A reader writes:
I’m graduating from grad school in May, and am looking for a new job. I’ve come across a handful of ads that say that their salary and benefits standards are “competitive and depend on qualifications and experience.”
My question is: When do I ask about range if the salary is unlisted?
Do I ask before I spend time tailoring my resume and cover letter? Do I ask after they respond, but before the interview? After the interview? The positions I’m looking for can have a wide range depending on the industry (private/nonprofit/government), and I don’t want to waste my time and theirs. In addition, some of these are small firms, and I don’t want to ask, find it’s too low, and then come across as rude by not applying since I may need to reach out to individuals again in the future.
Ugh, this whole topic is incredibly frustrating.
In an ideal world, employers would just post the salary range for the job up-front so that if it didn’t work for you, you could self-select out. In practice, many won’t do this because (a) they figure all candidates will assume they’ll be at the top of the range and feel lowballed if that’s not what they’re offered, (b) for a truly stellar candidate, they’d be willing to pay more than the range that it would be reasonable to post for most candidates, and they don’t want those stellar candidates to see the “normal person” range and not apply, or (c) they plan to base the salary on something irrelevant, like your past salary history — i.e., they want to lowball you if they can.
But of course it’s reasonable for you to want to have some idea of what the job pays before spending time applying and interviewing.
The problem is that there are still lots of employers to bristle at candidates who bring up salary early in the process. Read this post for a sampling of interviewers who think candidates who ask about salary early on are “only interested in what the employer can do for them” and other ridiculousness. For what it’s worth, I actually think this is changing — I have more candidates ask me about salary at the phone interview stage than I did, say, eight years ago. But there are still plenty of employers who are horrified to discover that you are working for money, you filthy mercenary.
So, how can you navigate that as a job-seeker?
First, do your own research so that you have a general idea of what jobs in the fields you’re interested in typically pay. Talk with recruiters, check with professional organizations in your industry, and bounce figures off of other people in your field. Once you come up with a range for your experience level and in your geographic area, you can feel more confident naming a salary figure first, without the worry that you’ll be wildly off in either direction. (And yes, if you’re applying in multiple industries, you may need to do this as a separate process for each.)
From there, don’t ask before applying. Yes, it’s reasonable to want to know, but if they were willing to tell you at this stage, it would probably be in the ad. So you’re going to spend time applying for jobs without knowing exactly what they pay. It is ridiculous, but that’s how it works.
Once you’re in the interview process, you’ll have to decide if you’re willing to turn off some employers by asking about salary before they bring it up. The conventional wisdom on this is to wait until you’re pretty far along in the interview process before you ask — i.e., not at a first interview. Personally, I think it’s pretty reasonable to ask before you invest major time in a hiring process, but it really depends on whether you’re willing to risk them thinking it reflects badly on you.
However, there are a few cases where more people (maybe not everyone, but certainly more people) feel better about you asking early on:
* If you’d be traveling for the interview. In that case, most people think it’s reasonable to say something like, ““Before I let you pay for my travel, can we touch base on the salary range for this position so we can make sure we’re in the same ballpark?”
* If you’d be taking time off work: “I hope you don’t mind me asking at this stage, but because it’s difficult for me to take time off work to interview, is it possible to give me a sense of the salary range so that we can make sure we’re in the same ballpark before we move forward?”
* If they’ve made it clear their interview process is a long one with lots of steps and demands on your time: “Since it sounds like the hiring process has a number of steps — which is great and something I appreciate — I thought we should touch base on the salary range, so that I’m not using up your time if we’re not in the same ballpark.”
* If a recruiter has approached you, rather than the other way around (usually if you’re currently employed and not actively looking): “Since I’m not actively looking for a new position, I haven’t given much thought yet to the range for my next job. But if you can tell me the range for this position, I can tell you if it makes sense for us to talk.”
That said, in all of those cases except the last one, be prepared that if you bring the topic up, you might need to share your own range — because their response may be, “What kind of range are you looking for?”
But yes, this whole thing is fully of silliness, and you should brace yourself for an astonishing lack of logic in how companies handle it.