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: 250

Comment by Thomas Patrick Chuna on August 10, 2009 at 8:26am
Excellent article.

I think a key to remember in all this is mindset. the candidate has to be mentally and emotionally committed to following this advice under's easy for a candidate to think they are being honest and accommodating to the interviewer, when they give a number that may hurt them later.

Knowing when to shut up is just as important as knowing when to talk.
Comment by Jerry Albright on August 10, 2009 at 8:51am
While I agree with most of your post Mark - and thank you for bringing the topic up - let's be practical.

Thinking your candidate is going to deliver even the shortest "rehearsed" replies in the heat of battle is a little naive on our parts. I mean really - how many times have we all practiced the very specific word tracks only to find during the feedback/follow up that it "Just didn't go that way"? A few hundred? A thousand?

I've trimmed my entire salary tutorial down to something they can hopefully remember when under the gun for an answer to "What salary are you looking for?"

"This position sounds like a great match. I would love to consider your strongest offer."

If they can somehow gain the composure to get out that very short reply - without worrying about the underlying psychology - it's a win in my book!
Comment by Stephanie McDonald on August 10, 2009 at 11:22am
How 'bout just answering the question?!

I'm one of those 10% that won't pass a candidate to a manager without intimately understanding their requirements around salary, bonus, stock, relocation, past employment agreements, reason for looking, timeline, favorite color (ok, now I'm kidding, but the rest is true.) Isn't it every recruiters job to uncover this information? Why would I pass a candidate to a manager if I didn't understand their compensation requirements, only to have them be "perfect". Then the manager speaks with them and figures out that the delta between what we can offer (budget) and what the candidate can accept is too great and we've just wasted the time of two people (manager and candidate) both of whom shouldn't be wasting time.
Comment by Steve Brannon on August 10, 2009 at 11:29am
I agree with Jerry. My line for candidates is: "I would love to consider any offer you may have." The negotiation comes after the initial offer. The company knows your salary history. Keep it simple. Good article by Mark.
Comment by Tina M. on August 10, 2009 at 11:36am
There have been way too many times, too many interviews completed, too many discussions when I've come to the point of an offer and the candidate comes back with a $40K or so difference. What happened to the "I'm open to a fair offer"? Fair. Ha. It is so frustrating as a recruiter speaking to a candidate not knowing their salary expectations because I have been burned too many times by candidates with this simple information. We all know our budgets and what we need to earn to make a living. Everyone should have some sort of range in mind when looking for a new opportunity. Who would want to work for a company where you would make $50K less? First of all, you would be unhappy because of the pay, unmotivated, and most likely unchallenged. Hence, you would be looking for a job yet again because you failed to come up with a range and express it in the first place. I don't pass on candidates who are not willing to tell me what their range is, I simply tell them the range of what we are going to pay and if they are comfortable with that. This way, there are no surprises when an offer comes after weeks of discussion.
Comment by Todd Lempicke on August 10, 2009 at 11:37am
Excellent advice Mark. And you're right - there is a lot of bad advice out there. I saw one post from a so-called career professional that said to never admit what your salary was.

What has worked for us for many years is suggesting that candidates say something like "I am currently interviewing for positions in the range of X - Y, and am flexible. My main priority is finding the best overall fit". Then we suggest they followup with the question "Does my range match with your range?". If not, you still have an opportunity to back peddle if that is what you want to do.

The key word is flexible.
Comment by Jerry Albright on August 10, 2009 at 11:38am
I guess I should clarify. My viewpoint here is that of an agency recruiter. We are paid to negotiate salary. By the time a candidate and client are meeting each other I have made sure all parties have decided that salary was not longer an issue. Salary negotiations are very awkward for many. They are NOT awkward for us and it is a big part of what we do.

Let your clients USE your service. Handle the topic. They should (if anything) only need to either confirm current compensation or (if they must) ask if the salary has been covered with their recruiter.

P.S. Note to Steve. We agree on most stuff - buy might have a little "Y" in the path here. The offer is not the time to start negotiating. If a bunch of back-end haggling needs to go on then WE haven't done our job.

An offer should be a CONFIRMATION of everything that has ALREADY been discussed.

Comment by timk10 on August 10, 2009 at 11:41am
I guess I track this from a different direction. If all you are interested in is getting the job then this probably works. I tend to focus on whether the job is the right fit for me (when it I am the applicant) or the candidate (when I am the hiring person. )

Hence, I am willing to give a reasonable range in either case because I want a realistic expectation established. I have my range and if it is too high then I want the interview to end. Likewise, I won't low ball a candidate because someone is willing to pay them what their worth. In the end it will be what it is so let's get that out in the open.

When we quit playing games and enter into trusting, open and honest relationships is when we truly have a win-win.
Comment by Paula on August 10, 2009 at 11:46am
In the higher or more advanced levels of careers, the candidate should do some homework, just as er's do on market salaries--on what that type of job with that type of co will pay and be able to speak to that. is often inflated, but the data is out there for a candidate to know what the market rate is for a position. What could impact the salary is the other component(s) of the compensation packet-what, if anything will they pay for insurance? bonus opporutnities? parking? etc.

To balk at a direct question tells me you are not prepared, have not done your homework about the position in the marketplace and haven't a clue what is a market salary for it. Not a good move on the candidate's part. And changing careers is not a valid excuse.

Er's do market reesarch on what others are paying similar positions--so we know to make an offer based on what the market demands. For a candidate not to do the same is unprofessional. You don't go buying a car not knowing the Blue Book value or what other dealerships are asking? Same for a house-you look at recent sales for comp housees--do the same for jobs.

Don't beat around the bush. We all have parementers--for the candidate--what is the lowest they can accept? and for ER's what is the most we can pay?

Don't be afraid to tell the $'s. If both have done quality homework--you won't be off base.
Comment by Sondra Fuller on August 10, 2009 at 11:58am
I agree with Jerry. The client wants to be sure that he is in the ballpark + not to spend more than is necessary. The candidate wants to keep what s/he already has achieved, if possible maximize it and yet move on to what could be a great possibility. Your great candidates may well already be at the top of the scale where they presently are working.

The problems start when the client says, "we will go more for the right/best person" and the candidate, confident of his/her ability says, "I am sure that comp won't be a problem in the end.
However, sign-on bonuses and/or bonuses ease a lot of stress at this time as well. And, of course, the most telling part is how much ease of them want this to succeed.


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