When They Insist You Answer the Salary Question

Hi Leslie, I am talking to this company that I am very excited about, but I’m not quite sure how to answer this question. I told the company in my cover note that “I’m fine with market rate for the job” but they are insisting on me giving them a specific range of my salary expectation before the interview. What I care most about is getting the job, and the salary really isn’t important to me. Also, I don’t have a sense of what is a standard range for this kind of position, since it’s a little different than what I’ve done before. Any suggestions on how to address this would be very welcome!

There’s a lot of conflicting advice about salary negotiations and how to respond to requests like this.

Some people tell you to avoid salary conversations at all costs. But when someone sidesteps my questions as a recruiter, it makes me think they are being evasive, and no one wants to hire evasive people, so I can’t advise doing it. And, as you can see, this company isn’t buying that as an answer.

I always believe honesty is the best policy, though sometimes it has to be honesty with an explanation and a bit of a spin.

As you answer questions like this, start by putting on the hat of the hiring manager. Their concern is that if you’re looking for too little money, you might not be at the right level for them, and if you’re looking for too much money, that they won’t be able to afford you, or that you’d be unhappy if you accepted less for the job.

I think that the best salary expectation you can have is to be paid fairly according to the new company’s standards.

Keep in mind that most companies have a range they can pay for a job, and it could be a pretty big range. I’ve worked on jobs that were listed from $80K to $120K, for instance, which gives a lot of wiggle room. Because my job as recruiter is to find the very best possible person, the hire is usually close to the upper end of the range, while someone promoted from in-house might come in at the lower end of the range.

To get an idea of the salary ballpark for a particular job in your area, check out sites like www.salary.com. You can also go to monster.com or other job posting sites and search for jobs in your area in your field and see what they pay. Try searching for the company’s name, and you may even find that they’ve posted something with a salary in the past.

And ask around. A friend who works in that industry or a recruiter who places people in your field may have information that is more first-hand and local.

Then give your answer with honest information, but with your reasoning and spin.

If you suspect the new job pays less than you made at your last job, you could say: “My last salary was $xx, which was the company’s going rate for my level; however, money has always been low on my list of priorities, and I’d never turn down an interesting job with a great company like this because of salary.” A response like that gives them the information they have asked for, but it also lets them know money is not a motivator for you.

If you suspect the new job might pay more than you’ve made, you could say “My last company wasn’t known for their high salaries; I made $xx plus bonuses when targets were met. I just want to know that my salary is in line with what other people at my level in the company are making. If I didn’t trust a company to be fair, it wouldn’t be the right place for me.” That way, you’ve let them know that what you want is going to be relative to what their company usually pays, and the ball is in their court.

And if you think the salary level is probably comparable, just tell them what you made, and let them know that while you certainly won’t turn down more money, it’s not what motivates you, and that what you really care about is the content of the job and the kinds of people you’ll be working with.

Or you could stay very open, but without looking like you’re being evasive, by saying “I was making $xxK in my last job, but honestly, salary isn’t a big factor to me. I’m interviewing on one very interesting job that only pays $50K, but passed on another that paid $100K that I wouldn’t want to do for twice the money. I like having the freedom to accept a job I really like, without having to worry about how much it pays, and this job looks like it could be a great fit for me.”

When you’re talking with them in person, you can follow up any of these statements with “Can you tell me what your budgeted range is for this position?” Remember, it’s a conversation, and you’ve shared, and you can ask them to share, too. You can then ask them what kind of experience and skills would get the top end of their range.

Answers like these are informative and they show that you know what you want, and it’s not money. What you really don’t want to do is give an impression of desperation, or to have them feel that you’d take anything and that you’ll say anything to get the job. Even in tough times, employers want to hire the candidate who is making a thoughtful decision, because that person is much more likely to stick around.

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