As many of my long-time readers know, I’ve blogged about how to answer salary questions more than a few times over the years — with some noteworthy examples being the articles you’ll find here, here, and here.  And yet, almost every time I come across articles where other career coaches and experts weigh in on this subject, I cringe, since my own views are almost always diametrically opposed to the advice I see so many other people dispensing on this topic.

What really set me off today (hence this rant) is a brand-new thread on the LinkedIn Answers page where a job seeker asked the LinkedIn community how best to handle salary information requests on an application form.  To date, four people have responded, two of them hiring managers and two of them career coaches.  You’ll find the full thread here and if I may, let me highlight a few excerpts from the discussion so far — and my own personal take on them.

Answer #1: There are plenty of sites that publish surveys across different industries and locations, so check these out to have a good idea of what you are really worth – too many people choose a figure that would give them the lifestyle they want regardless of whether it is reasonable. You can try simply not answering the question – if you are a good enough candidate it would be a foolish recruiter who eliminated you for that – generally my advice would be “answer what is asked” but this is an exception – because it is obvious that not answering is a sensible negotiation move, and no good company wants someone who isn’t able to take a bit of initiative and challenge things!”

My take: First of all, in many cases you CAN’T refuse to answer the question these days, since we live in the days of web application forms, not paper forms, and programmers figured out long ago how to prevent people from entering blank and non-numerical answers in response to these queries.  So I don’t think ignoring the question is an option anymore in most cases.  Am I wrong about this?  Secondly, do we really believe that most companies want to hire people who would utterly refuse to answer a direct question — or who have already decided to “challenge things” right up front, in the initial interview?  Personally, I’m not so sure about that.  In this market, I think anybody perceived to be a loose cannon in the “courtship” phase is going to have a tough time making it much farther along in the process…

Answer #2: “Either give a range covering your needs or state that you are sure their offer will be comparable to similar jobs and that you are confident in reaching an agreement should all else be right for you. Employers are wanting to make sure your expectations are not out of line or that you are not asking too much based on your experience so be conservative until you know they want you.”

My take: This was the best answer of the bunch and pretty similar to my own thinking on the matter.  I’m glad somebody is taking the time to actually try and explain the EMPLOYER’S point of view on this issue, since having an empathic understanding of the needs/agenda of your “customer” is always a great thing in any sales situation, including an interview.  So bravo, answerer #2!  Let’s move on to some other responses, though, since there’s little fun in agreeing…

Answer #3: The career coach who gave the next response on the thread instructed the job hunter to answer this question by saying “The salary is negotiable – but I would like to table it until an offer has been made. Are you offering me the job at this time?”

My take: Seriously?  You’re seriously telling them to say that?  Holy cow.  If somebody said something like that to me in an interview, seeking to lock horns and engage in a you-know-what contest around the matter, the party would be over.  Immediately.  I find it incredulous that somebody would advise a job seeker to try and deliberately embarrass or shame the person they’re hoping will ultimately offer them a job.  This should be universally recognized as an unwise move, especially in the “buyer’s market” we’re facing right now due to current economic conditions.  I mean, even if you think salary questions are impolite for employers to ask, right up front, you’re certainly not going to get very far by getting combative with them around the issue.  This is not a negotiation for a used car.  It’s an attempt to find common ground, build trust, and help generate a productive conversation that might actually result in you working with this other person, for many hours each day, in the not-too-distant future…

Answer #4: “I agree with the general input given here already.  Don’t give a specific answer.  If the range was posted in the job advertisement, you can answer that you have seen the anticipated hiring range and that you are confident that you would be a competitive candidate somewhere within that range.”

My take: This advice is relatively harmless, but when it comes right down to it, the “expert” (a career coach, no less) is still basically advising people to give a non-answer.  For starters, salary ranges are rarely posted in job advertisements anymore, outside of public sector positions, so the second half of the advice simply isn’t feasible in the vast majority of situations.  And while the opening thought of avoiding a “specific answer” might make sense if we’re talking about still giving the employer a reasonable range of some kind, that’s not really the sense I’m getting from the way this advice is phrased.  It seems that this coach is suggesting that job hunters shuck, jive, and be evasive on the issue — which I’ll contend, again, is a surefire way to try the employer’s patience and damage any rapport you’ve managed to build with the person across the desk thus far.

So at the end of the day, who knows?  Maybe it’s a Seattle thing and people in this part of the country just view compensation issues — and interviewing etiquette — differently than folks in other regions.  Or perhaps I’m a much poorer student of human nature than I originally thought.  But honestly, when I read these kinds of suggestions over and over again in books, and on Internet forums, I truly wonder if the people giving this kind of advice have coached any real live people lately on the “front lines” of the modern job market.  This advice seems like it’s coming from an ivory tower somewhere.  It doesn’t seem the slightest bit grounded in reality, where the balance of power in the interview is FAR from equal in most cases.  I mean, we all know the golden rule, right?  He (or she) who has the gold makes the rules?

So my advice, again, is to work with employers, not against them, when it comes to these kinds of questions.  If you want the hiring process to proceed, don’t dig in your heels or try to put the interviewer in their place with a contrived, sarcastic retort.  Seizing the moral high ground isn’t worth it, especially if you’re unemployed.  And treating hiring managers as dumb, disagreeable, or as “the enemy” is a silly and dangerous notion from the get-go.  When asked about salary, simply provide a fair and reasonable estimate of what you think the job in question is worth, based on your knowledge of prevailing wages in your field, with perhaps a $10-20K swing to account for some of the other variables (e.g. employee benefits, risk, travel, etc.) that can also come into play in terms of the overall compensation package.

At the end of the day, as stated in my previous blogs on the subject, a sincere attempt at “fair dealing” is usually going to net you the best results.  Most interviewers will appreciate your candor and you’ll also earn some brownie points for being willing to actually cough up the information they need to do their job effectively.  This will be even more the case if the other candidates in their queue have all read the LinkedIn thread above — and are chronically trying the interviewer’s patience with cheeky remarks and spectacular non-answers!