How to handle “The Salary Question”

At some point during the interview process, the recruiter will ask either “What’s your current salary?” or “What are your salary requirements?”  There’s no great way to answer this question.  Honesty is the best policy, but there are shades of grey, especially if asked the latter.

As I posted earlier, the salary may not be negotiable for recent grads, making it even harder to answer.  If your number is too high, you may be out of the running for financial reasons.  If it’s too low, you may appear under-qualified.  That means you have a one-third shot at getting it right, and those aren’t good odds.

So how do you handle it?

1.  Always do your research. Before you get to the salary question, you should have a good idea of what the position pays.  Learn about the company, learn about the industry, and learn about the job.  Go online and research similar job postings to see what they pay (if disclosed).  It may take a few hours to complete the picture, but it’s time well spent.  Factor in experience, geography, market forces, and the age of the data.  Also, in tougher economic climates like today’s, remember that the data is for people who actually do get jobs. A small but key distinction.  (In general, I’ve found average salary data to be around 10% to 20% high, possibly because people don’t report that information if they think it’s lower than average.)

Arming yourself with information is one of the most important things you can do during the job search.  When the recruiter asks, you can respond with “Positions similar to this seem to range from $40,000 to $50,000, which is within my expected range.”  Or if you can’t find any relevant data (which is rare), you can always ask.  “I spent a few hours researching but couldn’t find any data on positions like this.  How does your company compensate this position relative to the industry?”  Keep in mind that recruiters and their bosses do a lot more research than you, so they’ll see through your bluster if you try to wing it.

2.  Remain positive and interested. Once you indicate concern or displeasure with any part of a job, you’ll be flagged (literally or otherwise) as a flight risk.  As you wouldn’t say “I really don’t like driving, but I’d make the long commute for this position,” so shouldn’t you say “That’s not the salary number I was hoping for, but I’m really interested in working here.”  Especially now, with the glut of available, active candidates, companies won’t take the risk that you’ll jump ship to a higher bidder six months hence.  So even if the salary is $10,000 less than you think you’re worth, keep it to yourself.  If you do decide it’s too small, you can politely back out of the interview process.  If you can make it work, you don’t want the employer to worry about your satisfaction with the arrangement.

3.  Avoid details. Though it may be true, don’t say things like “Well, I need $2,500 a month for bills, so I guess that means I need at least $30,000 a year.”  First of all, that’s bad planning.  Second, recruiters don’t need to know your salary floor.  Likewise, don’t say you won’t take anything lower than a particular number.  Don’t talk in absolutes–you’ll appear rigid, uncompromising, and unwilling to consider broader goals and benefits.  Instead, use ranges.  And define your expectations in terms of the market, rather than your personal requirements.  It’s better for a recruiter to think they’re mis-aligned with the industry, rather than disappointing you personally.

4.  Strike first. Don’t wait for the recruiter to ask you–ask him instead.  But you can’t do it right away or you look like a money-grubber.  Ask about the interview process in the first interview.  If it’s 5 interviews, you know the first two or three won’t involve the money discussion.  If it’s only two, you know it’ll come up during the second meeting.  Once you know when to expect the salary question, you can preempt it by asking first.

Say the interview process is 2 rounds.  You can guess that Round 2 will involve the salary question.  At the beginning of every round (save Round 1), the interviewer will usually give you a chance for questions that came up since the last interview.  That’s your chance.  “I’ve been excited about this opportunity, so I did some research on a career in this area.  Is it safe to say the industry salary average for  this position is between $40,000 and $50,000?  How do you compare?”  Now the ball is in the recruiter’s court, and they’ll assume you’re okay with $40,000 – $50,000 or else you wouldn’t have brought it up.  They’ll either tell you what the starting salary looks like, or they’ll ask you if you’re okay with that range (you would respond with a Yes).  Either way, you’ve learned what they’ll pay, and came out looking good.

The salary question is touchy for most people.  If I can, I like to get it out of the way early, though most recruiters save it for nearer the end of the process.  Though I feel it becomes the elephant in the room if you wait too long.  Hopefully some of these tips will help.


One response to “How to handle “The Salary Question”

  1. Pingback: Salary may not be negotiable for recent grads | Get a Leg Up

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