Let’s say you’ve made it to the second or third round of interviews for a position you want with a company you like. Your qualifications and experience are an excellent fit for the company culture and business model. You know you could do an excellent job for them, and the position also appears to tick all your boxes.
Then you hear the dreaded question—the question that can strike anxiety in even the most seasoned and sought-after executives’ hearts: “What are your salary requirements?”
Why Is It So Hard to Answer?
Candidates are often understandably nervous about answering questions around salary expectations because the consequences are unpredictable. You don’t want to sell yourself short, but neither do you want to shoot for the moon and be dropped from consideration. If you throw out a low number, you could leave a significant sum sitting on the table. However, if you demand something exorbitant, you could make the employer feel like they can’t afford you and lose interest, when in reality you might have been happy to take a little less. Striking the right balance can be difficult.
Why Do Employers Ask This Question?
First of all, you should know that the way employers ask this question is changing. As of this writing, 28 US states have enacted salary history bans, which means employers either cannot ask for salary history, or they cannot use potential employees’ salary history to determine their new salary offers. Even a number of employers in those states which haven’t enacted this law are shying away from asking about prior compensation because studies show that NOT asking about salary history substantially reduces pay disparity for minority applicants.
Instead, prospective employers will likely ask you for at least a ballpark estimate of what you expect to make. They do so for two primary reasons:
- To see whether they can afford to hire you.
- To gauge how highly you value your own abilities and contribution.
How Should You Respond to This Question?
Again, answering this question can be tricky for the above mentioned reasons. However, you can approach it with grace and diplomacy in a way that keeps you in the running and leaves room for further negotiation. Following are some helpful tips:
Do Your Research
Ensure you have accurate information about how the industry (and your prospective company’s competition specifically) pays people with comparable experience in equivalent positions. You don’t want to come in below or too far above the median pay, everything else being equal. With this knowledge, you can feel confident that the number or range you request is near the mark.
Part of doing your research is looking into your own heart. How much do you want or need this opportunity? Is it your dream job with your ideal company? Will the experience be invaluable to your future growth goals? Or will the position only be worth it if you earn tip-top dollar for doing it? If the answer to the first two questions is ‘yes,’ then you may want to come in with a more modest number, as long as you aren’t short-changing yourself (never do that). If the answer to the third question is ‘yes,’ then aim high.
Redirect the Conversation
If you simply aren’t ready to answer the question because you don’t feel like you’re on sure ground yet, you can turn it around so it’s no longer about you. Tori Dunlap, founder of Her First $100K, recommends you say something to the effect of, “I’m not familiar enough with the role’s full scope yet to accurately price myself, but I would love to know the budgeted salary range” (Harvard Business Review). Now, the onus to produce a number rests on them, and you can determine if the range works for you.
- Whatever number you offer, back it up by emphasizing your skills and qualifications.
- Don’t make your answer sound like a demand. Indicate flexibility and a willingness to negotiate.
- Offer a range, rather than a hard-and-fast number. Make sure you’d be comfortable at either end of that range.
What If It Doesn’t Work?
Even if you follow the above advice, the answer may be ‘no,’ and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not worth your asking price; it just means the fit wasn’t entirely right. Don’t burn any bridges; be gracious in your response when they say, “We’re going in a different direction.” Wish them well, thank them for the opportunity, tell them you’d love to be considered if anything else opens up, and above all, take every opportunity to participate in ongoing career development to increase your worth and make it impossible to turn you away.
By Fernando Ortiz-Barbachano
President & CEO of Barbachano International (BIP)
Barbachano International is the premier executive search and leadership advisory firm in the Americas (USA, Mexico, Canada, and Latin America) with a focus on diversity and multicultural target markets. Outplacement, Exe