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How To Handle Salary Questions In An Interview

Job interviews can be nerve wracking. One contributing factor is that candidates are often unprepared for or unsure of how to handle the ever-dreaded salary question. It’s anxiety-inducing not only because our livelihood is at stake, but also because it can feel so personal—like an assessment of our value as a person, versus that of our contribution, is being made.

The salary question is typically asked in one of two ways:

  • What is (was) your current (previous) salary?
  • What are your salary expectations?

The first question looks backwards at salary history and has been banned in several geographies since it perpetuates existing discriminatory wage gaps. Massachusetts became the first state to ban the salary history question in 2016. There are currently 17 state-wide bans and 17 local bans of the salary history question—and two bans against the ban (Michigan and Wisconsin). It’s worth doing a quick internet search to know if a ban on salary history questions exists in the state or city in which you are interviewing.

If the recruiter asks you the salary history question in a geography in which it’s legal to do so, take note that while they are technically operating within the law, they are using antiquated hiring practices. Do you want to work for an “old-school” organization stuck in the past or a progressive one that looks to the future? And if you are asked the salary history question in a geography where it is illegal, there should be alarm bells going off and red flags waving. What does this say about the organization’s leadership? Where else might they be cutting corners or breaking the law? How else might they be discriminating within their organization?

The second question, “What are your salary expectations?” is forward looking and more appropriate. Nonetheless, as a candidate—regardless of which question is asked—you want to do your best to not answer it without seeming evasive. The following strategies, used individually or in some combination, outline how you might accomplish this in a way that doesn’t compromise your candidacy.

Gently take the salary question off the table. Be tactful. Acknowledge that you understand why they are asking this question. Your immediate mutual goal is to determine if there’s a fit as it relates to the scope of responsibilities for the job. Talking salary so soon is putting the cart before the horse. In particular, you don’t want to unnecessarily anchor the recruiter in a number that is ill-informed or too low. One way to do this is to say something like, “I understand compensation is an important element and one of many factors to consider. I’m not concerned about us being able to reach an agreement, so I’d prefer to address this should we reach the offer stage.” This type of response also positions you as a reasonable person who is optimistic about being able to find a mutually agreeable solution and starts to build trust.

Shift the recruiter’s focus. If you are asked the salary history question—legally or not—your job is to shift their focus from the past or present to the future. After all, you’re not expected to accept yesterday’s stock price for a shares you sell tomorrow, so why should yesterday’s salary be relevant for a job you perform tomorrow? You might say something like, “My responsibilities in my current (or prior) job were smaller in scope than the job for which I’m interviewing, so I don’t think it provides a very good benchmark,” or “I prefer to focus on the value of the contribution I’d be making in the job for which I’m interviewing, which would be much more relevant.”

Turn the question around. If the recruiter has not already shared the compensation range with you, when asked about salary expectations, it’s perfectly legit to say, “I was just about to ask you the same thing! What is the range you are currently budgeting for this role?” The recruiter has this information and it’s in their interest to share it. This will give you useful information and by continuing the conversation, you will have signaled that the range is not egregiously off-base.

Confess ignorance. If pressed on salary expectations, the last thing you want is to appear evasive. It’s ok to say that you are still doing your homework to determine the market rate for the role for which you are interviewing. You might say, “I’ve just started my search and I’m still doing my due diligence on the compensation ranges for this type of job at the Director level, so I’m not able to give you an informed answer at this point.” You can then segue to asking them about the range they’ve budgeted.

Stay calm. This goes for any interview question, of course. Remember, this is a conversation and not an interrogation. The salary question is a box the recruiter wants to check. The next time you are asked this question, look at it as practice to help take some of the pressure off. After working with hundreds of clients, more than a few have come to me saying “Whoops! I told them what my salary is (was). I probably shouldn’t have done that.” While not ideal, it can be addressed later in the process and expectations can be reset (although it’s much preferable to not to have to do this).

To be sure, there are other ways to answer salary questions. Answering these questions is highly nuanced—it takes practice and finesse. This is just one of many interview challenges that can come up, but it’s one that, with practice, can be easily addressed and set to the side so that you can focus on the task at hand—making them want to hire you.

By Keashla Marengo
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