How do you handle the dreaded salary question? Here is how.

In an interview you will be asked two questions about compensation. If you do not handle them correctly it will be the end of the interview process or cost you a lot of money.

The first question is about earnings history. “What are you earning or what did you earn in your most recent job”?The second question is about your required compensation. “What do you need “? “What are you looking for”?

I have seen lots of bad advice on LinkedIn and other sites about these questions. I will not review the bad advice but will cover the correct answers to both questions. The first question about earnings history must be answered honestly and accurately. Since it can easily be verified there is no point in trying to dodge the question so tell the truth. There are no circumstances that justify anything else.

The harder question that everybody frets over is what are you looking for? I have heard many suggestions for this one but based on my extensive experience preparing many hundreds of people for interviews and debriefing as many employers there is only one correct answer. One thing you never want to do is give a fixed number. Any number high or low will hurt you. Let’s look at what giving a number will do.

If the number is to high your interview process will end. The opportunity may have been so great that you might have considered it for less but in the beginning of the process it is too early to tell and the number you give assures you will never find out. Giving a number cost you the job. What if you decide to play it safe and give a low number? Suppose you say you would like 60K. If the employer was prepared to go to 65K you just lost 5K because like everybody else he wants to save money and if he thinks he can get you for 60K that is exactly what he will offer. Giving a low number cost you money and giving a high number cost you the job.

So if you can’t give a number what do you do? You give the following answer; my reason for being here is to evaluate the opportunity just as you are evaluating my fit for your organization. If the opportunity is everything I want and I satisfy all your needs I’m sure the money will not be an issue. In most cases that will be the end of it. Some interviewers may push you by saying something like, I know you are primarily interested in the opportunity but really, what are your salary expectations? In this case turn the question around on the interviewer with something like, You know my background, skills and experience as well as your needs and pay range; what compensation do you feel would be appropriate? They will not give you an answer because like you they know and have been trained that the first person who gives a number in a negotiation (that is what this is) loses. So far you are playing the game very well and winning but in rare cases you might get pushed even further. If the interviewer simply will not let it alone (maybe 10% of the time) give a range as a last resort. Do not do this earlier or unless you have no choice. Make the range 5% below your lowest acceptable and 15% above and always qualify this answer with “depending on the quality of the opportunity”.

You have actually given them nothing but you left them thinking they got an answer (win-win) and you have left yourself with plenty of wiggle room. That is exactly how this phase of the salary negotiations should end.

These guidelines apply any time you are asked the question including the application and if a posting ask you to include the information in your cover letter or on your resume. Just because they ask the question does not mean you are required to answer. If a paper or electronic application ask for a salary commitment write TBD or OPEN. If the electronic application will not process or submit without a numerical value use all zeros. Contrary to urban myth no candidate has ever been rejected because they would not give a firm commitment. Every employer knows that it is their responsibility to come up with a number and make a fair offer. They are simply attempting to get you to make their job easier and cut down the risk of embarrassment by getting a turn down.

This is some of the soundest advice I have given in 30 years of preparing candidates at all levels for interviews. It has NEVER backfired. Please trust and follow it to the letter. I would be happy to answer your questions on the subject.

Views: 232

Comment by Sean Harry on August 10, 2009 at 12:39pm
I'm passing this article along to ALL of my clients! Excellent and well thought out. Thank you Mark. Also, the comments are really helpful for job seekers.
Comment by Patricia on August 10, 2009 at 12:58pm
Great article Mark. Like you, I have seen a lot of bad advice on various websites regarding "The dreaded salary question".
Comment by Mark Warren on August 10, 2009 at 2:25pm
Stephanie
Can I assume that you will tell the candidate in the first interview exactly what the offer will be? Of course you wouldn't and you should not expect a candidate to tell you exactly what he will accept. Maybe if you share your range you can expect a general range from the candidate but that is it. Demanding more in early interviews is not appropriate. When forced into this situation all candidates walk away with unpleasant feelings about the interviewer.
Comment by Tony Crisci on August 10, 2009 at 2:50pm
It’s too bad that this question is viewed as dreaded. It is a necessary piece to getting the right fit. Having been on all three sides of this equation (agency, candidate and HR), my view on this is a little different. Like several others commented, it is better to just be up front from both sides. Forgive the length of my answer, but you struck a few chords with me.

1. “What if you decide to play it safe and give a low number? Suppose you say you would like 60K. If the employer was prepared to go to 65K you just lost 5K because like everybody else he wants to save money and if he thinks he can get you for 60K that is exactly what he will offer. Giving a low number cost you money and giving a high number cost you the job.” –
-I agree, don’t give a fixed number that is short-sighted, but don’t beat around the bush either, know your range.
2. “The first question about earnings history must be answered honestly and accurately. Since it can easily be verified there is no point in trying to dodge the question so tell the truth. There are no circumstances that justify anything else.”
- Both questions need to be answered honestly and accurately, to not tell the truth or dodge the question implies game playing. Telling the truth is important whether you can be verified or not. If you have a history of making 40K and the position I am offering pays 70K and you can prove to me that you are worth it, and that you can command that amount with your actual experience and knowledge, then I will pay you 70K.
3. “If the number is to high your interview process will end. The opportunity may have been so great that you might have considered it for less but in the beginning of the process it is too early to tell and the number you give assures you will never find out. Giving a number cost you the job.
-Guess what? If you like the job so much that you would consider it for less, then that is what you will get.
Do your research up front and know what the position will most likely pay. If the HR recruiter on the phone screen doesn’t address the money issue, ask them the range on the position, if they don’t give a direct answer, use the info you gathered earlier and tell them your range. Give an accurate range so that you don’t waste your time going in for an interview for a position that you can’t afford to take. If you’re number is too high for that company then you don’t want that job.
4. On the HR side, if a candidate comes in with a cheesy line and tells me “If the opportunity is everything I want and I satisfy all your needs I’m sure the money will not be an issue”, it better not be an issue at the end.
- If I am a recruiter asking for information, I don’t have the time or desire to dance with this issue. Answer directly with a range, as soon as we go back and forth on this, my thought isn’t “oh wow I have a big one on the line,” I’m usually thinking “drop this one now like a hot potato because they are already starting to be a PITA and they haven’t even had an interview yet.” What are they going to be like when they are on the inside? Usually I am going to be up front on the phone, and let you know the range. I don’t have time to waste, and definitely don’t want to waste my hiring manager’s time. All the pieces need to fit, and this is a big piece. If the range that I gave you up front doesn’t work for you, move on. If you come back and try to counter at the end of the process then you lose, hit the bricks pal, because in this market I will find someone else who is hungry and wants to work within the pre-disclosed range and you just wasted my time.
5. From a candidate and TPR point of view without getting the range up front (as a TPR if you don’t know the range up front to educate your candidate how did you even take the req?), give a range and make sure that the range works for you. I could live with X but feel that I am worth Y, any internal recruiter or HR department should be able to read between the lines on this one and know that if they offer X they aren’t keeping you for long, and they should come in closer to Y.
6. “Contrary to urban myth no candidate has ever been rejected because they would not give a firm commitment.”
- As a HR recruiter if you don’t fill out the salary info or put in TBA, open etc. this is a great way to not get a call in the first place, you won’t make it from applicant to candidate as you go to the bottom of the pile as there are others out there who have done their research, or at least have enough grit to know what they want and take a stand. If I don’t have enough quality candidates in the mix I will get to you. If you put your amount in and it is within or just barely over my range, you will get a call. Don’t play games. If you came from a TPR and don’t know my range that is even worse. You need to put the top dollar from that range and sell me on why I need to pay you at the top, you get more respect that way.
7. “Every employer knows that it is their responsibility to come up with a number and make a fair offer. They are simply attempting to get you to make their job easier and cut down the risk of embarrassment by getting a turn down.”
- Of course companies need to make a fair offer, and you are darn skippy that we are trying to cut down the amount of turndowns because they represent a boatload of wasted time for the HM and everyone else involved. This has nothing to do with embarrassment.

This is true for all three sides of this equation (TPR, HR Recruiter, and candidate)… In the end the recruiting process should be about honest communication. If you are playing games and negotiating like a car salesman this will increase the amount of buyer’s remorse as one side or each side can feel that they got the short end of the stick.
Comment by Paula on August 10, 2009 at 3:05pm
Well said Tony
Comment by Peter Ceccarelli on August 10, 2009 at 3:42pm
I'm in Stephanie's camp. I won't move forward in the process unless I'm firmly aware of the candidates exact current salary. What's the point! And when I get lame answers like "commensurate for position, or your best offer", that isn't an answer!

There are a ton of salary guides on the internet that can easily be adjusted for your local market. So the candidate should know if they are low or in line or high in the market range. The other angle to address is the candidate who is currently making $70K, but then tells me they won't accept an offer for less than $85K, when in fact I'm NOT going to give them a 21% increase over their last position nor is any other company, if they are already within a reasonable hiring range. I believe that is more of an issue than answering the salary question. If someone happens to be low in the market range due to a variety of circumstances I can then see that request as somewhat reasonable. But that doesn't happen too often. There are a lot of candidates out there who think they can get the big bucks when in reality most of us are generally getting 2%-6% annual merit increases unless it's a big promotion to a bigger job. I do point that out to candidates when dealing with this issue and that generally stops the argument of who's going to win and who's going to lose. And is someone is low in the market range I will certainly see to it that we offer them our competitive range in order to avoid compression and equity issues down the road once we've hired them. How many of you actually do that?

Great topic.
Comment by Jerry Albright on August 10, 2009 at 3:50pm
I think we've got 2 different views here. Internal recruiter/external recruiter. We can all agree that if WE don't know the salary of the candidate (regardless of what type recruiter you are) then they should not be moved forward. As I read the original post I thought it was advice given from an agency recruiter to the candidate heading in to the interview. At that stage all the preliminary $$ talk has (satisfactorily) taken place.
Comment by Mark Warren on August 10, 2009 at 4:01pm
Peter
We are not discussing the candidates "current salary". I think everybody agrees that candidates,, recruiters and all envolved should openly devulge the candidates actual salary and salary history. i always instruct my candidates to honestly answer the current salary question and if as a recruiter I present the candidate I give his salary. We are discussing that a candidate for all the reasons given in my article should not commit to the exact amount they will accept. Since when are offers made by the candidate? If you are in Stephanie's camp I as you the same question. If you expect the candidate to tell exactly what he willl accept will you tell him exactlly what you will offer at the same stage in the interview process?
Comment by Tony Crisci on August 10, 2009 at 4:37pm
Jerry - I read it the same way (agency perspective) except my issue is that those answers for the money question were used a long time ago as a starting point for positioning purposes when no money had been discussed between employer and candidate at all yet. Otherwise why would a candidate play coy or be worried about being out of the range if the preliminary $$ talk has taken place? (Internal recruiter/external recruiter should be a similar concept.) On the agency side I always gave candidates a range. That way if the question comes up in the interview for some reason, the candidate can reply with the appropriate range and it will be a confirmation to make sure that all are on the same page. Your post earlier was right on when you said to let the client use your service and to let you handle that conversation.
Comment by Tony Crisci on August 10, 2009 at 5:04pm
Mark- I’m not sure if you consider me in Stephanie’s camp or not, but to answer your question, yes. I have been brutally honest on the first phone call about what is available in the budget and we were looking to pay without making an actual offer. In fact you can ask any of the recruiters who have worked for me, I always told them exactly what my budget was for the recruiter position that they were interviewing with me for was. I had another situation for a VP position where I knew that our budget could only go up to 225K but I had the “most qualified” and probably best suited person for the position who was making over 340K. I told him 225K was the most we could pay if he was selected for the position and he didn’t want to move for less than 285K so we both agreed that this position would not be the best “fit”. We ended up finding someone shortly afterward who was just as qualified and was in the right price range that ended up being a better fit. I have many other situations like that where I have handled this part up front so as not to waste peoples’ time and money with travel and interviews only to end up nowhere starting over. I find that from the recruiting side it works much better to be up front.

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