Question: “What is with employers these days?  They always want to know my salary needs right off the bat, before we’ve even had a chance to evaluate the potential fit.  How should I respond to these questions, since they always catch me off-guard and I don’t think I give a very coherent answer?”

Without question, the topic of money now tends to make an appearance earlier, and more often, in the typical hiring conversation, as companies try to avoid mismanaging expectations and to aggressively screen out “overpriced” individuals early on in the selection process.

As a result, candidates who are used to flirting a bit first before moving forward to first base are frequently caught unprepared by direct questions about salary — which not only can weaken their negotiating position significantly, down the road, but can also immediately disqualify them from opportunities if their answer doesn’t flow smoothly or jibe with the interviewer’s expectations.  In teaching clients to handle salary questions gracefully, therefore, we’ve come up with a simple three-step approach.  We call this response the R-F-P Model and believe that it will help you walk the perfect line between providing the interviewer with truthful, relevant information about your compensation needs — without locking you into a fixed position that you might regret later.

Here are the three elements of this model, which we’d encourage you to weave together and practice until you’ve developed a fluid 30-60 second response:

RANGE: Start your response by providing the employer with a broad salary range that represents your best “educated guess” about the value of your skills and qualifications in the current marketplace.  When providing this range, allude to the fact that you’ve compiled it based on a variety of sources, including recent interviews you’ve gone on for similar positions.  This will boost your credibility.

FLEXIBILITY: Once you’ve shared your ballpark range, open things up by assuring the interviewer that you have a certain amount of flexibility for the right position and are considering many additional factors other than salary in your search for the ideal opportunity.  If comfortable, list a few of the specific compensation variables that you value highly, other than base salary, to help the interviewer understand your needs and where you are coming from.

PROBE: Once you’ve finished sharing your range, and have stressed your flexibility, it’s time to check back and see how closely your numbers mesh with those of the hiring manager.  Ask whether your stated salary parameters are “in the same ballpark” with their own and whether they think your requirements are reasonable given current market conditions.  You’ll immediately get a sense of how close or far apart the two of you might be — and can then decide what appropriate next steps might be warranted.

All together, your response might sound something like:

Interviewer: “Before we get much farther along, can I ask how much money you’re looking for?”

Candidate: “Sure, that’s a fair question. And while I’ll obviously need to learn a bit more about the job in question before I can give you a definitive answer, I would share that I’ve been actively interviewing for similar roles that are coming in at around the $80,000 to $95,000 range.  This seems to be the going rate for marketing professionals with my background and credentials right now, based on what I’ve seen out there.  I would stress, however, that I’m not married to any particular number, and would certainly have some flexibility if the right opportunity were to come along.  For example, I’d place a premium on any position that didn’t require extensive travel — or on a company that offered strong retirement benefits such as a pension or matching 401(k) program.  Does this sound pretty reasonable, based on your own sense of the market and the range you have in mind for this position?”

Again, while we wouldn’t encourage you to memorize this script (or any other) in preparing for an upcoming interview, we do think that following the R-F-P outline will help you maximize your success in most normal situations when the salary question comes up.  It will provide just enough information for the employer to understand your approximate salary needs, without boxing you in or suggesting that you wouldn’t be willing to get creative, should other mitigating factors present themselves.

Above all, however, whether you follow this recommended format or not, the important thing is that you you DO think about this question early on in your job search — before you encounter it — and that you practice your answer until you have it down cold and feel confident that you can handle preemptive salary strikes by employers without batting an eye.  You won’t regret it!