naming salary requirements

A reader writes:

I’m interested in applying for a job that asks for my salary requirements to be stated in my cover letter. This feels like a loaded question: if I shoot too high, am I pricing myself out of a job? If I shoot too low, am I condemning myself to be underpaid? I would appreciate your thoughts on this matter and look forward to hearing from you soon.

If you can avoid listing a specific number in the letter, do. You don’t want to ignore the request entirely, because you don’t want to look like someone who ignores instructions, but you can answer it in your own way. For instance, you could say something like, “My salary requirements are negotiable and depend on the total compensation package, including benefits.” Honestly, that’s a reasonable response to a question that isn’t entirely reasonable at this stage.

Here’s my take on it: I get why companies are asking this — they don’t want to waste their time if you’re wildly out of their price range. That’s perfectly legitimate, especially if what they’re able to pay is on the lower side of the normal range for the position (since then they have reason to worry about that issue). But if that’s the case, then I believe that they should post their range and let applicants decide if they’re interested or not.

Of course, most places don’t do that. But they should.

Which doesn’t help you any. So back to your question: Give a vague answer like the one I suggested above in the cover letter. But know that once you get to the phone screen, you’re likely to be asked again. You can try the same tactic then, but at that point they’re likely to push you to give a number and if you refuse, you risk coming across as obnoxious and/or simply getting cut from the running. I’m not saying that’s right, just that it’s the reality.

So you have a couple of choices: You can try to turn the question around and ask them, “What range did you have in mind for the position?” Some interviewers will tell you and some won’t. (Again, silly, but the reality.) If they press for a number, one option is that rather than talking about the salary you’re looking for, you can say what you’re currently making — “I’m currently making $X, with an excellent benefits package, and like anyone, I’m looking to increase that if I move to a new position.” Or, you can just answer the question — tell them what you’re looking for. Do some research, know what comparable positions in your geographic area pay, and throw out a range based on that.

Some people will oppose these last two options, because they say you should never, ever throw out a number first, it puts you in a weaker negotiating position, etc. There’s truth to that, but there are also situations where you simply have to name a range. I’m sure there are some people who are such master negotiators that they’re able to refuse to answer the question without irritating the interviewer, but I’ve never encountered one. In fact, the (very small) handful of people I’ve seen try that have ended up coming across as overly aggressive game-players. So perhaps it comes down to how confident you are about your skills in this area and the vibe you’re getting from the interviewer about her tolerance level for that sort of thing.

But if we can stop talking about what works and instead talk about what would be fair: Companies who want to talk salary before they’re ready to make an offer should be ready to talk about their own range. They don’t do so because if you’re willing to accept a lower offer, they want to get you for that lower price. But that’s lame: If they lowball you now and you figure out later that you’re underpriced for the market, they risk losing you over it. They should tell you the range they plan to pay, deal with the consequences, and put an end to all this drama.

{ 5 comments… read them below }

  1. jarm_allendale*

    As a fellow manager, another important point to remember is that the hiring process is all about ROI, and the new employee isn’t the only one being invested in. A lot of companies use recruiters to find candidates, which can upwards of 25% of the new employee’s yearly salary. So if your salary requirements are too high you might not only be pricing yourself out of the company payroll but also driving up the attached recruiting fees.

    There are a few resources that don’t operate quite like this — I got my last IT administrator off of the site Dayak, which let me set me own recruiting fees. I also was honest about what kind of a salary I could offer, since I don’t think there’s any point in wasting anyone’s time. Not all managers are like this. I highly recommend looking into industry resources to see what the going rates are for your position — especially for new members of the workforce. I agree with Ask a Manager’s post but giving a company a good, honest, thought-out salary amount is also a sign of confidence.

  2. Totally Consumed*

    I agree with Jarm that “giving a company a good, honest, thought-out salary amount is also a sign of confidence”.

    You probably have what you consider a realistic, fair price expectation. Give it to them and show them you know what you’re worth!

    It’s hard to go wrong playing by the recruiter’s rules. If you try making up your own rules, chances of success diminish.

  3. Career Encourager*

    I think many folks get scared of the salary question because it feels so very personal (most of us have hangups/isuses with money, right?). That’s why the key here is to treat it like a business question rther than a personal question. I am in favor of Ask A Manager’s point that the candidate should do some research. With the salary calculator on you can get a pretty reasonable range for most jobs. Then when the salary question comes up you’re not answering personally about your own finances, but you are able to say something like, “Based on my market research, positions at this level in this industry, with this scope of responsibility typically pay between $XX and $XX and that range is acceptable to me.” Then follow up with a business question: “Is that within the range you have priced the job at?” If you’ve done your research and your price range is accurate, they will be impressed! If they get cagey with you about their range and aren’t forthcoming, you are going to learn a LOT about whether you really want to work there or not!

  4. Anonymous*

    I’m going to throw this out there (from a recruiter’s pov). A recent example: entry level college graduate, applying for an admin position in a decent sized city. Beginning salary? Mid thirties. I ask their expectations, they refuse, we dance for a couple minutes and I say, mid-thirties range. They’re offered 35K. They fight me on it, saying they’re worth 37K, and the range they were given was mid-thirties. I explain they’re entry level, and this is what the offer is (I don’t negotiate money at this level). They don’t accept. Why? People automatically think they’re going to get the high end of a range. Why? Because candidates always think they’re PERFECT for the position. My advice? A candidate who gives a fair range has already set up their expectations and mine. I’m much more willing to negotiate with them if/when an offer comes through. I have no problem listing my salary requirements in my cover letter because I know what I want and from one recruiter to another, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time. Sidenote, I’ve always gotten what I’ve asked for.

  5. Stryker*

    1.) Search function is a lifesaver.

    2.) THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR POSTING THIS! They just asked me to resubmit my cover letter with salary expectations and I had no idea how to do this. I researched a fair salary (I think??), and couldn’t remember how you recommended to phrase it. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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