thinking they would be willing to discuss a management position, and my salary box stated $40,000-$45,000. When HR saw that in my interview, I explained why I had put that number but was willing to discuss their pre-budgeted range. Their rate for the position available was significantly lower, but the discussion became one of my direction within the company.

Also, with regard to Alison’s advice to research, Glassdoor is great to give you an idea about the company (from an employee standpoint), what to possibly expect on an interview, and an overall payrate range for reported positions. It’s not an exaact deal, but it’s something.

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Audiophile August 27, 2013 at 8:05 am

You can absolutely name a salary that’s too high. I did this on an interview once, and then was promptly told I was several thousand off from where they were. (IIRC, I said my salary expectations were 35K-45K. Interviewer then said the highest we can go is 33K.) One of those instances where I found myself stumped and trying to back track. If you have a clear budget and you know you can’t deviate from it, just state it.

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Kristi August 27, 2013 at 11:36 am

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