Strategies for Confidently Answering Salary-Related Interview Questions
When a recruiter asks about your current salary or what kind of salary you expect to make, it's normal to feel a bit uncomfortable.
We asked executive recruiters, hiring managers, and a careers expert for their perspectives on the following questions:
- Why do employers ask salary-related questions during interviews?
- How should I answer salary expectation questions on job applications?
- How can I answer questions about salary expectations during interviews?
- How do I address questions about my current salary?
After reading this article, you should feel more confident answering salary-related interview questions.
Why do employers ask salary-related questions during interviews?
According to Jessica Miles, Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting, employers ask about salary history “to find out if they can afford a candidate and what the market is currently paying for certain qualifications, experience, and skills.”
The information candidates reveal can also influence a company's offer.
Every company has a different budget, and candidates have different compensation requirements.
Compensation is a part of the discussion, and it needs to be addressed with respect, openness, and grace.
- Jessica Miles, Senior Recruiter, Goldbeck Recruiting
“Companies are trying to hire the best person for the lowest price,” explained David Muir, Senior Vice President of Easterseals Veteran Staffing Network.
“They want to understand what you were or are making, and just give you a bit more,” he said.
Muir explained that companies will ask about salary history to understand your value in the market, while they ask about salary expectations to understand what kind of offer you would realistically accept.
In addition, companies can also utilize additional means of assessing suitable salaries for a position, such as using the compa-ratio metric, to help determine whether an offer is in line with market rates..
How should I answer salary expectation questions on job applications?
“If both sides of [the hiring] process are going to put the time and effort into filling this position, then I believe it’s more than fair for the employer to ask about the desired salary on the initial application and/or in the interviews," explained Biron Clark, Founder of Career Sidekick.
“Why bother putting in hours of interviews and assessments if, in the end, they can’t afford your desired salary?”
Clark said that applicants should avoid providing a concrete number during early discussions or on their applications.
“Early on, I recommend putting something like ‘negotiable’ or something along those lines,” he explained.
If you put a number that is too high, you could scare them off.
And if you share a number that is too low, it will cripple your ability to negotiate later on in the process.
- Biron Clark, Founder, Career Sidekick
Darrell Rosenstein, Founder of The Rosenstein Group, agreed: “If you are asked [about salary] too early in the process before you’ve had the chance to explore whether the position is a good fit, you should never mention any figures because you will lose leverage.”
Rosenstein said that an appropriate answer at this stage would be:
“I am excited about the opportunity to join the company. I see this as a big growth in responsibilities and compensation. I am very interested in learning more about what is required in this role so I can estimate a suitable compensation.”
How can I answer questions about salary expectations during interviews?
Approach 1: Provide a Realistic Salary Range
When asked about specific salary expectations, you can provide a range that is in line with market expectations.
By offering a range instead of a specific figure, you demonstrate that you are flexible and open to discussion.
Rosenstein shared the following sample response:
“I looked at similar positions in the industry and I found out that salaries range between $81,000 and $93,000.
Given my experience and qualifications, my responsibilities (mention past or current responsibilities that are relevant to the position), and the results I achieved (describe relevant results), I believe compensation on the higher end of this spectrum would be fair.”
By doing some research in advance, you will be able to answer honestly and ensure that you don't undervalue your skillset.
As you research, don't forget to also factor location and the type of company into account (private, public, or startup, for example)!
Such attributes will all affect how much a company is willing (and able) to pay.
Approach 2: Explain That You Are Flexible (within Market Range)
If you don’t want to risk providing a salary range that is higher than what the company is willing to pay, you can also provide a more general response to the question.
Muir provided the following example:
“I would hate to lock on a set number so early in the process as there is so much that goes into a great match. However, if you feel I’m a fit and I feel the same way, I’m certain we can come to an agreement, as I am in the market range.”
If your interviewer continues to push, we advise providing a more concrete range.
“If they insist on a number, a good tactic is to share your previous salary if you feel like you were paid fairly and like it would be a good place to start with this new job,” explained Clark.
“This [approach] allows you to give them something so they can understand what you might be expecting but doesn’t commit you to anything in particular.
"You could say ‘this is what I earned at my previous job and, considering this job will carry more responsibility, I am hoping for an increase of some kind.’”
Miles added that “honesty is the best policy when job searching, so be honest about your expectations.
“I recommend candidates answer the question by using a range of $10-20k and note that it depends on the responsibilities of the job, so they come across as open. They can also ask what the budget is for the position.”
Approach 3: Provide an Aggressive “Reach” Number
If a company or recruiter approached you regarding a new opportunity, you may consider providing a more aggressive salary expectation – especially if you are already happy in your current role and not particularly set on leaving.
While such an approach can potentially backfire and result in the company moving onto another candidate, done tastefully, it can also result in a significant pay raise.
How do I address questions about my current salary during interviews?
If you live in a district with a salary history ban, employers are prohibited from asking about your current or previous salary. However, they can still ask you about your salary expectations.
- Darrell Rosenstein, Founder, The Rosenstein Group
“If they really press you, you could give a range and qualify it with why you think it was low or why you deserve more.”
He suggests a response such as the following:
“I am more comfortable giving you a range. I currently make something in the range of $41,000 to $45,000. However, I did some research about the company and the industry rates, and I believe my level of experience, and the skills and qualifications I have garnered over the last 2 years put me firmly in a higher compensation bracket.”
“Such an answer shows that you have done your research, know your worth, and will not accept being underpaid,” he explained.
Karen Epp, a Senior Recruiter at Goldbeck Recruiting, suggests that candidates use a three-pronged approach to explain their current salary and the range they are looking for.
“I coach people to use a three-point answer: current, minimum, and target,” Epp explained.
“[This approach] gives a range and sets you up for further conversations regarding salary. If [a company] knows your goal, it can impact where they start you at.”
Epp provided the following sample response from a CPA student in public practice who wants to move into a corporate role:
“I am currently earning $50,000 and took this position to build my experience. Now that I am nearing the completion of my designation, I am hoping for $60,000. My goal is to prove my abilities and be in the $80,000 range in the next year.”
A more experienced candidate might explain:
“I am currently earning $100,000 and feel this is low for the experience and work I do with the company. I am looking for a minimum of $120,000, and my goal is $140,000 in the next two years.”
While salary questions can be awkward and uncomfortable to answer, remember that most companies ask them to ensure they can afford to hire you – and to provide a fair offer.
If a company decides to lowball you based on the information you provide, do you really want to work for them, anyway?
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