Answering the Dreaded Salary Question

Posted September 13, 2012 by Marcy Twete in Life After Five

If everyone has an opinion, then every HR expert has 20, especially when it comes to the dreaded salary question. These days, you’re going to have to answer that question sooner rather than later. Hiring is expensive and time consuming, and gone are the days when they offer you the job, and then you talk salary. Many companies are now requiring you to list your salary requirements in cover letters and in online applications. If they don’t, you’ll likely get the question in your first phone interview. But no matter the time or place, they will ask. And here’s the bottom line – you have to answer at some point.

Susan Adams at Forbes wrote the article “How to Handle Salary Questions Before the Job Offer,” and while some of her advice is good, it also involves a lot of assumptions. Susan recommends, when asked about salary to use tactics like:

  • “Before you even get to a potential salary question from the hiring manager, there is often the challenge of the online application that requires you to put a number in the salary field. Wendleton recommends simply entering the numeral zero. Five O’Clock Club coaches have been recommending that technique for some time. “It works,” she says.”
  • “If the query comes through email, you can respond, “why don’t we discuss compensation questions when we talk in person?”
  • “When you do meet in person, or have a phone conversation, one response would be, “I’ve been making a competitive salary.”  Wendleton also recommends the following: “I’m truly interested in the job and I’m sure we can come to an agreement.”
  • “Another alternative: Turn the question back on your interviewer. Ask him if he can give you a sense of the range the job pays.”

All of these are good tactics, but here’s what I believe is missing. You only get to push back once….maybe twice. I recommend using all of Susan Adams’ tactics, but only one at a time.

  • If you’re asked about salary via email, use her tactic of postponing it until you’re in person. If they respond with the same question via email, my belief is you have to answer. One pushback is smart, two is borderline difficult.
  • If you’re asked about salary early on via phone, use her tactic of saying things like “competitive” and “interested,” but if they push back, you have to be ready to state a range.
  • When you’re in person and turn the question back on the interviewer, you have to be prepared that they will not answer you.

The bottom line is, you have to know your range. You can’t run around it for long. Know your floor, know what you want to make, and set your range somewhere around it. Here are a few other tips I’ve gathered from HR friends over the years:

  • The lower the salary, the smaller the range. If you want $45,000, you can’t say “Somewhere between $30,000 and $60,000. But if you want $150,000, you can give a range between $130,000-160,000.
  • Recruited candidates (those who were found by a headhunter or the company itself) have more wiggle room in negotiations. One HR expert I know says counteroffers are consistently 10-15%, but can be 20-25% if you’re a recruited candidate.
  • Take benefits into consideration. If there’s a 10% 401K match, that’s a huge difference. If there are paid medical benefits, another huge difference. Salary isn’t everything. Let them know you know that.

It’s an art, not a science, after all. There’s no one way to be successful when answering the dreaded, “What are your salary requirements” question.

About the Author

Marcy Twete

Marcy Twete is a career fundraiser turned corporate responsibility executive, a career and networking expert and the author of the book "You Know Everybody! A Career Girl’s Guide to Building a Network That Works."