How to Talk About Salary Expectations with a Prospective Employer

By Ryan Mann

In every job search, there comes a small point of no return. Maybe it’s when the recruiter asks you this question over the phone. Maybe it’s when you fill out the company’s job application. Maybe it’s when you upload your resume to Monster or CareerBuilder. Or maybe it’s when the employee referring you asks you this question. The moment I am speaking of is the moment when you FIRST talk about salary expectations with a prospective employer.

Such a moment is critical because you are telling the company what you have recently been paid and what you are looking to make in a new position. Within reason, companies actually take your word on this. Here are a few pointers for handling that tricky question:

Don’t fudge numbers in order to make more money. I’ve had candidates inflate their current compensation in conversation. Because current compensation is a point of reference that all companies use in hiring, there is an obvious motivation to make that point of reference as high as possible. But when you falsely inflate that number in effort to receive a higher offer, it could easily backfire when it’s discovered that you were dishonest. And if the situation doesn’t backfire, your conscience should.

Be specific about all forms of compensation. There is much more to a compensation plan than base salary. Here’s the guideline: anything quantifiable as it relates to money is worth communicating specifically. I’ve had candidates inform companies only of their current base salary, while leaving out a significant bonus, commission, or overtime plan. Then the offer comes in lower than hoped, and they attempt to get more money by revealing a previously hidden form of compensation! Let me tell you, companies do not view it favorably when you attempt to bring new information into the negotiation after they have decided on an offer. If you have a significant bonus, commission, benefit, or overtime, communicate that up front, and quantify it honestly to the best of your ability.

Be reasonable in your asking salary. I’ve been in over 100 negotiations and have asked this salary question literally thousands of times. Sometimes I’m frustrated by unreasonable salary expectations. And what makes an asking salary reasonable? It is reasonable when you ask for a raise, but not an extravagant one. Generally, something in the 10%+ range is reasonable, unless the position is a significant step forward in responsibility. An asking salary is reasonable when things are justified. Are you incurring more costs of travel with a new position? Are you paying more for benefits with a new position? Are you losing upside in the form of a bonus or otherwise? Then it’s reasonable to ask for a little more in the form of salary.

To make it more reasonable, suggests J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of CAREEREALISM, offer a salary range. “Share with the employer you are looking to make between __ and __. Now, this range will be pretty wide, so you should immediately follow-up with something like this: ‘The reason the range is so broad is, for me, no two jobs are the same. Money isn’t my only criteria for work. The benefits and opportunities for growing my skills are equally important in my mind. So, I’m willing to be flexible in my salary, depending upon the position.'”

To sum up, what you want to avoid is inconsistency, unreasonableness, and dishonesty with your numbers. You don’t want to ask for a certain figure up front, then change that figure significantly later (unless there’s great reason to do so). You want to avoid asking for things without reasons to supporting your request. You want to get a raise, to be sure, but sometimes asking for too much of a raise will turn a company off if the figures aren’t supported.

Money isn’t everything, but money matters, so it’s worth planning your talk about salary expectations with a prospective employer. How you handle that fateful question can go a long way towards landing the right job at a win-win compensation for both of you.

Wondering how to prepare for your next phone or in-person interview? Click here.

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