The Dreaded Question: What Are Your Salary Expectations?


tough questionYou know it’s coming. You’ve found a job you want—or just one you think you want—and you’re wondering when that tricky money question will rear its head: What are your salary expectations?

Whether it’s a blank field in an online application, or a real, live question from a flesh-and-blood recruiter, what should you do?

We asked several career coaches and recruiters about how to hit this curveball. Here are their tips, slugger:

Consider When It Comes Up

Many HR managers use the salary expectations question as a screening tactic. Some require you to state your pay in the cover letter or an online application to even be considered for the position. In these cases, we suggest biting the bullet early and telling the truth.

Of course, being transparent about your current pay and what you hope to make sets you up to be screened out of the interview process if your expected salary is too much. Then again, if your expectations and the actual salary of the prospective job are that far apart, you probably saved yourself a lot of time and hassle. It’s usually better to know beforehand that you just make too much.

You can give yourself some wiggle room on the question by saying you’re willing to negotiate on “total compensation.” You know, the perks, such as vacation days or flexible work arrangements, that might make the job more worthwhile even if the pay is lower than you want.

RELATED: Quiz: What’s Your Perfect Job?

What about lying? You may be tempted to fib about your salary, but employers can legally find out your base pay at previous jobs. Don’t expect to make the cut for the final interview if your prospective employer thinks you’re bluffing.

When you get the question in a live interview, first try the artful dodge. Alyssa Best, a career coach in Washington, D.C., suggests a line like this: “That’s a great question, but at this point, I’m more interested in learning more about the position and discussing how I can be the best asset to your team.”

Sometimes that works, but usually it doesn’t. Even if it’s not an effective dodge, you will show your potential employer that you’re here not just for the money.

  • SI

    that’s it…………pathetic

  • Jason

    “employers can legally find out your base pay at previous jobs”

    - How?

    Isn’t salary company confidental info at a private company? I understand if you are a state/federal employee, but *private*????

    • ResidentOfMI

      100% correct.

  • taracorinne

    there is no legal way, outside of someone working in the public sector in a tax-funded position, for any company to find out how much an employee was making. Hello privacy laws! Did the person writing this article have any HR training? A company can find out how much the position is starting at, if it’s empty. But that doesn’t mean the previous employee was making the amount posted for the empty position!

  • Tom Anderson

    Hi Jason and taracorinne,

    We checked our story with HR expert Mary Ann Gontin of OI Partners. Here’s what she had to say about employer background checks: “If they ask what the recent salary was or is, by law, that is one of the things they’re able to find out. Legally, when a company checks references, there are three things you can ask: dates of employment, what your title was and what was your salary. They can’t just call me and ask “what did you pay her?” I have to have a signed release, but if I have it, I have to tell the employer.”

    Gontin also said she’s seen cases where employees have lied about how much they were making. They were hired, but the background check didn’t come through until two months after they started working and the employees were fired because they lied.

    Thanks for your comments,

    Tom Anderson, Senior Editor at LearnVest

    • Ava

      Nice one. Wondering while fill up the form can I leave blank in the salary are and say that I am keeping confidential. Is that possible? Or that’s a flag not to hire the person?

      • mchan1

        Hard to NOT fill in the salary line when applying through an online job board where the salary amount is Necessary or else you can’t apply for the position.

        It gives the advantage to the employer >:(

  • fedupwithcorporate

    A company sets a budget for the role, so it’s ridiculous they don’t post the range with their ad. The only reason they ask the candidate is to lowball the candidate, another mark of the complete lack of ethics in the corporate world. I don’t tell them and if they keep pressing, they are not for me, even my mother doesn’t know how much I make, it’s no one’s business but mine and has nothing to do with ability to do the work.

  • NSH

    I’m confused. What does your base salary have anything to do with your current need for a job and your financial situation. Okay somebody worked as an executive and made and made 30K a year. Times are hard and that executive finds himself/herself vying for a receptionist job that pays 20k. Salary-wise, the two have nothing in common. Except the executive bring specific professional skills to the table. No average person (who hasn’t worked steadily in a while) expects to pick up where they left off.

  • BeeKaaay

    “What are your salary expectations”

    Answer and you won’t get the job. Guaranteed.

    They use salary numbers to weed out candidates for a job. Ask too much, they can’t afford you. Ask too little, you’re stupid and not worthy of the job.

  • John

    If I know their minimum hourly rate, I will say, I’d like to get $1- $2 an hour more, when I know I qualify for the job, through past experience. I don’t require it, but I will ask for it. Pay can be negotiable. That’s why they ask.

  • N/A

    Actually, one recruiter suggested that I answer this question with a question:

    “What do you think my experience and skills is worth to you?”

    In some cases that I’ve seen on the job websites, they would put down the range of the salary. In that case, I would modify it by this:

    “Well, I seen by your job advert that your salary range is such to such. Now that you seen and heard of my experience and skills, what do you think it is worth to you?”

    • Loring Hammond

      “I seen”? “You seen”? GRAMMAR!!! Ugh. Sorry.