Handling Salary Questions: Am I Nuts?

As many of my long-time readers know, I’ve blogged about how to answer salary questions more than a few times over the years — with some noteworthy examples being the articles you’ll find here, here, and here.  And yet, almost every time I come across articles where other career coaches and experts weigh in on this subject, I cringe, since my own views are almost always diametrically opposed to the advice I see so many other people dispensing on this topic.

What really set me off today (hence this rant) is a brand-new thread on the LinkedIn Answers page where a job seeker asked the LinkedIn community how best to handle salary information requests on an application form.  To date, four people have responded, two of them hiring managers and two of them career coaches.  You’ll find the full thread here and if I may, let me highlight a few excerpts from the discussion so far — and my own personal take on them.

Answer #1: There are plenty of sites that publish surveys across different industries and locations, so check these out to have a good idea of what you are really worth – too many people choose a figure that would give them the lifestyle they want regardless of whether it is reasonable. You can try simply not answering the question – if you are a good enough candidate it would be a foolish recruiter who eliminated you for that – generally my advice would be “answer what is asked” but this is an exception – because it is obvious that not answering is a sensible negotiation move, and no good company wants someone who isn’t able to take a bit of initiative and challenge things!”

My take: First of all, in many cases you CAN’T refuse to answer the question these days, since we live in the days of web application forms, not paper forms, and programmers figured out long ago how to prevent people from entering blank and non-numerical answers in response to these queries.  So I don’t think ignoring the question is an option anymore in most cases.  Am I wrong about this?  Secondly, do we really believe that most companies want to hire people who would utterly refuse to answer a direct question — or who have already decided to “challenge things” right up front, in the initial interview?  Personally, I’m not so sure about that.  In this market, I think anybody perceived to be a loose cannon in the “courtship” phase is going to have a tough time making it much farther along in the process…

Answer #2: “Either give a range covering your needs or state that you are sure their offer will be comparable to similar jobs and that you are confident in reaching an agreement should all else be right for you. Employers are wanting to make sure your expectations are not out of line or that you are not asking too much based on your experience so be conservative until you know they want you.”

My take: This was the best answer of the bunch and pretty similar to my own thinking on the matter.  I’m glad somebody is taking the time to actually try and explain the EMPLOYER’S point of view on this issue, since having an empathic understanding of the needs/agenda of your “customer” is always a great thing in any sales situation, including an interview.  So bravo, answerer #2!  Let’s move on to some other responses, though, since there’s little fun in agreeing…

Answer #3: The career coach who gave the next response on the thread instructed the job hunter to answer this question by saying “The salary is negotiable – but I would like to table it until an offer has been made. Are you offering me the job at this time?”

My take: Seriously?  You’re seriously telling them to say that?  Holy cow.  If somebody said something like that to me in an interview, seeking to lock horns and engage in a you-know-what contest around the matter, the party would be over.  Immediately.  I find it incredulous that somebody would advise a job seeker to try and deliberately embarrass or shame the person they’re hoping will ultimately offer them a job.  This should be universally recognized as an unwise move, especially in the “buyer’s market” we’re facing right now due to current economic conditions.  I mean, even if you think salary questions are impolite for employers to ask, right up front, you’re certainly not going to get very far by getting combative with them around the issue.  This is not a negotiation for a used car.  It’s an attempt to find common ground, build trust, and help generate a productive conversation that might actually result in you working with this other person, for many hours each day, in the not-too-distant future…

Answer #4: “I agree with the general input given here already.  Don’t give a specific answer.  If the range was posted in the job advertisement, you can answer that you have seen the anticipated hiring range and that you are confident that you would be a competitive candidate somewhere within that range.”

My take: This advice is relatively harmless, but when it comes right down to it, the “expert” (a career coach, no less) is still basically advising people to give a non-answer.  For starters, salary ranges are rarely posted in job advertisements anymore, outside of public sector positions, so the second half of the advice simply isn’t feasible in the vast majority of situations.  And while the opening thought of avoiding a “specific answer” might make sense if we’re talking about still giving the employer a reasonable range of some kind, that’s not really the sense I’m getting from the way this advice is phrased.  It seems that this coach is suggesting that job hunters shuck, jive, and be evasive on the issue — which I’ll contend, again, is a surefire way to try the employer’s patience and damage any rapport you’ve managed to build with the person across the desk thus far.

So at the end of the day, who knows?  Maybe it’s a Seattle thing and people in this part of the country just view compensation issues — and interviewing etiquette — differently than folks in other regions.  Or perhaps I’m a much poorer student of human nature than I originally thought.  But honestly, when I read these kinds of suggestions over and over again in books, and on Internet forums, I truly wonder if the people giving this kind of advice have coached any real live people lately on the “front lines” of the modern job market.  This advice seems like it’s coming from an ivory tower somewhere.  It doesn’t seem the slightest bit grounded in reality, where the balance of power in the interview is FAR from equal in most cases.  I mean, we all know the golden rule, right?  He (or she) who has the gold makes the rules?

So my advice, again, is to work with employers, not against them, when it comes to these kinds of questions.  If you want the hiring process to proceed, don’t dig in your heels or try to put the interviewer in their place with a contrived, sarcastic retort.  Seizing the moral high ground isn’t worth it, especially if you’re unemployed.  And treating hiring managers as dumb, disagreeable, or as “the enemy” is a silly and dangerous notion from the get-go.  When asked about salary, simply provide a fair and reasonable estimate of what you think the job in question is worth, based on your knowledge of prevailing wages in your field, with perhaps a $10-20K swing to account for some of the other variables (e.g. employee benefits, risk, travel, etc.) that can also come into play in terms of the overall compensation package.

At the end of the day, as stated in my previous blogs on the subject, a sincere attempt at “fair dealing” is usually going to net you the best results.  Most interviewers will appreciate your candor and you’ll also earn some brownie points for being willing to actually cough up the information they need to do their job effectively.  This will be even more the case if the other candidates in their queue have all read the LinkedIn thread above — and are chronically trying the interviewer’s patience with cheeky remarks and spectacular non-answers!


7 Responses to “Handling Salary Questions: Am I Nuts?”

  1. Salary discussions need not be as complicated as described in this post. I NEVER indicate my previous salaries in an employment application and I’m rarely questioned about it. When I’m asked about my salary requirements, I simply state: “I’m sure you have a range for this position, would you mind sharing it with me?”
    75% of the time I’m provided with a range and if it’s acceptable, I’ll indicate so. If not, I will provide them with a range.
    If they will not share the salary range and again ask me the same question, I’ll respond: ” I’m considering positions between $xxxxx.00 and $xxxxx.00.” I use a very broad range with the maximum = 150% of the minimum.
    Of course, in this economy many applicants have compromised on salary and I can’t blame them one bit.
    Just don’t come off desperate

  2. There seems to be a consensus about the research portion of the answer regarding salary questions. I recommend checking http://www.payscale.com. They are free and provide as much information as I’ve seen on any site. Sometimes they have outliers that need to be removed before using their info. Then I suggest that the negotiations be approached much the same as one might approach negotiations for a car, only in this case, the the job seeker is the salesperson and the company is the buyer. The answer provided to HR before any offers or interviews is simply the sticker price. Not answering the question about salary requirements is like walking into a dealership and finding that there aren’t any prices on the cars. Real negotiations occur after the company makes an offer, just the same as when you buy a car. The sticker says $30,000 and you offer $25,000, then the sales manager says $28,000…etc. If the range you gave is 60 to 80 and they offer 50, then simply state, that it the job is worth 70. If they don’t negotiate and you have done your homework, you are learning something about the company and you need to think very long and very hard before proceeding. They may have good justification and the opportunity may be worth your investing, but make sure you know that first. If you are proceeding, at the very least have your eyes wide open. Know as much as possible first.

  3. Matt,

    You bring up some good points. Re: the answers you reviewed above, here is my take based on my perspective as a recruiter:

    Answer #1: Not a good approach. Avoid this answer.
    Answer #2: This is a decent answer and the best of the 4, but you can do better (see below)
    Answer #3: Complete failure.
    Answer #4: See #1

    My advice to candidates:

    #1. Do your research and find out what the market rate is in your area for a similar position. Recruiters are wonderful resources for this type of data. They can tell you what the approx median and typical range is for your particular functional role and level and whether your desired comp is below, on par, or above market. Sample from several recruiters to get a representative data set.

    There are also websites that provide this info but you typically have to pay and I don’t think you should have to pay for this info if it is available for free through recruiters as well as your associates. At least the good recruiters will/should share this info with you. Finally, talk with other folks in your line of work and ask them. It baffles me that people do not share compensation data. It is in candidates’ best interests to do so and in the best interest of employers that you keep comp data private. The more info you have the better prepared you are to go to market on a job search and maximize your earnings.

    #2. Once you determine what the market range is for the type of position(s) you are applying for, determine where your desired comp falls on the spectrum. If your comp requirement is below, obviously you have room to go up. Use your job search to upgrade your comp accordingly. If you are on par, you have validated your worth in the market and are likely in the sweet spot for the employer. This makes you a good/desirable candidate from a comp standpoint and puts you on solid footing when it comes to negotiating your offer. If you are above market, you need to be prepared to justify this with some type of specialized subject-matter expertise, unique skill, deep network, executive communication, amazing looks (just kidding), etc. Some employers are willing to pay above market (especially for high-demand positions such as web developers), but they want to know what they are getting for the premium.

    There are many variables that go into decision making re: comp packages and job offers besides base salary (bonus, benefits, corp culture, mission, location, career growth, etc). For the purposes of this exercise, you should have a good idea of what your desired total cash comp (gross W2) will be when you go out to market on a job search. As long as you have this figure, you can always work out the details on how you get there from a base, bonus, and equity standpoint during negotiations.

    #3. This is the most difficult part. Be resolute in your comp requirements. When you are armed with the going market rate for your area of expertise/functional role, you will be emboldened to hold your ground as well as prepared to make the best informed decisions re: compensation and minimize selling yourself short by taking a job at below market. Most employers are willing and happy to pay market rate for good candidates. Organizations that want Nordstrom quality at Walmart prices are organizations that should be avoided, in my opinion. If they have this mentality about paying their employees, do you really want to work there?

    Know the difference between what you are currently making and your compensation requirement. These are two separate things. The latter is what you will require to make a move from your current job and/or what you would consider compelling to accept an offer. The former is irrelevant when it comes to discussing your compensation vis-a-vis a job offer, in my opinion. Every candidates’ circumstances are unique and different. Some candidates choose to take a paycut in order to work for a great company, gain new skills, take a risk with a startup, etc. When it comes to discussing possibly accepting an offer, it should not matter what you are currently making as much as what your current market value is and what YOU believe would be compelling to make a move.

    Recruiters and employers respect candidates that know what they are worth. This supports our assumption that good candidates are highly employable and can justify their comp requirements. If you are wishy washy about your comp, it makes me wonder if you are actually qualified to do the job, are desperate, or wanting to make a move for the wrong reasons.

    Know what you are worth and stick to your comp requirement. Assuming you are on par with the market rate and offer comparable skills and experience for the job, employers will be willing to meet your requirement. You’ll be happier when you do come across an organization that recognizes your value and is willing to pay it.

    #4. How to answer the question about compensation/salary. When you are asked what your comp requirement is, simply answer “My comp requirement is a minimum of $XXX to $XXX total cash.” This is the figure/range you know would be compelling enough for you to make a job switch and be happy walking through the front door on the first day. This answer leaves room for some flexibility, yet establishes a floor that you are not willing to go below.

    If you are asked what you are currently making, my advice is to answer as if you were asked what your comp requirement would be. If they insist on knowing, state that it is not relevant because your comp requirement is the amount you need to make it compelling to make a move and anything less doesn’t make sense for you to consider. Most recruiters and hiring managers will respect this. If they do not, then I would again question if I would want to work for such an organization.

    It is not appropriate or polite to simply ignore the comp question. Many recruiters and hiring managers want to make sure both sides are starting off on the same page from a comp standpoint in order to not waste each others’ time. I hope this helps and can provide a win-win scenario for everyone involved. Long-winded, but I feel important to get out there. It is a shame to see candidates sell themselves short on comp. The dynamic between candidate and employer makes it difficult to negotiate offers, which is why I believe it is in the candidate’s and employers best interest to have a third party (e.g., recruiter) as an intermediary. I think this is where we add most of our value along the value chain of recruiting. But that is best left for another discussion.


  4. Rebecca: Thanks for your comment — and yes, cases like the one you cited above regarding your friend are what confuse people about how to handle salary questions and whether or not they should disclose a number of any kind, right out of the gate. But here’s the point. It’s pretty clear that the company in question was going to lowball the offer regardless and if your friend truly wouldn’t be interested in working for a job at 40% less than what he/she feels is fair for the position, why wouldn’t they want to know that, up front, to avoid wasting three more hours of time — or holding out hope for a job that won’t even come close to their minimal financial needs? So again, I think the “give a reasonable range” strategy is the right thing to do, even in this case, and if the recruiter is dumb/evil/sadistic enough to STILL interview somebody three more times — then offer them a number that’s ludicrously lower than what the candidate (your friend) said they were looking for — shame on them. That’s borderline exploitation, in my book, and I likely wouldn’t want to work for them if their hiring process is any reflection of how the company does business…

  5. Rebecca Schwartz February 16, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Matt – totally agree with your strategy, having used it successfully in the last couple of interviews. I would say something like: “Based on my research, I would expect that a job like this would be paying [wide range], and depending on the total compensation including benefits, I would expect to be in the [lower/upper/middle] part of that range.”

    BUT – I have a friend who recently gave his number to the recruiter during the screening and subsequently went through three rounds of interviews, and then they offered him the job at 40% less than what he said he needed.

    I mean, if they were within even 20% he might have tried to re-set his or their expectations, but it wasn’t even close!


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