Picture the scene: you’re interviewing for your dream job, and you’re crushing it. The interview panel looks happy, your experience and qualifications are going over well, and you’re feeling optimistic about your chance of landing the role. Then you hear the dreaded question—“What are your salary expectations?”—and just like that, you freeze.
You know it’s important to ask about salary in a job interview. You’ve also heard all your life that talking about money—never mind asking for it—is just plain rude.
What if you ask for too much, and hurt your chances of landing the job you want? Even worse: what if you ask for too little, and end up underpaid and resentful in a role you ought to love?
Asking about salary can be scary. But the fact is that it’s an expected part of negotiating for a new job, and it’s totally fine to talk about salary expectations with a prospective employer. We’re here to help you ask these important questions with confidence, and get everything you deserve out of your next role.
In this article, we’ll cover the following points:
We mystify salary, and we shouldn’t.
Sure, it’s important to be tactful. You should hang back from asking about compensation during a phone evaluation or a first interview, if you’re being interviewed more than once. You should also be mindful that they haven’t hired you yet – the interview stage is not the time to play hardball with a potential future boss.
But once you’re far enough along in the hiring process, asking about salary can show that you’re taking a new opportunity seriously. It can also show a potential employer that you’ve done your homework, and that you’re aware of industry norms. In short, it can show that you’re the kind of person they might want to hire.
Bringing up salary at the interview stage can smooth the way if you do receive an offer, too. It’s an advance signal for a company that you will be looking to negotiate your salary. Setting expectations ahead of an offer can help the offer itself proceed more quickly – meaning you can get started in your new role that crucial bit sooner.
A salary negotiation is standard when you’re starting in a new role. It helps ensure that you’re being paid what you’re worth. You can lay the groundwork for it ahead of time – so why wouldn’t you?
When it comes to determining what your work is worth, there’s no real shortcut: you need to do your research ahead of time. Here are a few sources of information to get you started as you figure out what you deserve to be paid.
It’s true that people can be cagey when asked about their own salaries. Thankfully, that’s not what you’re here to do!
Instead, try providing the title of the role you’re applying for, as well as a bare-bones job description and potentially even the name of the company. If you ask around, you’ll be able to get a clearer picture of salary expectations from people who understand the industry. This works especially well if you know and trust a hiring manager – ideally one who won’t be deciding whether to hire you!
If you don’t have many contacts in your field, consider reaching out to recruiters to get a sense of the market rate for the role you have in mind. It can be daunting to work your contacts if you aren’t used to it, but remember: the alternative is winging it, and your bank account will thank you if you put in the work.
Unless your work is incredibly specialized, the odds are good that you’ll find some similar job listings online. Your task is to find the ones that list salary ranges, so you can get an impression of going rates across your industry.
This can be an imperfect science. Salary ranges listed on job postings may skew lower, with the expectation that applicants will negotiate higher salaries at interview or after receiving an offer.
But they can still be a useful place to start, particularly if your opportunities to ask colleagues about their salary expectations are limited.
Once you’ve figured out a basic range of salaries, it’s time to take into account your own situation. What factors might move the value of your work up or down within that ballpark?
Take a look at the job description again, and think about the following:
If you know you’ve done similar work in the past, or if you have a professional qualification listed as advantageous in the job description, you might want to consider asking for a higher salary. If you know you don’t have much experience in your field, take that into account, too.
Ultimately, you need to be honest with yourself as you appraise your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate. Otherwise, you risk overplaying your position when it comes time to discuss salary in earnest.
So what should you actually say when your prospective employer asks the dreaded question? Here are some tips to help you keep your cool and do justice to yourself in the moment.
At interview, you should avoid pinning down a specific figure. You’ll have the opportunity to do that later, if you receive an offer. For the time being, being too particular about the number you’re hoping for could hurt your negotiating prospects down the line.
Instead, provide a range of suggested salaries in keeping with the research you’ve already done. Keep in mind that you will need to negotiate within that range if you’re made an offer, so don’t undersell yourself at this stage! Trying to negotiate up from the range you’ve already provided can look like bad-faith behavior to a future employer.
If you’ve done your research, this shouldn’t be a problem. In fact, being able to cite (briefly!) the reasons why you believe you’re worth the amount you’ve proposed can help at interview. It’s a great way to show a potential employer that you’ve shown up prepared.
Having established a range of salaries, you can put the ball back in their court by asking about their expectations. After all, it’s a negotiation, not a demand!
Your interviewers may have reservations about the figures you’ve provided. At this stage, however, this is an exploratory conversation – you shouldn’t be deterred if they hesitate to commit to a particular number or range. If they believe you’re the right candidate for the role, they may still be willing to offer you a salary in line with what you’ve asked for.
It’s fine to acknowledge their budgetary constraints, to show you understand the demands of doing business. But you don’t have to agree to a lower salary based purely on hesitation at the interview stage. Signal that you’re open to further discussion later, and move on with the interview.
Most negotiations ultimately end in compromise. As such, you should consider aiming a little higher in your salary negotiation – that way, you’re more likely to end up with a better outcome.
If you have a particular salary goal, consider placing it at the midpoint of your proposed salary range, rather than at the top. It’s a simple tactic, but an effective one! You’re more likely to find yourself offered a number in the middle of your range than at the top of it, so be smart about how you present your figures.
This is also a great way to avoid backing yourself into a corner when discussing salary. If you’re consciously asking for more than you expect to receive, you’re less likely to undersell yourself and end up stuck with a salary you resent.
It might seem counterintuitive – so much interview preparation is about knowing what to say, in just the right amount of detail. Why would you want to say less about something as important as salary?
It’s worth playing your cards close to your chest precisely because salary is so important. It’s obvious when someone is talking because they’re nervous, or because they’re worried about seeming too aggressive. It’s also, not to put too fine a point on it, awkward for everyone involved.
If you babble, you risk looking less confident in the figures you’ve provided, which could undermine your position if you receive an offer. The last thing you want is to undercut yourself so early in the hiring process!
Say your piece – explain the value you can bring to the company, and provide the ballpark figures you’ve researched. No matter how badly you want to apologize for pushing or reassure your interviewer that you really do want the job, stop talking there.
If you end up with a better offer than you expected to get, congratulations!
Employers are willing to pay more for the right candidate. If you’ve presented a strong case for your skills, qualifications and experience, you stand a good chance of emerging from a negotiation with a better offer.
Remember that a good job offer is about more than just money. Employers can offer benefits and perks which carry a great deal of value in their own right – things like health insurance, vacation days, or even regular use of the company gym.
If a company is constrained by a strict hiring budget, they may even throw in benefits to make up for it. That way, even if your salary is lower than you hoped, you can still come out of a negotiation with a great overall package.
Unfortunately, negotiating doesn’t always work.
There are plenty of reasons why an employer might not be willing to come up to your proposed salary level. Many of them have very little to do with your negotiating prowess! There may be genuine and inflexible budgetary limits on the position, preventing them from offering you more.
This can be particularly common for smaller businesses or non-profit organizations. They don’t always have the buying power of larger for-profit companies, which can affect their salary ranges.
For whatever reason, an employer may also decide that they don’t have the justification to pay you more. If you’ve asked for a salary range wildly inconsistent with the norm in your industry and local area, it may come back to haunt you at this stage. Likewise, if you asked for a particular salary range at interview and then tried to negotiate up later, you could find yourself offered less than you hope.
At this stage, it’s up to you to decide whether you’re still willing to take the job. Don’t be embarrassed for trying to negotiate! It’s a normal part of the hiring process, and no reasonable employer will hold it against you if you accept their offer.
As long as you’re smart, tactful and well-prepared, talking about salary – even at the interview stage – doesn’t have to be a big deal.
By making a point to discuss salary options with a prospective employer, you can help to normalize conversations about compensation and worth in the workplace. It may seem selfish, but it’s the opposite: when employees can talk openly about salary, everyone has the opportunity to ask for what they’re worth at work.
You owe it to yourself and your colleagues to have these conversations, so don’t be nervous! Keep your cool, do your research, and ask for what you’re worth with confidence. You’ll be thankful when the offer’s in your hand.
Content Writer + Resume Expert
Waverly is a freelance writer, former HR officer and current international traveller. They believe in doing your research, showing up prepared, and bringing your passions with you to work. They've helped countless job seekers create better resumes and cover letters to improve and grow their careers.
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