Answering the Dreaded Salary Question
“How much did you make at your last job, and what are you looking for now?” It’s a question that comes up sooner or later in nearly every job application and/or interview process, and one that can cause panic and confusion in many job-seekers’ minds. How should you answer such direct questions? Should you just reveal your actual salary history, or should you try ignoring that part of the question, leaving it blank on an application, or putting $1.00 in that space? Should you say a number that you are looking for and pray that you haven’t either guessed too high (pricing yourself out of the opportunity) or too low (leaving money on the table.) Or, should you try to dodge that part of the question also, saying things like: ““I need to know more about the position before I can answer that question …” “I’m more interested in the job responsibilities, and not worried so much about numbers at this point …” “Well, it depends on the total package …”
I recently attended a meeting of a large, well-known job-seekers group. The topic was how to answer that dreaded Salary Question. The advice given by the group’s leader focused on a philosophy that has been heard for years. Basically, he told the group to try to not answer the salary question at all, using any of several tactics (like the examples described above) designed to avoid revealing your prior salary or stating exactly what salary you are looking for. He framed it as an adversarial negotiating game, much like Poker, and actually said: “The first person who says a number loses.” While that philosophy may have value (many people have used it very successfully over the years) I feel it is rather “old school.” Times have changed, and in today’s candidate-flooded market, new approaches need to be considered.
At a recent HR Panel Discussion at that same job-seekers group, the panel – consisting of HR professionals from three Fortune 500 Companies – was asked how they reacted when encountering candidates who avoided the salary question, or simply refused to reveal their salary history and/or articulate their salary needs. The answer was unanimous: they all said: “next candidate!” In other words, if a candidate didn’t answer the salary question directly, they would immediately be eliminated from consideration at those companies. There were simply too many qualified applicants for every opening for them to want to deal with someone who couldn’t give them that basic information. Now, is that true of every company? Probably not … I would imagine that smaller companies would be less likely to react so quickly and harshly. If you are dealing directly with a smaller company’s owner or hiring manager, you might find a more forgiving attitude. But certainly this is a huge cause for concern among job-seekers.
1) Working with 3rd Party Recruiters:
3rd Party Recruiters represent the needs of the client companies who pay their fees … but they also represent their candidates and their needs. If there is a large disconnect between a person’s prior salary history and the range a company has defined for a particular job, it is usually a waste of everyone’s time to pursue that match. Sure, there are exceptions to this – for example, relocation to a place with a very different cost of living. However, I almost always ask every candidate I work with exactly what they made at their previous jobs, and what they need to “make a move” (if they are currently working) or what they are looking for going forward if they are not currently working. If a potential candidate dodges that salary history question or flat out refuses to reveal what their actual income was at their previous jobs, I would simply explain that I can not represent them and move on. Matching candidates to job opportunities is a very complex process — sometimes more of an art than a science. However, certain nuts and bolts information about a candidate (specific skills, years of experience, and yes, salary history) are critical to know at the beginning of that matching process. If someone doesn’t trust their recruiter with such basic information, there would be no basis for a working relationship. [Read “The Real Truth About Working with Recruiters” for more on how to best use recruiters.]
2) Working with HR Professionals or Company Recruiters:
If directly asked what your prior salary history was by a company representative – I say answer the question! Don’t ever lie or exaggerate. (The truth will always come back to bite you!) If the question is part of an online application, you sometimes have the choice of leaving those fields blank (or putting “$1.00,” saying “Negotiable,” etc.) That might work sometimes … but may also be a reason for whoever reviews your application to simply pass on you without ever telling you why. I know … you don’t want your history to “pigeon-hole” you into a low number that is below what you want or need. But there is a risk associated with either way of dealing with it. The bottom line is the same as the answer to #1 above: If there is a large disconnect between a person’s prior salary history and the range a company has defined for a particular job, it is usually a waste of everyone’s time to pursue that match. Sooner or later, you’ll have to reveal your salary history – it’s inevitable. If that information ends up being perceived as a red flag for the company, they’ll want to know up front … not after spending a lot of time with you on phone or inviting you in for face-to-face interviews.
3) “What salary are you looking for?”
This is probably the toughest question to deal with. Again, I say answer the question! However, give a range – a span anywhere between a $5 and 15K spread is typical – rather than a specific number. It always helps if you know the range that the company has defined for the job you are applying to. Whenever possible, try to get that information beforehand. Barring that, use your common sense, do some research, and try to guess the range based on industry knowledge. The bottom line is: you should know in your mind what number is at the bottom of your acceptable range – the number below which you wouldn’t even consider accepting a job. It’s what you need to pay your bills. The bottom of your stated range should never be below that number. It could be a bit higher, but should also jive with your salary history. (If you are currently working, that low number would logically be slightly higher than your current salary — but not so much higher that you seem greedy. Most potential new employers would expect you to prove yourself before they’ll just hand you a “raise” from day one!) Don’t assume that the lower number you give is the one they’ll focus on and offer you. Most companies will want to pay people somewhere in the middle of both your and their range, and won’t simply low-ball you if they truly want you. If your “middle” and their “middle” overlap, then you’ve hit their sweet spot!
Another strategy that works well when asked “What salary are you looking for?” is to turn the question around and say: “I’d be happy to answer that question … but before I do, can you give me an idea of the salary range that you have budgeted for this position?” Then just wait for an answer! If they won’t reveal that information first, then simply give your range and then immediately ask: “Does that range match what you had in mind for this position?” You will most likely get a good idea right then and there if you’ve hit that “sweet spot” or not.
Most companies also balk at hiring people at a salary that is significantly higher than their prior salary history suggests. I’m sure there will be heated disagreements on this one, and I’m also sure there are stories out there from people who have made huge jumps in salary that will seem to disprove this – but those are rare exceptions. This is the way most companies (especially the larger ones) behave – like it or not. Based on my many years of experience, and discussions I’ve had with many knowledgeable colleagues in both staffing and HR, I can state with great certainty that in a candidate-flooded market like the one we are in today, big jumps UP in salary are rare. Lateral moves or jumps DOWN are actually more common – but not so far down that you would be thought of as selling yourself short and be a risk for bolting to a better job when the economy picks up.
So, to summarize: I say do not avoid the salary questions. Answer them directly and with as much confidence as you can. You can’t escape from or expect to hide your own salary history. HR people and recruiters will have much more respect for you, and be more willing to engage with you, if you are simply honest with them. Just be prepared to discuss it intelligently, and armed with the best company and industry information you can. If there are extenuating circumstances that explain either why you’ve been underpaid in the past and now desire more, or conversely why you are now willing to take a cut in pay, be prepared to articulate those issues as well.