When a job seeker reads the question on an online application or hears it from a recruiter, the question may sound like a neutral request: “What are your salary expectations?”
But in fact, how you answer is the beginning of your salary negotiation for that role.
There is a debate about the best way to address this tricky question —some suggest skipping it, while others suggest it’s OK to give a salary range. HuffPost talked with career coaches and salary negotiation experts on what to do.
What the salary expectations question is really about
What a company is really trying to find out is if you are in the same salary range as they are, said Kate Dixon, a salary negotiation coach and compensation consultant.
There can also be legal reasons for why this phrasing is used. Cities like New York City and states like California have salary history bans that prohibit companies from asking candidates what their past salaries are. “Because it’s not legal to ask that in many cases now, they are asking people what their expectations are,” Dixon said.
Whatever you do, be prepared to address this common question. “There are two times when they will ask you about salary expectations. One is often right away. The other is often right before you get the offer,” said Josh Doody, a salary negotiation coach who works with software developers and is a former hiring manager. “They are trying to get you to make it easier for them.”
In an online application, some advise against directly answering
It is hard to make a business case of your value when you are not speaking directly to a human being with hiring power. That’s why some negotiation experts say you should avoid answering the question in an online job portal.
“If it’s not a required field and you don’t have to put anything in, I would leave it blank,” said Cynthia Pong, founder of Embrace Change, a coaching business that focuses on helping women of color negotiate and transition in their careers. A different option is to write that you are negotiable and “very open to discussing this when there is an offer,” Pong said. If you have to fill it out with a numerical response, do your research to put down a higher number in this salary range. “Especially for women and women of color, I would urge them to err on the side of going higher and using a range,” Pong said.
Doody advises keeping the answer blank, or putting down an obviously fake number like “zero” if you have to put down a number to submit an application. He said you should not put down a real number in an online application, because there are too many unknown factors to compensation at this early stage.
By putting down a specific answer on an online form, you have now “locked yourself into the initial number that you said when you were more or less ignorant about what the opportunity looked like because you haven’t spoken to a hiring manager,” Doody said. “All you know is what the job description on the website says.”
If you do answer with a number, make it a salary range
Some career coaches advise answering this question with a salary range based on your own research. The salary expectations answer can be contextual to where you are in your career and what kind of industry you are in.
Some senior professionals know what their market value is and have strong opinions about what their base pay needs to be in order for them to take the job, Dixon said. “If you do really have a strong perspective, be general with your specific ask,” Dixon said, citing an executive client who asked for a base salary in the mid-$200,000s. That way, you don’t commit to a number and there can be flexibility, she said.
To get a better idea of what a reasonable salary range is, you can and should ask colleagues about typical starting salaries for the role you are applying for, Pong said. “The more conversations you have with people, the better off you are,” Pong said about how much research to do.
Kathryn Saxer, a career management coach, said she advises clients to talk to colleagues doing similar work and do online research to land on a salary range. “The most important thing is to have a business case behind why you choose the range that you do,” Saxer said. She said she is in favor of professionals directly stating their salary range in response to the salary expectation question. “If you let them give a number, then they’ve anchored the conversation, and they are going to anchor it low,” Saxer said.
How to answer without stating a specific salary number
If you’re a job seeker who does not want to state a specific salary range, you have options. For example, you can say you will engage but at a later stage.
Pong said if you are asked point-blank by a recruiter or hiring manager, you can say something like, “I am happy to talk about it once there is an offer,” or “That would depend on what the precise role is,” as long as you are in an industry where there is not an expectation for you to answer.
If you are talking to a recruiter, Doody said, you can state that you do not want to talk about it. The language can sound like: “I prefer to focus on the value that I bring to your company. I’d like this step to be a big step forward in terms of both responsibility and compensation. I prefer not to talk about my salary expectations, and I don’t have a specific number in mind, and I look forward to hearing what you think if we get to that stage,” he said.
Turn the question back on the interviewer
Another tactic is to turn the question back on the job interviewer by asking them about salary ranges before you state yours.
If you have done your homework, you can use numbers in your answer. That can sound like, “According to my research, jobs like blah blah blah get paid between X and Y in this area. Is that consistent with the hiring range for this role?” Dixon said. This kind of answer shows “you’re really trying to work with them to understand if you’re in the same ballpark,” Dixon said.
If you are not confident in your research, you can phrase this follow-up question politely as, “Without knowing more about all that the job entails and not knowing what the total compensation picture is, I’d love to hear what your hiring range is,” Dixon said.
Answering a question with a different question can admittedly feel awkward, Dixon said. “You’re not answering directly and that’s super uncomfortable,” she said. “What you’re saying is, ‘Thank you for your question. I’m not answering it. And I’m going to ask you a question instead.’”
Dixon said asking these questions can feel less awkward if you don’t see this relationship as adversarial, but rather as a collaboration where the mindset is, “Hey, we’re a team and we’re after the same thing, which is a great match.”
The objective is to engage about a number, but to learn what a company’s thinking is about the salary first, Doody said. “Your whole goal there is to defer to them to make the first offer so you can see approximately where they value you,” he said.
Salary expectations are not the same as the final job offer
Recognize that this conversation is the beginning of a salary negotiation, not the end of it. If you learn new information about the role later, you should feel empowered to ask for a salary that is more aligned with those responsibilities.
“Even if you give a lower ballpark range, you can adjust it upward later,” Pong said, but this is conditional on “new information you learned about the job, or the roles and responsibilities, and you can make an argument for it being more work.”