“What’s the best way to answer those frustrating salary questions that employers ask right up front these days?”

This is a great, great, great, great question.  Why?  Because frankly, we think a lack of understanding about this single, simple issue leads a lot of candidates (hopefully, though, not too many of our clients) to instantly “gong” themselves out of the interview process and miss out on quality opportunities.

The reason for this?  To put it bluntly, it’s because we’re arrogant enough to maintain that almost every book, article, and published resource that candidates turn to for advice on the “salary question” facet of interviewing is just dead wrong.  While many career counselors and professional negotiation experts still maintain that a job hunter should never name their number first, or give any kind of meaningful answer to this question up front, we believe this strategy almost always dooms a candidate to failure.  In today’s world, where the hiring process has sped up exponentially — and recruiters and HR types are just as busy as the rest of us — inquiring about a candidate’s salary needs up front is a legitimate area of discussion and a critical step that allows these “screeners” to do their job, which is to avoid wasting anybody’s time (including yours) with multiple interviews when the financial expectations of both sides aren’t a match.

For many years, we’ve felt like a lone voice in the wilderness on this topic, but we’ve stuck by our guns consistently — and been heartened as of late to see articles popping up that support our viewpoint, like the outstanding “Your HR Guy” blog entry you’ll find here.

So now that we’ve tried to talk you out of the “I’m not comfortable discussing salary up front — can we address this issue later?” response, you’re probably wondering what we DO recommend that candidates say when this question inevitably comes up.  It’s actually pretty straightforward.  Start by acknowledging that this is a legitimate question to discuss and then give the interviewer a broad ball park, possibly even as big as $20-30K in range, that encompasses what you consider to be the “going rate” for the type of job you’re interviewing for — after you make allowances for all of the different variables (e.g. benefits, commute, bonus, upside potential, etc.) that could potentially factor into the total compensation package and scope of the opportunity.  If you don’t know what this number should be, do some research around it immediately.  Knowing “what you’re worth” in today’s market is as much your responsibility as the employer’s, and without this data under your belt, you’ll be a competitive disadvantage.

Secondly, once you’ve thrown out your “ball park” figure with appropriate disclaimers, move on to stress that salary is just one ingredient in the overall mix of things that you’re looking for in your next position, and that you’d like to be considered flexible in this area.  If possible, too, for the sake of credibility, you might even disclose some of the specific variables that you consider highly attractive and important in a job opportunity, such as paid tuition reimbursement or a commute of less than 30 minutes.

Finally, after you’ve stated your range and closely monitored their reaction, it’s time to check back and see how similar your idea of “fair market value” is to their own.  Just ask them a simple feedback question such as “Is this range similar to what you had in mind?” or “Are we in the same ball park?” and see how they respond.  If you’re relatively close, the conversation should move on to more important issues, such as whether you’re actually the right fit for the job.  If you and the hiring manager are clearly NOT of like mind on the salary issue, however, you can address the discrepancy right then and there by either continuing to stress your flexibility, or in some cases, by withdrawing your candidacy with a statement such as: “Gosh, are you really finding qualified candidates able to complete this level of work for that pay range?  If so, I’d hire them myself!  It’s probably therefore best that we not move forward, unless you’re able to offer any further flexibility on your end with regard to this issue…”

Again, after this initial sniff test around salary, many nuances enter into the negotiating process that are far too complex and situation-specific to address in a simple newsletter article.  But in terms of handling the opening salvo, when the employer first inquires about your salary needs, you’ll find that the basic three-step approach above will maximize your odds of overcoming this first tricky issue — and will set you up in the best possible way to negotiate a great package down the road, when you receive the offer!