How To Answer The Toughest Interview Question

While there are many differing views on how to respond to the question: “what’s your salary?”  – you should tactfully avoid answering whenever possible. As the saying goes: He who talks salary first, loses.

Of course, there is a fine line. Being evasive might cause some friction between you and the interviewer. However, if you put all your cards on the table, you will have no leverage. It would be better to understand what the position is paying first. This will help you determine whether you should continue to pursue the role or move on to greener pastures.

If you are speaking directly with a company, you can say something like, “I am sure we will be able to come to a fair agreement if the position represents a good fit for us both.” Alternatively, you can state that your required salary depends upon the duties and responsibilities of the role; you will be happy to provide full disclosure once you are further along in the process.

Unfortunately, you may not always be able to skirt the issue. One of the first questions a 3rd party recruiter or hiring manager may ask during an initial interview is “What is your current compensation?”  While this can seem downright invasive, it is an attempt to make sure you are in the right price range. The flip side? Ask what the position is budgeted for. There has to be a budget or else why would you be in an interview situation?

It may be tempting to say that it is premature to discuss money, but this tactic can backfire when dealing with recruiters in particular and hinder you from getting your foot in the door. Any worthwhile recruiter will tell you what they know about the allocated budget.  Keep in mind that most external recruiters are paid based on a percentage of your base salary, so it is to their advantage to have you earn compensation at the higher end of the spectrum.

If you wish to be vague, you can let him or her know that your salary falls within the range stated. If you are probed for specifics, depending upon the situation, you can answer this in a number of ways:

  1. If your salary is lower than the stated range, consider quoting the value of your total package.  For example, if you earn base plus bonus and also get insurance and mileage reimbursement along with a 401K match, lump that all into one and state that your total package equals X. The goal here is to make you look more attractive by bringing your compensation history to a higher level without being dishonest. Be prepared to provide actual W2s to back up the base compensation.
  2. If your salary history is higher than the range quoted, but you are still interested in the role, let the recruiter know that you are flexible on the base and you are negotiable for the right total package.  This will allow you to keep the door open for perks and benefits. If you are really valuable and the budget permits it, who knows – maybe they will step up to the plate and match your previous salary.
  3. If you are within the stated compensation range, but want to be sure to get a bump up in pay, be clear with the recruiter or hiring manager to let him or her know that you are targeting a salary increase and that you also currently get a variety of benefits and perks that are substantial.

Every situation is unique; your preparation will allow you to handle the situation gracefully. Take some time beforehand to sit down and make a list of your actual compensation. Consider the value of your entire package, including things like mileage reimbursement/company car, health insurance, stock options, and 401K match.

While you want to remain flexible and friendly, you do not want to devalue what you bring to a new role. Assuming you have worth as an industry expert in your chosen occupation, you should not accept a salary unless it is commensurate with your experience, skills, and ability to perform.

While you may consider a decrease for a start up that offers stock options, you should not fall prey to a company that thinks they can offer low salaries because of a sluggish economy.  In the long run, this practice will cause high turnover and dissatisfied workers. You may want to think twice if you feel you are being shortchanged. Stick to your guns and remember to share all of the assets you bring with you.