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Everyone I know hates the salary question—even my HR friends and recruiters! It’s especially offensive to jobseekers when it’s one of the first questions asked during a phone conversation. I hope this blog brings some insight on why the question is asked and how a jobseeker might respond.

The Great Recession brought a host of head-trips on answering the salary question. Many people feel like they may be eliminated if they ask for too much—so they low-ball the number when asked. Some people base their response on their current salary or their last position (if they are unemployed or underemployed).

Here are some considerations and tips on how to respond.

TIP: Unspoken rule-of-thumb:

The first person to bring up “salary” loses. Although this rule isn’t cast in stone, it is a general guideline. Candidates should not bring up the salary question. Eventually it will have to come up and eventually the hiring entity will initiate it.

An exception to this rule may be with executives who may ask the question early in a conversation with a recruiter as a courtesy. If the position isn’t within the range of their salary criterion, they will not want to continue with the conversation.


I suggest that they wait for the hiring professional to bring up salary requirements. Even if the position isn’t something to be considered, hiring professional know of other positions. One of them might be a better fit. Cutting the conversation short may eliminate any possibility for further possibilities.

TIP: Do the following preparation:

  1. Know the market value for the positions that you hope to land.
    The salary question is NOT about what you hope for in terms of salary. That’s definitely a consideration for you to know, however, the salary question during the job search is about the market value.

    There are many salary calculators, however I prefer to use www.payscale.com. The process will take from 10 to 20 minutes to complete as the tool assesses 25 or 30 variables regarding the position, your education and training, and your employment history. I do not believe that salary.com gives accurate information.

    Another avenue is www.glassdoor.com. There is a host of salary information by company and title. Oftentimes, a particular position or title will not have any entries. There are two options: 1) Check for similar titles with competitors, OR 2) look at the salaries for entry-level positions. If the company pays well at the entry level, they will likely pay well for higher positions.

    Sometimes I will simply do an Internet search: Salary for General Manager, Aerospace. (Try it. It’s quick and gives some initial information as a starting point.)

    Again, it is a critical success factor to know the market value of your skills, experience, and education when you consider applying for a position.

  2. Understand your personal budget.
    If a salary will not meet your financial needs, then you will have to decide how to manage your personal budget. Generally, this is not a situation that can be managed long-term.

    Knowing the ramifications to your finances and having a back-up plan before you talk to a hiring professional will allow you to focus on the conversation.

Who is asking the salary question and what is the context?

Jobseekers may encounter the salary question at various stages of the jobsearch process.

ATS: the applicant tracking system:

There are a number of reasons that the question is included during the application process.

  1. Sometimes companies will run a job posting for a position that doesn’t really exist. By that I mean that they aren’t quite ready to hire. They are running the posting and ask the salary question to gain a better understanding of what candidates expect and to get a sense of the candidate pool. Then the companies plan ahead in terms of budgeting for the time when they engage in the hiring process.

    Please understand that I don’t support this practice. Jobseekers take the posting seriously and many take great care in their application process.

  2. Marketing hand communication.

  3. In many cases, the title to a position is deceptive. Take for example the title “Manager.” What is the salary for a “manager?” What kind of manager? Account manager? Service manager? Front-line manager? Senior manager? So here the question is asked to be sure that the candidate is qualified for the position. The salary ranges will differ significantly from an entry-level Account Manager position, a Case Manager in Social Services, Case Manager, Nurse and a General Manager in manufacturing. Yet, the title on each job posting might simply be “Manager.”

    In this case, the salary response will tell the ATS if the person is aligned with the position or not. It also helps eliminate applications that are automatically entered by resume services and jobseekers who automatically apply for every job with the title of “manager.”

Recruiter or HR. Initial conversation.

When a recruiter or human resource professional asks the salary question right up front, s/he is usually trying to save time If the candidate gives a salary range that’s too low, then s/he probably hasn’t had the experience needed for the position. They will be dismissed and the conversation will be cut short. If the candidate answers too high, then the recruiter or HR may ask if there is some flexibility.

For a variety of reasons, some positions will have an assigned salary. Union rules, academic institutions or school boards may set these salaries. Or they may be based on predetermined bands within a company. There is no negotiation. In these situations, the hiring professional may simply tell you what the salary is and ask if you want to proceed.


TIPS: Know your market value. Understand your personal budget.

Respond with:

“I understand that the market value for this position has a range between [$65,000] and [$80,000]. Does that align with your thinking?”

Recruiter or HR. After an initial conversation.

When the salary question is asked later in the vetting process, the hiring professional is usually in the planning process. This happens when the job market is changing and when the supply and demand rule applies: If qualified applicants are scarce, then the salary potential may rise.

TIP: Again…know your market value. Understand your personal budget.

Recruiter or HR. During the offer process.

When the salary question is asked during the offer process, it will be part of an offer package.

TIP: Know your market value. Understand your personal budget.

Know the goal. The goal, in my opinion, is to land a salary that is in the mid-range of the market value.

If the candidate pushes the offer into the upper range for the position, then there is often no way to move higher. So when the review comes around, management may not be able to provide a monetary award for excellence. That doesn’t feel too good.

If the salary comes in at the low end, it could be fine, IF the position is a stretch. If the candidate clearly has the background for the position, then coming in low doesn’t indicate that the company has confidence in the abilities of the candidate.

The salary question is asked for a variety of reasons. It’s important to understand who is asking and why. It is essential for jobseekers to understand their personal budget as well as the market value their skills, experience, education and training within the context of the positions where they want to be considered.

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