The salary question is a stressful one. But it doesn’t have to derail your job interview. With some thoughtful research, honest soul searching, and careful scripting, you can answer the question with poise every time. Follow these steps.
“What are your salary requirements?”
That question – or any of its many variations – initiates one of the trickiest, most consequential decisions you’ll have to make when communicating with a potential employer.
How should you respond?
With forethought, a well prepared answer, and a clear, confident tone, sure.
But what should you say?
That depends… on a number of factors.
If you write “salary negotiable” on the application, it might keep you in the running and buy you some time to figure out a more specific response. But employers are looking for candidates who understand the market, know themselves, and are confident placing a dollar figure on their professional worth. If you just keep dodging the question by saying it’s all negotiable, you look timid and unprepared for the actual negotiation.
At the same time, your answer need to vary from employer to employer. Here’s how to determine – and adjust – your response for each opportunity:
1: Know Your Market
You already know your bare minimum salary requirements. If you don’t, start there by itemizing living expenses, retirement savings plans, health care, educational costs, etc. You also know how much you’d like to earn. (Don’t we all?)
But set those numbers aside for the moment.
Now, consider the fact that neither your current finances nor your glamorous plans for the future are relevant to the employer. The organization is pricing a job and trying to find the best talent they can afford. Ideally, they’ve done that pricing by conducting appropriate compensation research. You can mimic that research. Unless you’re applying for a unique job for which there are very few comps, you should be able to access similar data. Look for similar job titles within your geographic area and similar industries on sites like glassdoor.com or LinkedIn Salary. This gives you a realistic idea of what the company is expecting to pay their top candidate.
2: Know Your Competition
How many applicants are vying for this position? How do you stack up against them? How long has the position been open? How urgently does the hiring manager need someone in the job?
While it can be difficult, even impossible, to know the answers to all of these questions, the more you can find out, the more leverage you’ll have when you’re asked about salary requirements. If it’s been a while since you’ve been job hunting, you’ll be happily surprised by how much information is available. Start by looking at similar positions in your market on LinkedIn. What kinds of professional experience, education, and certifications do people in these jobs have? How does your resume compare to theirs? Also, look at the job posting itself. How long has it been out there? You can also learn a lot by simply asking questions. When interviewing, it’s perfectly acceptable to ask how many candidates are interviewing. If you have friends or other acquaintances within the organization, ask them what they know about the field of applicants and anything else they can tell you about the open position.
3: Set Your Salary Range
You already know the minimum salary you could accept. Be sure that number falls within the range of salaries you’ve researched for this position. (If it doesn’t, you might be wasting your time applying for the job.) That bare minimum number is the floor of your range – but that doesn’t mean it’s a number you should share with a potential employer. Bump it up slightly to give yourself a cushion. Next, look at the highest ends of the salary ranges you’ve found in your compensation research. Based on everything you know about your own skills, the quality and quantity of other candidates, and your own salary history, choose the highest number you believe you could realistically expect the company to offer. If your high number is 15% – 25% more than your low number, you’ve probably come up with a pretty realistic range.
4: Know Yourself: How Much Do You Want This job?
Is this the one… the job of your dreams? If not, is it the ideal stepping stone to the career of your dreams? These -- and many other intangibles -- are important factors to consider when setting your salary range. If the job will deliver valuable -- but impossible to quantify -- benefits, you might be very happy accepting a lower salary. This is especially true for tough-to-find, tougher-to-land jobs with highly respected employers. When that's the case, go ahead: lower your salary requirements accordingly. The same rule applies in reverse: if there are some serious question marks associated with the position (e.g. long commute, shifting management, etc.), maybe you want to price yourself a little higher and be totally okay if you don’t get the offer.
5: Script YOURSELF
You’ve done all this work. Don’t undermine yourself by coming unglued when you’re actually asked the question. Answer with a smile and sense of optimism. Don’t sound defensive. Don’t come off as entitled. And don’t act surprised or offended by the question. Simply share your numbers in a calm, confident tone. The best way to do that is to practice ahead of time.
Keep in mind that, once you’ve put your range on the table, you’ll likely be asked about your salary history. Have that number ready – but be sure you’ve factored in the value of bonuses, commissions, stock options, everything. Just remember: if you get the offer, it will likely be contingent on some level of verification. Your new employer can ask you for old W-2’s or your permission to verify employment dates, job titles and compensation.
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