Published May 28, 2013
You know it’s coming. You’ve found a job you want—or just one you think you want—and you’re wondering when that tricky money question will rear its head: What are your salary expectations?
Whether it’s a blank field in an online application, or a real, live question from a flesh-and-blood recruiter, what should you do?
We asked several career coaches and recruiters about how to hit this curveball. Here are their tips, slugger:
Consider When It Comes Up
Most HR managers use the salary expectations question as a screening tactic. Some require you to state your pay in the cover letter or an online application to even be considered for the position. In these cases, bite the bullet early and tell the truth.
Of course, being transparent about your current pay and what you hope to make sets you up to be screened out of the interview process if your expected salary is too much. Then again, if your expectations and the actual salary of the prospective job are that far apart, you probably saved yourself a lot of time and hassle. It’s better to know beforehand that you just make too much.
You can give yourself some wiggle room on the question by saying you’re willing to negotiate on “total compensation.” You know, the perks, such as vacation days or flexible work arrangements, that might make the job more worthwhile even if the pay is lower than you want.
What about lying? You may be tempted to fib about your salary, but employers can legally find out your base pay at previous jobs. Don’t expect to make the cut for the final interview if your prospective employer thinks you’re bluffing.
When you get the question in a live interview, first try the artful dodge. Alyssa Best, a career coach in Washington, D.C., suggests a line like this: “That’s a great question, but at this point, I’m more interested in learning more about the position and discussing how I can be the best asset to your team.”
Sometimes that works, but usually it doesn’t. Even if it’s not an effective dodge, you will show your potential employer that you’re here not just for the money.
The next step is to ease into disclosing your salary. “The second statement would be, ‘I’ll share a range with you, but I’m not looking to lock in, I’m looking for a good fit,’” says Mary Ann Gontin, managing partner with career services firm OI Partners. Again, you want to reinforce that you care about the work.
Now it’s time for the big reveal. Get to the point with a statement like this: “I’m currently making $60,000, and I’m looking to make 10% to 15% more.”
The strategy differs slightly if you’re dealing with a recruiter instead of an employer. Most recruiters will have a preset salary range that they must work within and will pass on candidates that don’t fit the criteria.
“I would be as honest as you can because it’ll speed the process up. If you are right for the slot, the recruiter will fight for you. But you don’t want to burn the recruiter,” says Ben Long, head of Travaille Executive Search. The upside is that being straightforward with recruiters will also keep you on their radar when there is an opportunity that meets your salary requirements.
Know the Range
A little bit of research goes far. With some Googling, networking or just plain asking the HR person or recruiter before the interview, you can find out the salary range for the prospective job.
“It’s important to walk into an interview knowing what the market rate will be for the job,” Best says.
What if the job’s salary range is too low, but you’re excited about the position or the employer? Gontin recommends applicants go through the interview process anyway.
The reason for that? There will still be room to negotiate in your final interview, before an official offer is made. And if you make it through the interview process and discover that your potential boss is a nightmare—or a dream to work for—the money may not matter as much.
Close the Deal
Ultimately, the place to boost your salary for a new job will be once a job offer is received. Many interviewees err by making demands before the company is sold on them. “The overriding goal is not to go in there and be stubborn and dig in—if you’re lucky enough to get in front of them, you want to keep the door open so they can see how great you are,” Gontin says. “Then, after the interviews, you’re in a better position to negotiate.”
Be sure you explain your salary history and put it in the best light. For example, Long recommends an interviewee might say, “I make X right now, but I’m up for review in two months, and I’ll be making X at that time.”
And remember that salary is only one component of a great job. ”You could meet the boss and say, ‘I have died and gone to heaven—they match the 401(k), it’s a mile from my home, or this would be good for my career growth,’” says Gontin. “People have to look at the bigger picture.”
One final piece of advice from the hiring professionals? Don’t fight for the salary unless you’re sure it’s the company you want to work for. In the end, that’s just a waste of energy.
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