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An interview coach says there’s a right way to answer the dreaded salary history question

Interview job
Reuters / Susana Vera
One tip: keep interviews one-on-one.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

You’ve been job hunting for a while, and you finally hear back about a job you really want. The recruiter reaches out and asks if you’re free to chat for a few minutes so they can ask you a few questions. “Sure!”

Everything seems pretty straightforward—you talk about your background, how you found the job listing, stuff like that. Then the recruiter asks you a question that stops you in your tracks:

“So where are you right now in terms of salary, and what are you looking for if you make this move?”

Uh oh.

You intuitively know that sharing your current salary or desired salary probably isn’t in your best interest. But you’re also really excited about this opportunity and you don’t want to miss out. Plus, you’re not sure how to not answer this question.

What should you say when asked for your current salary or expected salary in a job interview, especially if they insist on an answer?

How to respond when they ask for your salary requirements

It’s easier to understand this question if we answer another one first: What is the recruiter or hiring manager really asking when they ask, “What’s your current salary?”

This question is pretty straightforward, but not nearly as innocuous as it may sound. Here’s a different way of looking at this question:

“What’s the minimum salary we need to offer to convince you to change companies?”

You’re probably remembering the last time this came up, when you told them your current salary and they offered you more than that.

This is not a coincidence. You told them your current salary was $48,000 and they offered you $50,000. Or you told them your current salary was $75,000 and they offered you $78,000. I realize this feels like “They paid me more than I asked for!” and it looks like a win.

But this is normal. They made you an offer that they hoped was just enough to entice you to leave your current job and go work for them. It was more, but it was not the best compensation they could offer you.

When you disclosed your current salary, you gave them an easy out: They just took your answer and added a couple thousand dollars.

The good news is the new offer was higher than your current salary was. The bad news is you probably could’ve gotten more if you hadn’t shared your current salary with the recruiter.

“What’s your expected salary?”

This question is a little trickier because it sounds like they’re giving you a chance to set the baseline for your new salary. It sounds like they’re asking you to contribute to the terms of the job offer you’ll hopefully get later.

But let’s re-frame this question to reflect what they’re really asking for:

“Can you take a wild guess what salary we might pay someone with your set of skills and experience to do the job you applied for?”

The truth is you probably have no idea what they pay people because that decision—what a company pays someone to do a job—is dependent on lots of factors that have nothing to do with your particular qualifications to do the job.

What’s their hiring budget? How many positions do they need to fill for this job? How badly do they need to fill those positions? How’s the company doing in terms of revenue, profits, and growth?

When you answer the salary expectations question, you’re literally guessing a number that depends on tons factors you can’t assess.

But it gets worse.

Don’t overshoot

What are the odds that you’ll actually guess the salary they’re willing to pay someone with your skills and experience to do the job you’re interviewing for? Practically nil, right? You’re almost certainly going to over- or under-estimate what they’re willing to pay.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s still a bad idea.

“What if I just state a really big expected salary and overshoot their range?”

To which I say, “How confident are you that you know where the top of their pay range is?” I guess you could just say, “I would like to make one million dollars,” but what good would that do?

You can’t win if you guess at their salaries.

If you underestimate what they’re willing to pay, you’re leaving money on the table. If the real answer is that they would compensate someone like you up to $75,000 dollars, and you guess they would pay a salary of only $65,000, you very literally may have just cost yourself $10,000.

If you overestimate and tell them your salary expectation is $85,000, you may set off red flags that cause them to rethink the interview process altogether. This is pretty rare, but you could disqualify yourself by being “too expensive” for them. If your expected salary is well above their budgeted pay range, they may just move on to other similar candidates with lower salary expectations.

The bottom line is you probably aren’t going to guess what their salary structure looks like, and if you try to guess you’ll cost yourself a lot of money.

The salary they’re willing to pay you could increase throughout your interview

So they’ve asked you to guess what they’re willing to pay someone with your skills and experience to do the job you applied for. And you’ll almost certainly guess wrong and cost yourself money or even an opportunity to continue interviewing.

What most people don’t know is that their own answer to the question could change as you move through the interview process.

Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. Here’s how:

Your role in the interview process is to tell a story about how their company will be better if they hire you. Each interview is another opportunity for you to tell this story in a more convincing way to another person at the company.

The better you are at telling this story, the more they’ll want to hire you. The more they want to hire you, the more they’ll be willing to pay, and they could literally change the budgeted salary specifically to give them a better shot at bringing you on board.

Let’s go back to our example earlier. Let’s say they’re hiring you for a role whose budget is $75,000. They ask you to guess what that budget is by sharing your expected salary, and you decline to guess (because you read this article).

So you move on to the next stage of the interview process and do well. Then you talk to another person and you do well. Then you talk to the hiring manager and you do really well.

Now it’s time for them to decide whether to extend a job offer. They definitely want to make you an offer because you’ve done such a great job of convincing them that their company will be better if you’re a part of it. They really want to bring you on board.

You’ve flipped their thinking.

When they first started talking to you, they were thinking:

“What’s the minimum salary we would need to offer to bring this person on board?”

Now they’re thinking:

“How much compensation do we need to offer to convince this person to join our team?”

See the difference? Before, they were looking for a minimum compensation number. Now, they’re looking for a compelling compensation number.

If you had told them your expected salary, you may not have even gotten this far. True, maybe your guess would’ve been good. But what if you guessed lower? You would’ve cost yourself money. What if you guess higher? They may not have continued interviewing you if you were “too expensive,” and you never would have had the opportunity to show them that you’re the ideal candidate for the position they’re trying to fill.

Choose your words carefully

OK, so now you know to politely decline to share your salary. If you’re anxious about how to phrase this, here are some example scripts you can use.

If someone asks you “What’s your current salary?” I recommend answering something like this:

“I’m not really comfortable sharing that information. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company and not what I’m paid at my current job.”

It’s true that they may do some digging and put together a good educated guess as to what you’re making anyway, but maybe they won’t. If they don’t know what you’re currently making, that makes it more difficult for them to base an offer on your current salary, and that’s probably going to mean a higher initial offer for you.

It also means that their eventual offer will need to reflect both your market value and the value you’ll add to the company without being biased by your current salary.

If someone asks you “What’s your expected salary?” I recommend answering something like this:

“I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation.”

Another way to combine both of these answers would be:

“I’m not comfortable sharing my current salary. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company rather than what I’m paid at my current job. I don’t have a specific number in mind for a desired salary, and you know better than I do what value my skills and experience could bring to your company. I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation.”

Yes, this is uncomfortable. The discomfort is worth it.

Replying this way may feel awkward, but let me emphasize that sharing your current salary or your expected salary is not in your best interest. Those two pieces of information—your salary expectations—are two of three unique pieces of information you have:

  1. Your current salary
  2. Your expected salary
  3. How badly you need or want the job

That’s basically all of the unique information you have.

Let’s compare that to the unique pieces of information the company has:

  1. The salary range for the position
  2. The overall compensation budget available
  3. How many of these positions they’re trying to fill
  4. How long they’ve been trying to fill the position
  5. How badly they need to fill the position
  6. How many other candidates they have to consider for the job
  7. How much they like you for the position relative to those candidates

You get the point.

They’re interviewing you because you’re a qualified candidate, and they need a qualified candidate. That’s their primary objective. They would also like to get a good deal on which ever candidate they choose, but first they have to find the right candidate.

They’re not going to stop interviewing you just because you don’t make it easier for them to get a good deal on you.

This article originally appeared on Josh Doody is an Engineer and MBA who teaches people how to ace job interviews and negotiate higher salaries.

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