can you ask about salary at a job fair?

A reader writes:

I was looking at a flyer for the upcoming job/internship fair hosted by my university. It included tips for job-seekers navigating the fair. One of them advised not to ask about salary or benefits. Is it just me, or does this seem really weird and even inappropriate? It’s a job. The whole point is to earn money. Do companies (at job fairs or otherwise) really expect job-seekers to pretend that the job-seekers are just prostrate with the desire to work for them to the point that compensation doesn’t matter?

This is one of the weirder fictions of job searching, but yeah, the general advice about this is not to ask about salary until you’re at the offer stage, or at least until you’ve had a serious expression of interest from the employer.

Is this dumb? Yes. Does it fly in the face of the reality of the situation, which is that most people work for money? Yes. But is it the convention that you probably want to play by? Yep.

In fact, most people will actually tell you never to raise money at all — to wait and see what kind of offer the employer makes you. I wouldn’t go that far; I think that if you have reason to fear that the salary won’t be in line with what the market’s paying (for instance, if you’re interviewing with a cash-strapped nonprofit or a notoriously stingy for-profit), it’s fine to ask about it once you’re invited in for an interview, saying something like, “Can you give me an idea of the salary range for this position so we can make sure we’re in the same ballpark?”  (Of course, if you do that, you need to be prepared for the typical you-first silliness that often accompanies salary talk — the awkward pauses and the coy “well, what are you looking for?”)

But not at a job fair. Because the reality is that if you’re asking about salary before an employer has expressed any serious interest in you, you’re fairly likely to make a negative impression. I can’t defend this. I can only tell you that that’s how this stuff works.

Now, that’s not to say that you should act like you’re “prostrate with the desire to work for them.” In fact, you definitely shouldn’t do that. You want to seem like someone with options and someone who’s evaluating whether or not the role and employer would be right for you, just as much as they’re evaluating whether you’d be right for them. And yes, obviously money is going to be a part of that — but not at this stage.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. AD*

    At a university job fair, you are not in a bargaining position. Not only has the employers not expressed interest in you, but if you are looking for entry-level work, you are largely interchangeable with everyone else in your graduating class. If you are, at this stage, thinking you will turn down anyone not offering enough money, you may have another think coming.

    Also…often the people manning booths at job fairs are NOT the people with whom you’ll eventually discuss salary. Many companies send last year’s hires to attract students, and it is not until later that you deal with actual managers or HR people.

    1. Ellen M.*


      Yes everyone wants to know how much the job pays, but asking about that right up front is like sitting down to dinner on a first date and saying, “So, when you propose to me, how much will you be spending on the ring?”

      1. Anonymous*

        Given the great lengths employers go to in order to make it plain that the whole relationship is only temporary, not really. A better parallel would be with ‘romantic’ dinner conversations where the money was negotiated beforehand.

    2. blu*

      +1 more…even if it is a recruiter at the job fair, chances are it’s not the one that has that job and they don’t know the range. In a given job fair we send 2 recruiters to represent 20. If, for example, we are looking for network engineers, the range will vary by the specific requirements of the job, location (we hire a lot of exiting military who are willing to relocate, contract etc. We are also seeing a ton of people with barely the time to find out what they are interested in and take a resume. This is not a good forum to discuss salary. A better bet is to follow up with the recruiter for jobs your interested in and ask about it then.

      1. khilde*

        I was going to make the same point as you two, but I see I’m a little late to the party!! I was just going to agree that often the person at the booth isn’t anyone in a position to know anything about the salary. My husband sometimes gets tapped to go and represent his employer at a job fair. He’s just an employee who happens to be in the personnel division, minus any hiring authority/knowledge. So maybe that employer’s statement was more a way to say “hey – the guy at the booth doesn’t know anything so to save everyone time, just don’t ask.” A little bold perhaps, but maybe not a malicious intent?

    3. Steve*

      What if you already have a job? I’m in a market where my skills are in high demand, even from recent graduates.

      I took an offer for a salaried, full-time position 8 months before graduation. Isn’t that a different situation from someone who’s looking for someone to hire them? In my industry, companies have to compete with each other to fill other positions, rather than the other way around.

      If I were to look for a new job, it would be for something that offered me better compensation (or more interesting work). Seems like things change when you supply a skill that’s in high demand.

      They can choose not to give me that information, but I can also choose to explore other options, such as staying with the job I already have.

  2. Chris V*

    The public sector lists jobs with salary ranges. They don’t appear to have the problems usually stated for why the private sector doesn’t follow the same practice.

    The fact that no one will discuss salary openly is one of my pet peeves with the private sector. I don’t see the need for this practice other than the desire of management to screw over employees from earning the full amount of their worth. Sure, I “play by the rules” when talking with managers by keeping my salary to myself. But when the managers aren’t around, I definitely talk with my coworkers about what I earn and what they earn.

    If this person wants to learn what people in the company make, then go talk to some workers either from the company or in the field.

    1. Julie*

      Chris, I feel the same way. Even if it is a company I love, I still have to eat and I just don’t understand why they don’t put out a range. And, I don’t understand why I can’t ask about it in the first interview – or even before the first interview. With my experience, I’m worth a lot more than what a company might want to pay, so why waste their time and mine if the salary they’re offering is $10,000 less than what I’m currently making? (Yes, I had this happen. One phone interview, then one face to face and they were offering less than what I was currently making.) A recruiter told me that they don’t post ranges because they don’t want to pay top dollar, but I’d settle for a minimum.

    2. Long Time Admin*

      I just watched “9 to 5” this weekend. In the movie, one young woman is fired for talking about her salary with a co-worker.

      This was in 1980.

      We haven’t come very far, have we?

  3. Ashley*

    This is sort of not in line with everything else…but not too long ago some coworkers were complaining how they all only get 12 an hour! I do the same job as them and I get 16. I am VERY open with my manager and I asked her if we all made the same amt for this entry level job. She said “you make a certain amount because you have an education. Some people make a certain amount because they’ve gotten raises over the years….” I had no clue they even cared. We work at a museum, basically as tour guides….where it’s just insane to me they pay so much more just for having a degree…when the job requires a HS diploma only, plus experience. Crazy

    1. XYZ*

      I once had a coworker who talked (more like complained) VERY openly about her salary. No one else ever chimed in when she started talking salary though. She and I held the same responsibilities and job title, but my salary was $10k more than hers even thought she had been working for several years more years. Honestly, I think the difference in salary was largely due to the fact that I had a 4-year college education, whereas she went to a 2-year community college. It is pretty crazy!

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