How to Answer the Salary Question in a Job Interview

Do Your Research
When to Expect This Question, and How to Handle It?
Don’t Forget About Benefits
Negotiating Salary and Benefits Once the Offer is Made

The question of salary is bound to come up during your job interview, so you must be prepared for it.

And, NO, you don’t have to answer the question directly or immediately.

There are numerous ways to prepare yourself to handle this question and we are going to explore as many as possible.

In addition, we are going to cover how this question is handled during salary negotiations once a job offer has been made.

Do Your Research

As with any aspect of the job interview process, preparing for the Salary Question requires Research! Research!! Research!!!

Being well prepared means knowing the current state of the market for your area of expertise.

It is your responsibility to learn what employers are paying people with your experience, knowledge and skillsets.

Whether you are just starting out in the job market or have years of experience behind you, doing your research will help prepare you for this question. Here are some of the resources to check out.

The Internet

There are many organizations and outlets that provide comparative salary information including but not limited to:

These are good sources of information to validate your own worth to an employer.

In addition, if you are exploring other job options (outside your current field), these sites will provide you information about salaries for those other choices.

Remember, do not take the information from these sites as gospel. They are merely a good starting point.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn Salary is a great source of information about the company and the types of people they hire and the kinds of salary (and benefits) they provide.

LinkedIn is also a good source of contacts as discussed in the next paragraph.

Your Circles

Contact colleagues, friends and others who may be able to give you some insight on pay and benefits of the company.

These might be people who currently or previously worked there or who know of someone you can speak with (think LinkedIn!).

Of course, not everyone will want to be completely open with you regarding financial topics, so make sure you are reasonable and delicate when touching these subjects with people.

The Company

Although you probably already researched the company to get ready for the interview, it is a good idea to take another look at the company’s website to see if there are hints to its salary structure – both what they might pay employees for services performed, as well as the types of benefits they provide to their management and staff.

The company’s website may also provide insights as to happenings that may impact salaries.

For example, you may come across a news article indicating the company has cut back on certain benefits (such as its 401K contribution) due to a business issue, which might also suggest it is cutting salaries.

Unionized companies may also address some of this information through their website.

None of this information will necessarily be salary-direct but it may give you a good idea where the company is headed in relation to salary.

When to Expect This Question, and How to Handle It?

First, a word from Mr. Simon about the legality of what has been a standard part of the Salary Question pretty much for ever.

Employers often ask, “What is your current salary?” or “What was your most recent salary?”

Some states and municipalities in the U.S. have established what is known as a Salary History Ban. That is, employers MAY NOT ask a prospective employee their wage or salary history.

These bans are in several states and municipalities in the U.S. and the trend appears to be on the rise. New York City has had this ban since 2017 and in 2020 it’s now state-wide in New York.

A list of places that have (or will have) salary history bans can be found at this HR Dive news post.

If you are planning to interview in any of these locations you should not be asked this question, but you should be prepared just in case.

Also, Mr. Simon does not recommend you do so, but if you decide to voluntarily provide your salary information from your last job, then it is OK for the employer to discuss this with you.

Let’s explore the ways to handle the Salary Question.

The Job Application

Online job applications sometimes ask you to include your salary requirements.

This is a way for them to weed out those with too high expectations even before the process begins.

This can be tricky because some applications require a specific dollar amount to be entered or it will not allow you to continue the application process.

In addition, some applications will not accept a salary range. Nor will they permit you to use all zeros or leave the question blank.

In these cases, if you want to move forward with the application, you will have to enter an amount. Therefore, you should rely on a figure that you trust will meet both the company’s as well as your expectations. If the number seems right to you, go for it!

Recruiter

During phone or in-person interviews, recruiters will most likely ask about your current or last salary or your salary expectations.

Remember, they are trying to establish whether or not they should pass you on (or eliminate you) as a possible candidate.

Part of this process is to know if your salary expectations fit the salary number they are working with.

They may ask it at the beginning of the interview or wait until closer to the end, but the question is inevitable, “What salary are you looking for?”

Try your best to avoid a direct answer. Too high a figure might end your chances before you get started and too low may lock you in below where you would like to be.

Here are two approaches to this question. Either one may serve you equally as well.

  • Tell them that you are seeking a competitive compensation package that will match your value to the company. Speak about your accomplishments and skills, provide evidence of how you would bring a strong professional approach to the job, provide a STAR story to show your value.

Don’t be afraid to turn the question back to the interviewer to find out what their salary range might be to see if it fits the person you just described.

  • If you must respond with a figure, give them a salary range from a minimum (that’s at or comfortably above your current pay rate) up to a figure that is near to where you would like to be at the high end. If you have done your research, you should have a good idea of the range of pay for the job you are seeking.

Explain that at this point you would like to find out a great deal more about the job itself before you can commit to a specific salary.

Hiring Manager

Hiring managers (during either phone or in-person interviews) ask about salary because they are working within a budget, and although they may have some leeway in the amount they have to offer, they would like to establish whether or not your “Ask” would fit with their expectations.

If you are well above the manager’s budget, she may not be able to make an offer even if she wants to.

If you are too low, she may question why someone at your level and with your experience, would be setting your salary sights so low. Or she might just try and lock you into a lower salary (which if you accept it, you may later regret).

Regardless of the hiring manager’s needs, you still must determine how to answer the question “What are your salary expectations?”

How to respond?

Here are some scenarios that you might consider in responding to the hiring manager’s Salary Question.

  • As with the recruiter, let the hiring manager know that you would like to learn more about the job itself, beyond the job description. Make it clear that your background, experience and strengths make you a viable candidate.

Don’t forget to bring up the STAR stories you already shared to show your value. Also, don’t hesitate to ask what the salary range for the job might be.

  • At some point during the discussion, it may become clear that you have to commit to a number. In this case, follow this simple 2-step rule:
  1. Think of your present salary and use it as a guide,
  2. add a reasonable percentage increase to that amount, that would provide you with an incentive to make the job change.

I cannot tell you exactly what percentage to use, but it should be based on the market, your location (more on this later), the job description and responsibilities, and what value you bring to the table.

Remember, you are a professional, seeking a move in your career and not just a “job.” You want to improve your situation as well as your income and you deserve an upgrade in both.

Location

Don’t forget about location! If you are considering relocating for a job or simply moving to another part of the country, location may play a strong part in your salary requirements.

For example, if you are moving from New York City to Jackson Mississippi, your job as an IT Project Manager will probably not pay the same salary.

In this case, cost of living has a big impact on salaries. While the job in New York might pay $90,000 - $100,000, in Mississippi the same position may pay less, somewhere in the $60,000 - $65,000 range.

Lots of factors go into salary differences, just keep in mind that location plays a big part.

Don’t Forget About Benefits

Fringe benefits (health care, 401K, vacation time, etc.) are not ordinarily discussed during an interview with the hiring manager, unless he or she chooses to bring up the topic themselves.

In that case, feel free to discuss.

However, benefits should not be brought up by you during the interview. You are there to discuss your qualifications for the job, period!

Discussions about fringe benefits should be saved for negotiations after a job offer is made (more on this later).

An important note about salary and fringe benefits

Fringe benefits can add an element of complexity in the hiring process.

When the Salary Question comes up in the interview with the hiring manager, keep in mind that he may be thinking in terms of the full compensation package that comes with the job.

According to the Department of Labor, fringe benefits average 30% of salary, and although the additional 30% does not come from his budget, the hiring manager does represent the company and is tasked with keeping costs as low as possible. If he can hire you for $10,000 less than his budgeted amount, he automatically saves his company an additional $3,000 in fringe benefits.

Do not allow yourself to be undersold, you still need to earn the salary you deserve.

Negotiating Salary and Benefits Once the Offer is Made

The employer has settled on you as their candidate and they are ready to make you an offer.

It is at this point that you must decide whether to take the job, and negotiations should get underway.

The salary offer they make is based on previous discussions, their budget, salary ranges and your salary requirements.

What’s next?

If you think that the offer is fair, say so and get ready to move to discussions of things like employee benefits and other matters such as perks, bonus opportunities, education reimbursement, etc.

But if you still have questions, be sure to bring them up before committing.

Say, for instance, that during the interviews, it became clear that your job responsibilities will go well beyond the original job description. Instead of supervising one junior accountant, you will now be managing the accounting department! This may call for a reassessment of the salary to reflect these additional responsibilities.

This is the time to bring up issues like this. Do not allow yourself to be short-changed and be prepared to negotiate.

Once the salary issues have been agreed to, you still will have the opportunity to discuss the employee benefits.

Companies generally have a standard benefits package including health, life and disability insurance and retirement plans. Most also include dental, vision, childcare, fitness, paid time off, holidays, sick days and more.

You want to be certain you understand all the benefits included in the package and any others they might offer, such as educational reimbursement for maintaining certifications or obtaining graduate degrees.

Lastly, be sure to ask for a formal letter containing all the details of the job offer, salary and benefits as you agreed to.

Good luck!

About the Author: Stuart Weiner has over 25 years of experience as a compliance officer and auditor primarily in the healthcare field and is currently the Principal of Integrated Compliance, a compliance consulting firm. He also serves as the registrar for the training committee at the Professional Service Group of Central New Jersey (PSGCNJ) – a US-based organization that helps job seekers in their career transition.

Mr. Simon offers a Job Search Mentoring Program that supports individuals seeking their next job role. This program focuses on practical steps to achieve this end using a data-driven approach. Our team meets regularly, either one-on-one or in a larger group. If you are interested in participating or would like to learn more, please, contact us via email hello@mrsimon.ai or schedule time with our career mentor Natalie Lihacova, co-founder and CEO of Mr. Simon, and she would be happy to talk with you.

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