in a long interview process, can I ask about salary?

A reader writes:

I had a great second phone interview with a company I think would be perfect. Originally I spoke to the recruiter/HR person. Today, I spoke to the person would be my direct manager. Next, she wants me to phone interview with her boss, and THEN it’s some in-person interviews with CEOs, etc. We had a great talk, and I’m sure I’m a really good contender. The problem is, of course, no salary range was listed on the job description. And in my field, titles don’t necessarily translate into salary.

I thought the common wisdom was don’t bring it up until they do, so I didn’t bring it up with that first HR/recruiter person. But now that it looks like a longer process, I’d hate to go through it all and then find out our expectations are way out of line. Should I have brought it up with the interviewer today? Ask in a follow-up email? The thank you note? Or, do I just wait until the long interview process is over and I’m made an offer.

It’s true that the conventional wisdom is “don’t bring up salary until they do,” but in fields where salary ranges are all over the place (or in entire industries where that’s true, like nonprofits), I’m a big fan of just being direct about it. This thing where we all pretend like we’re not even thinking about the fact that money is going to change hands is ridiculous.

In your case, because they’ve laid out a relatively lengthy process, it’s even easier to ask. I would say something like this: “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.”

As for who to ask, either the HR person you talked to originally or the direct manager — but since you didn’t bring it up when you were talking with the manager today, I’d send it in a follow-up email to the HR person, reiterating your thanks and your interest.

Of course, be prepared for the typical silliness that often occurs (on both sides) when salary comes up — the awkward pauses and the coy “well, what are you looking for?” that frequently accompanies any discussion of money. But at least you’ll have the conversation and get a better idea of whether investing more of your time makes sense or not. Good luck!

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Dennis*

    I think it will be a good idea to include your salary range in your resume. Though you may loss some opportunities but once you get an interview chance, that means the salary problem is discussable. Just my opinion.

  2. Brian*

    During my recent search I found the first or second question I was asked during initial contact was usually about salary. I clearly remembered being told that salary was always the last thing discussed and never until the offer phase. My guess is many companies are flooded with under and overqualified candidates and are sick of wasting their time. Considering it’s my time being wasted as well, I welcome the change in procedure:)

  3. Anonymous*

    I’ve always been told that the one who mentions salary/money first loses – and in that case, the candidate.

    Of course, that isn’t always the case. I went on an interview in which the first 10 minutes or so the employer spent telling me all about the salary and benefits (including which health insurance company the place uses). I thought I was picked before I even had a chance to speak! Well, that was certainly not the case. The employer mentioned salary and benefits first (literally first) and I still lost.

  4. Wilton Businessman*

    I think bringing up compensation before you’re even offered the job would be a big mistake. It’s part of the process and if they decide they want you, the money will either be there or it won’t. If you had a competing offer, then you could certainly use that as leverage to get them moving a little quicker, but it sounds like this is the only thing you’ve got in the pipeline. Why blow something that sounds like it might be a dream job?

  5. Anonymous*

    I agree with AAM, if you decide to ask about salary, be very prepared to have that question re-directed back to the OP and what his/her expectations are.

    1. Mike*

      “My expectations are that you pay a fair salary given my experience, the market and other benefits that your company offers”.

      How’s that?

      1. JessB*

        “We”re completed prepared to do that – what would you say a fair salary is?”

        I hate all this tip-toeing around giving a number, and rules about who should bring it up first. Just tell them what you’re looking for, for heaven’s sake!

        There’s no point wasting everybody’s time if you can’t meet on salary. It makes the whole rest of the interview irrelevant.

        In Australia, the salary range for the job, or the actual salary amount, is usually posted right on the job advertisement. It can generally be negotiated, but at least the interviewers know they won’t be wasting their time with people who want much more than they can offer, and applicants won’t be wasting their time with a company who can’t give them a fair salary.

        1. Erik*

          “Just tell them what you’re looking for, for heaven’s sake! ”

          Why is this advice given to the job seeker? Why can’t the advice be for employers to just tell prospective employees what the salary range for the job is, for heaven’s sake?

  6. Charles*

    “Well now, how can I, the job seeker, tell you what range I am willing to accept if you, the hiring person, haven’t yet explained the job to me? What salary range you have in your budget will also tell me, the job seeker, what level of work/expertise you expect.”

    Of course, such a comment will often lead to NOT getting the job offer – but it is their loss more than mine.

  7. Anonymous*

    I think you should ask the salary, because as AAM said, it’s a lengthy process and why waste each other’s time if the range is vastly different? I’ve always felt that it’s perfectly acceptable to find out the range before you are offered the job, and then if they do want you there is always room to try to negotiate. I think it’s unfair to a candidate to not go over that in the initial phase of interviewing, and it’s totally acceptable for you to ask at this point in the process!

  8. Joey*

    The best course of action is to ask about salary in your next interview. Otherwise the perception might be that money is your top priority. Yes, employers know it’s high on the list, but you want the perception to be that your top priority is “fit”.

  9. Mike*

    Has the OP considered looking the employer up on a site such as to see if someone with a similar title as posted their wages? It could give an idea about what to expect without having to ask.

    Also, I echo the silliness about dancing around the issue of money. The company pays you for your time and talent. If I go to McDonalds, both parties know exactly how much I’m going to pay for a burger often before I walk in the door. Employers need to stop playing games with this sort of thing.

  10. Ask a Manager* Post author

    One thing to keep in mind is that there really are industries where salary ranges are all over the place. Nonprofits are a good example: Some nonprofits pay salaries that roughly match those in the for-profit sectors, but for many others, there is a HUGE range. It can be really hard to know from the outside how a particular nonprofit handles salaries. For instance, I’m hiring for a communications director role right now, and when I talk to candidates about salary, I’m finding that expectations range from $45,000 to well over $100,000. So if a candidate said “I’m sure you pay a competitive salary,” I’d still want to make sure we were on the same page about what that means in hard numbers. (Of course, I’m someone who will just come out and tell them our range, whereas lots of employers will be coy about it.)

    1. Jamie*

      Another area where there’s a wide variance is IT. And titles can mean something radically different from one company to the next – there is no standardization. One companies Director of IT could be another company’s Systems Admin, and yet another firm’s CTO/CIO – and every one of those jobs could have similar or radically different responsibilities.

      So in IT at least getting specifics of the job is critical – because that is what determines the make or break point with salary. This is particularly difficult when the job ads are written by someone (usually HR – no offense intended) who have no idea how to convey the technical requirements accurately.

      A bunch of vague statements about ‘overseeing,’ ‘implementing,’ and ‘facilitating’ along with a list of software apps does not a accurate want-ad make. It’s really hard to know if a job is even at the appropriate level from a lot of ads.

      I wish HR would do themselves a favor and let the technical people in their staff write the ads. Then they can flower it up and make it sound all appealing – but getting the message accurately saved everyone a lot of time.

      Sorry for the rant – it’s pet peeve of mine. Thank goodness I don’t work as an IT for a non-profit – talk about a salary negotiation nightmare.

    2. Brian*

      I’m with Jaime that IT is a good example of how wide the range can be for salaries. To complicate it further, I live just outside a major metro area. If I stay in my town, $65K is the best I can do. However, if I’m willing to commute 45 minutes each way, I can easily get up to $90K. I turned down a bunch of jobs in my last search because of pay alone. I admit avoiding a long commute is worth a pay cut but not $25K. Although in many big cities it’s probably just expected you will have a 45 minute commute.

  11. Jennifer*

    In my last interview process, the first thing the HR director said in the phone interview was we are offering a salary range of x, does this fit your needs. I really appreciated having this information up front. What I really dislike is the web form that requires you to input a number, before you have even talked to someone about the position.

    1. Brian*

      I’m fortunate that jobs are plentiful in my field and area right now. I recently switched jobs and when I came across one of those ridiculous web forms (which was often) that steal an hour of my time, I just move on to the next position. Screw those places.

      A buddy of mine recently applied for a job on one of those forms. He never heard anything so he contacted the HR manager who was a friend of his wife. Turns out the form asked if he was proficient with 10 technologies – 5 major ones and 5 minor ones where he would back up another team member. He said no to ONE of the MINOR skills and, as a result, his resume was never sent to the hiring manager. It makes sense. What manager would want to waste their time with a candidate that meets 95% of the desired skills?

      1. Jamie*

        Brian illustrates beautifully a HUGE problem when non-technical people screen (or set their programs to screen) IT candidates. They end up ruling out what could be excellent candidates based on criteria they don’t understand.

        To hijack Brian’s example – let’s say his friend was applying for a position as a DBA. I’m the hiring manager and we use PSQL; maybe his friend has never used it so he would answer no on the form. But he’s a genius with Oracle – I want to meet with him.

        A form, or uninformed HR screen, will remove him from consideration before I even see his resume because they don’t understand that if he’s smart and flexible he’s the one I want because the core competencies involved are easily transferred.

          1. Jamie*

            I was just using it as an example – and I’ve seen it earlier in my career – and I’m sure it’s happened to me when I was job hunting, because it’s so common.

            I wish it was an issue for me, as it would mean we’d be hiring some help for my department! Seriously though, I can’t imagine this happening at my current workplace – but it is a huge issue for anyone job hunting in the field.

  12. Dennis*

    Does anyone ever find a business card printed with a salary range? income is as a privacy of people, so that makes us difficult to handle the negotiation on this issue. but sometimes, you need to open the dialogue box and let your hiring manager know what you want, that’s my style.

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