Job interviews can feel awkward. You’re trying to prove that you’re the right person for the role, but you don’t know what to expect or what your interviewer really thinks of you. One of the most common interview questions – and one of the most awkward – is about salary. You know the one: What is your expected salary?
Even if you have a strong sense of your desired compensation, you – like many people – may struggle to answer this question. It can be especially difficult if you’re interviewing for your first job, or if you’re in the early stages of your career, and aren’t sure what an entry-level salary should be. Tori Dunlap, a financial expert and founder of the organization Her First $100K, says that this is actually one of the most difficult questions to answer. As he explains in this video, “You get asked about your current salary or your expected salary, and it always makes people angry.”
Many interviewees felt compelled to answer with a specific number. But if you go low, you may end up with less than they’re willing to pay. And if you’re too tall, you can price yourself out of the job. It pays to get it right, because your starting salary is often the basis for future compensation decisions, such as raises and bonuses. In other words, that initial number will determine what you pay for your entire tenure with that company (no pressure!)
Here’s some of HBR’s best advice on how to answer this tricky question so you can go into your next interview feeling more prepared and confident.
Strategies for Answering “What Are Your Salary Expectations?”
Strategy #1: Redirect the conversation.
There are many reasons why you may not want to answer salary questions directly. Perhaps you suspect that you have been underpaid in the past and anchoring your past or current salary will hurt you. You do not need to provide a number. You have the right to protect your own interests. As career strategist John Lees States, “You are not in a position to negotiate well because you are still in uncharted territory. The time to discuss salary is after they fall in love with you.” In that position, you have more leverage and can be more confident that you won’t lose money. There are also legal questions to consider.
Unfortunately, many job candidates go into interviews without knowing what is and isn’t legally allowed. In fact, there is a close cousin to the salary expectation question that is illegal to ask in many US states: What is your current salary (or your previous salary)? o What did you do in your last role?
Asking about salary history is prohibited in some areas because Research shows that this contributes to pay disparities and promotes gender and racial inequity. Here is a list of states in the US where this question is now banned. (However be sure to search to find the most up-to-date information available where you live as these laws are constantly changing and work in different ways.)
Here are two ways to redirect the conversation:
1. Repeat the question and ask about their budget.
Dunlap’s advice is to answer something along the lines of:
I honestly don’t understand the full scope of the role at this point in the pricing process myself, but I would love to know the budgeted salary.
When the interviewer comes up about their budget, they probably want to know if that meets your expectations. It’s OK to be vague at this point and say:
That’s helpful to know. If you offer me the job, is there room to negotiate?
2. Avoid the question and go back to your qualifications.
You can say something like:
I am still trying to fully understand the role and what is involved. I’d love to continue talking about my qualifications and why I think I’m a good fit for the position.
That’s not something I’m comfortable answering, but I’m happy to talk about my qualifications for this role.
There is no doubt that these answers can feel like you are avoiding the question or refusing to answer it and can be uncomfortable for you and the interviewers. Given the stakes here, this small moment of discomfort is probably worth it.
Strategy #2: Offer a salary.
You may feel that you have enough information to answer the question or perhaps your attempts to deflect did not work and the interviewer is pressing you for an answer. In that case, you might want to consider giving a range.
To go this route, you’ll want to do your salary research HISTORY your interview so you have a realistic idea of the average salary range for the role and can give an informed answer. In some places, the employers It is necessary to include the salary range in the job posting. That will give you the best sense of what they are willing to pay, and allow you to put yourself in that range. You’ll want to compare your experience and qualifications to the job description to determine where in the range you might fit.
You can also do your own research, using sites like Glassdoor and Salary.com. This will help you understand what a fair salary is for the position so you can choose a minimum salary that you don’t want to go below (note: that number isn’t something you should share during an interview but it’s fine (keep this in the back of your mind when it comes to negotiating.)
Despite reputable sources, it can be difficult to translate average salaries across geographies or by specific role. Is it reasonable to think that there is a big difference between what a “data scientist” does and a “data mining engineer”, for example?
Another option is to ask people in your network – people who have similar roles in your industry or maybe even work at the company you’re interviewing for. Of course, talking about money can be awkward but dealing with a cringy conversation is worth it if it helps you learn how to value yourself. If you working with a recruiter — externally or internally — you can request a salary range from them directly. Whatever you find in your research, be careful not to get fixated on a specific numberwhich may result in you not being happy with the final number or accepting a lower salary than you would have gotten otherwise.
Once you’ve reached a range you’re comfortable with, here’s how to share it with your interviewer:
- State your range and give reasons why you arrived at that range, share some of the research you’ve done and note the skills and experience that make you a strong fit for the position.
- Recognize that salary is only one of the factors that will play into your decision to accept the job or not. Make it clear that you are interested learn more about other benefits as well.
- Signal flexibility so that your response is not a demand but rather the beginning of a conversation. Express your enthusiasm about possibly joining the company.
Here are three examples of how it sounds:
Sample Answer #1:
I am looking for a competitive salary that reflects my qualifications and experience. Based on my research and the requirements of the role as I understand it, I would expect a salary in the range of $X to $Y. Of course, I am open to discussing the details of the entire compensation package as salary is only one factor. I look forward to learning more about the opportunities for growth and development here.
Sample Answer #2:
Given my experience and expertise in [name specifics relevant to the job description], I am looking to make between $X and $Y in my next role. I have done research on similar roles and talked to people in similar organizations – all helped me confirm that scope. I know I will be a valuable asset to your team and I am open to learning more about your budget for the role and the other benefits you offer employees.
Sample Answer #3:
I’ve been researching similar roles and my understanding is that for someone at my level with my background and experience, I can expect to make a salary in the $X to $Y range. Of course, pay is not the only thing that matters to me. So I look forward to hearing more about your benefits package, including paid time off and other benefits. The most important thing to me is to find a place where I can grow. I can be flexible with the exact numbers for the job which is a good fit.
Choose whichever option you’re most comfortable with, and tweak the language to make it feel like you. You’ll also want to add some detail about your qualifications so you can highlight how your experience matches what they’re looking for.
Read more about
Why do hiring managers and recruiters still ask this question?
It helps to understand why interviewers bring up this line of questioning at this stage of the interview process. The short answer: They want to make sure they can handle you. It’s in their best interest not to waste their time (or yours!) going through multiple rounds of interviews and making an offer, if they can’t meet a candidate’s expected compensation. As author and career development expert Vicky Oliver Explains, “Employers often ask this question because every position is budgeted, and they want to make sure your expectations are in line with that budget before moving forward.” The interviewer usually wants to know if the candidate’s expectations of compensation and benefits are in line with the position’s budgeted salary.
From the candidate’s perspective, answering the question helps ensure that the opportunity is right for you and that there is an understanding of the compensation and benefits offered. This will also help establish a baseline for your salary negotiations later in the process.
. . .
Whether and how you answer the question is up to you, of course. By following the guidelines above, you can determine which method is most comfortable for you and which is most likely to keep you running for work. Importantly, you have some tools to help make this potentially awkward part of the interview less awkward.