Salary: The Toughest Interview Question

“What salary are you looking for?” Career advisors say this is the interview question that makes job applicants squirm in their chairs.

Small wonder. Most of us aren’t comfortable talking about incomes. We have been taught it’s not polite to ask people how much they paid for something or how much money they make. But in a job interview, it can be a make or break question. You need to cut the best deal you can without sounding too greedy or pricing yourself out of the market. So what do you say?

Career advisors suggest that you try to get the interviewer to give you an idea of the salary range the company would consider before you commit yourself. Having tried this myself, I’m not sure I agree. The problem is that it’s in the company’s interest to get you as cheaply as possible, so if you are given a range, it’s likely to be on the low side. Unless companies are in a bidding war over your unique credentials, the interviewer will not worry about setting a range too low to interest you. After all, if you find the salary unattractive, you’ll be expected to make the case for a higher one, and if the company can’t agree to your salary demands there are other qualified applicants who might come in lower. The need to ask for more than has been offered puts you on the defensive, a position that leaves many job- seekers uncomfortable. If you are one of those, then state your own salary expectations before you ask for the company’s range.

Career advisors also suggest that you plan in advance how you’ll answer the salary question and rehearse it a few times with a friend. This is good advice. You’ll feel much more at ease in the real interview if you have answering questions that might come up. Even so, expect surprises. Sometimes the interviewer can throw you for a loop, introducing some unanticipated factors more or less benefits than you expected, unusual work hours, or whatever that leave you fumbling as to how to respond.

You can’t be prepared for everything, but you can be ready for most eventualities. The steps to getting prepared are pretty obvious. You have probably have thought of all of them. Still, I find it’s helpful to put all my salary considerations down on paper and then review them before going into an interview.

First, how much do you want to earn? Realistically, how much do you think someone with your skills and experience should be able to command? People with several years of experience in a field have a pretty accurate sense of what the market will bear. But if you’re new to a field it’s a bit more difficult. Do some research. Talk with knowledgeable people, check with an employment recruiter, search the job information that’s so plentiful on the Internet. And remember that salary is only one part of the compensation package. An employer may offer other benefits that reduce your salary requirements. Health insurance, a retirement plan, profit sharing are all worth money. In your research, try to find out how quickly compensation increases in your line of work. How much does someone with, say, five years of experience typically make? Future year earnings potential may alter your views of how much you need to make initially.

Second, how low will you go? At some point, the compensation just doesn’t justify getting dressed to go to work in the morning not unless you’re independently wealthy and only work for the fun or it. Or unless you’re willing to moonlight doing pizza delivery. You need to know when you walk into an interview what your absolute bottom line is, including the trade-offs between salary and other benefits you might be offered. That doesn’t mean you should tell the interviewer what your bottom line is, since your floor could become the interviewer’s first point of negotiations. But you should know what it is.

Third, how valuable are the non-salary benefits to you? It’s not enough to know what they are. You should put a price on them. If, for example, you really need health insurance, then the value of that policy to you would be equal to what you’d have to spend if you went out and bought your own. You should know how much lower a salary you could accept or how much higher it would have to be, depending on whether or not the job includes a good health insurance program. Suppose you don’t need health insurance. Then you should estimate how much money you’d be saving the new employer who didn’t have to provide it to you. If it’s offered as part of the package, say you’d rather take an increase in salary instead. Perhaps your employer offers commuter subsidies, day care facilities, or other perks that offset your costs of going to work. You should determine what value you place on them and factor them into the salary that’s offered.

Some job factors are much harder to put a price on, but for those you value it’s worthwhile to try. How important is a 15 minute commute versus a 60 minute commute? Let’s say you’d really love to be close enough to go home for lunch, or you need to be back from work in time for the neighborhood slow-pitch softball game. Then the opportunity to work close to home may be worth a bit less take-home pay. How much? Does the type of job you’re seeking lend itself to flexible work hours, like a 10-hour 4-day work week, or telecommuting once or twice a week? If so, how much would your ability to do this be worth to you? Would it make the salary look 5 percent better? 10 percent?

The idea is to think of all the job-related costs and benefits that would likely be applicable and place a dollar-value positive or negative on them. This puts you in a much better position during salary negotiations to weigh the options, offer alternatives, and make your priorities clear to the potential employer. Maintain some give-and-take, of course. The employer will feel happier, and more willing to agree, if he thinks that he has gained some points when he gave up others. But knowing clearly what you want and where you’re willing to bargain helps you to come across as a thoughtful, thorough and realistic negotiator. That alone will make your employer value you more.

Written By: Vivikka Moldrem

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