One of the common questions job seekers have is “What’s the best way to handle the salary question?”
When an employer asks in the application process or in the interview, what they’ve earned in the past and what they’re looking for, how should you answer? There is a lot of conflicting advice on this topic and varying opinions. I certainly have my opinions as well.
First, it helps to understand why the question is being asked, and what they are looking for. Then decide on an appropriate and effective response.
“They just want to low-ball me” A common misconception by job seekers is that an employer only wants to know so that they can make as low an offer as possible. While that may be the case in some instances, my experience in 25 years of recruiting is that is the remote exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of employers want new hires to feel good about their new job and feel like they’re being treated fairly. They are not trying to find out how cheaply they can hire someone, rather trying to get a sense of what the requirements would be and what would be a well received range. While they aren’t generally wanting to ‘buy’ someone with an overly generous offer, they want the new hire to feel like they are getting a fair deal.
Is it in the same ballpark? Making the effort to interview a candidate for a position is a time-consuming and expensive (value of time and possible travel costs) process for both an employer and the job seeker. Finding out at the offer stage that a particular candidate’s expectations of salary are well outside the possible range for the position is a huge waste all the way around. It’s important early in the process to find out if the two parties are close enough so that if all else goes well, there is a possibility of making it come together. Especially in today’s market, when people are pursuing jobs at every level, it’s not unusual to find that someone’s expectations are far beyond what the position can pay. It’s critical to get that issue addressed early on.
Is it realistic based on experience, market comparisons, and history? Similar to the ‘same ballpark’ question, it’s important for an employer to understand if your expectations make sense based on multiple other factors as well. Are you looking for a salary commensurate with your level of experience? How do your requirements compare in the marketplace and with other people at their company? Have you had a salary history that makes sense compared to what you’re seeking now? These are all legitimate concerns an employer has when evaluating candidates.
Know your numbers! Often, when people are asked for a salary that would be acceptable to them, they don’t know what they are really willing, or able to accept. Sometimes they give a number that’s too low, in the hopes that it might keep them progressing through the hiring process. When an offer comes that’s too low, it makes for a very awkward negotiation. Know your requirements. Know the minimum you can accept, know the range that the position is likely to pay, and know the realistic number you’d like to see. Knowing what your numbers are, you can give an amount that you can work with when an offer arrives.
Don’t get into a spitting match! People often hear advice like… never give them a number first, the first one to give a number loses. Unfortunately, people sometimes take that advice and set up an adversarial relationship with the interviewer. While it certainly does help to give a more educated answer when the employer gives a range for the position first, if they are not forthcoming with an answer, it’s important to know when to concede and be willing to give a number. Continuing to avoid giving an answer when they keep pressing will not prove to be a winning strategy.
Always give a range. Giving your salary expectations in context of a range allows you to explain what the different numbers may mean to you. Perhaps you may be willing to consider less initially if they are willing to commit to a review in six months after they get a better sense of the value you bring. Perhaps you are particularly interested in the position and willing to consider less than you might otherwise. A range is always a better strategy than only giving a specific number.
So what does it sound like? A hypothetical example of how to express your salary requirements might be…
I’m glad to consider any fair offer for the position. However, based on my experience and my understanding of the role, I believe an appropriate range would be between $52,000 and $60,000 per year. $52,000 would be the least I would be able to consider depending on the overall opportunity. However, my real objective is to land in a range of $56,000 or more.
When possible, the vast majority of companies want to make offers above the minimum amount a candidate is seeking. They want the person to feel like they were treated fairly. However, there are times when the salary grade for a role only pays up to a certain amount that may be at the bottom of a candidates range. The employer is not trying to low-ball the candidate, however, is restricted in what they can do based on the range for the role. The explanation above makes clear to an employer what the parameters and objectives are. They can make a decision based on a solid understanding of the expectations.
Taking the time to prepare, and doing the research to know your numbers will help you give much more effective answers when the salary question arises.
Harry Urschel has over 20 years experience as a technology recruiter in Minnesota. He currently operates as e-Executives, writes a blog for Job Seekers called The Wise Job Search, and can be found on Twitter as @eExecutives.