"So what kind of salary were you looking for?" What's a good answer to such a question?
December 3, 2008 4:50 AM   Subscribe

"So what kind of salary were you looking for?" What's a good answer to such a question?

I hate this moment in interviews when a potential employer asks how much I want. the range of what I could ask for in my industry is wide and the trade-rag statistics don't really help me either. so I usually go with what I think is fair. sometimes that's right-on but sometimes it's too much and sometimes it's too low.

this question is about to come up again. I'm tempted to go low because I quite like the opportunity but the potential job brings serious responsibilities with it and I don't want to suggest that I'm less experienced than I actually am. the written information I do have on the position does not state what kind of salary they are looking to pay at all.

so how should I handle this question? is there a nice way to deflect the question back to the interviewer, to suggest they should make an offer?
posted by krautland to Work & Money (36 answers total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't had to answer such a question. I suspect that my answer would be something to the effect of "I am looking for, at the very least, a living wage. I expect, however, to be paid at least par for the industry."
posted by LSK at 4:59 AM on December 3, 2008

"What's the salary range for this position here?"


"Given my experience, I'm looking for past the midpoint of the typical salary range for this position."
posted by mikepop at 5:14 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Could you say something like, "Given my experience, my ideal salary would be in the range of X" (where X is a mid-high figure), "but I'm very enthusiastic about the position, and I'd be willing to negotiate if necessary."?

(I've never done this before, so take my advice with a grain of salt, but that seems to be the most honest response...)
posted by cider at 5:18 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you really don't want to come back with a request, ask what the position has historically paid.

If you can wrap your head around making the first move (I don't agree with the wisdom that you never want to be the first person to say a number), pick the salary you find fair, pad it with an amount you're comfortable kissing off over the course of a couple rounds of negotiation, and say "with respect to my experience and industry norms, I am looking for n, but given the economic environment and my interest in the job I'm willing to be flexible.
posted by Your Time Machine Sucks at 5:21 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Ok, let's see. If you're working through an agent they'll deal with all these tawdry commercial considerations. If you are, then deflect this back to your agent who is incentivised to seek the highest possible deal.

On your own, it clearly gets tougher. Considering the motives of both parties does indeed suggest you're better off pitching high just for the simple reason you can't (credibly nor easily) go up once you've put an offer on the table. You can, however, allow yourself to be negotiated down.

It's key to insure that you've got their interest; many times companies will set aside a budget for a specific position and interview solely in that range. But when an exceptional candidate comes along (clearly you've got to get them thinking you're exceptional) the hiring manager will find a way to increase the money (e.g., moving the position up a grade internally at the firm so higher pay is available, etc - this depends upon how structured the org and how process / grade oriented their HR is).

At this point it would seem you're just opening negotiations, so here's how I'd play it.

They must know your past package and responsibilities. Don't get too caught up early on in specifics; talk through the position in detail, and make sure you illustrate

1) common responsibilities, transferable skills - this reinforces that you'll be able to easily do the job
2) areas of new responsibility but again find a way to stress that you can handle this as well

Bringing it all together: at some point you're clearly gonna have to put numbers on the table. To most effectively accomplish this you're going to need data on what these positions pay across your industry and at key competitors.

Especially salaries for similar positions at competitors, as this will help you ease into a solid offer from the people you're negotiating with. Once again, pitch high; if they are genuinely interested they'll find a way to make this work. Get fallback positions in mind NOW; if they counter you've got to move quickly to either accept or counter their counteroffer. Also (looking at your profile you're in London) keep in mind here many firms pitch car allowances, etc but have cash equivalents; make sure you and your negotiating counterpart are talking the same language (cash vs. car allowances, etc).

Also have a plan in mind to either accept / reject "soft" compensation. One bank I was employed by in the mid 90's couldn't match my money but pitched in eight weeks holiday. That was fine by me but only know the value of your free time vs. how many pounds you need in your current account to keep that overdraft in line.

And nothing in life is permanent - by that I mean it's worthwhile keeping doors open. I employed a similar strategy with a bank I was working for in mid 2002 and they didn't have the money at the time that I wanted, although I'd pointed out how well I could do the job.

The person they ultimately hired at the lower salary crashed hard, and that gave the hiring manager (who I was friendly with, emailing, etc) the business case to increase the money that position commanded by a significant percent, to bring me onboard some six months later.

Finally, enjoy negotiating! Many people don't have a plan, go in cold, get flustered or (worse) get taken advantage of. Plan ahead, know what you want and have a great time negotiating.

I alway try to do these salary negotiations over drinks or lunch; that way at least I'm getting something for my time.

Best of luck!
posted by Mutant at 5:24 AM on December 3, 2008 [20 favorites]

"I am interested in finding a job that is a good fit for me and I'm sure whatever salary you're paying is consistent with the rest of the market. Therefore I'd appreciate it if you could make me an offer based on whatever you have budgeted for this position and we can go from there."


"I'm looking for a salary which is in line with market rates and that of my peers within your organisation. What salary do you have in mind for this role?"

Avoid coming out with a number as there is a good chance it'll be either too low (and you'll be hired on the spot only to find out 6 months later you're grossly underpaid) or it'll be too high (and you'll be out of the running for the role immediately).
posted by mr_silver at 5:35 AM on December 3, 2008 [5 favorites]

I would be armed with the market rates for your area and comparable markets. And then pad that a little. Or if you really think you have the job in the bag, or are willing to walk away, instead ask them what they intend to pay. This is such a bullshit question, because the whole point of it is to lowball you if they can, so you might as well turn the game around on them.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:00 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Mutant sort of touched on this, but I'd add the following....if you want to avoid a salary-specific discussion, you may want to say something like "well, salary is just one element of total compensation - I'd be interested to hear what the firm has to offer in terms of salary, benefits, and other compensation (such as equity)." Full disclosure, I've tried this once before, and I'm not sure the interviewer liked that response, but I always thought it was fair.
posted by brandman at 6:22 AM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

Similar questions have been asked many times on AskMe -- example.
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:34 AM on December 3, 2008

There is this interesting little method which is essentially what everyone has already posted.
posted by swapspace at 6:41 AM on December 3, 2008 [6 favorites]

I agree, I hate that question. Here are two ways I've handled it:

Situation 1 - after the interview, phone rings, "We want to hire you! How much money do you want?" I was sort of taken off guard (and I was on the can when they called, go figure), so I highballed it by a wide margin.

"Oh, well, we were thinking more like $x", x being about 20% lower than the number I gave. He called me back a day or so later with $x + 5% or so plus a signing bonus. Took the job.

Situation 2 - initial interview. I was supposed to speak to six people that day, and the first person on the agenda was HR. Her last question to me was, "what salary are you looking for?" My response was, "Well, I've included my current salary in the application you asked me to fill out. I'm obviously not looking for less than that, but I would expect to be compensated competitively. Salary's not really my top priority, though."

They offered me about 15% more than what I was making. I took the job.

So, I think it's good to tactfully say that you want a competitive salary. If you can somehow hint that you're aware what "competitive" means in your industry and location, then they'll be a bit more honest in their salary negotiations.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:01 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Your prospective employer should be calculating the degree to which your work will benefit them financially (perhaps allowing for a training period) they should then be subtracting the total cost of employing you. In theory they can pay you any salary up to the point where the equation breaks even.

Make your own estimates. In the early part of the interview, where you are saying how great you are, drop in a few figures about how much you think you can save them. This is impressive in its own right - but if also allows you to check that your figures are in the right ball park. Finally you can use your total benefits calculation to credibly back up your salary negotiations.
posted by rongorongo at 7:13 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The link swapspace posted is a good one. I can offer two additional pieces of advice of what not to do:

- Never, ever, ever say something like "$X, but I'm willing to negotiate." It means you'll take less than $X. There is a classic sales tactic to follow here- once you state a price, the next person to open his mouth loses.

- Don't turn it around by asking what the company has in mind. As a hiring manager, I find this kind of turnabout tactic grating- this question is essentially part of the interview process, and if I ask you a question, I want an answer, not another question. It also says to me that you (a) don't have any idea what you're worth and (b) lack confidence (see above).
posted by mkultra at 7:31 AM on December 3, 2008 [4 favorites]

In terms of finding comparable salaries for your position, have you tried glassdoor.com? You'll need to register to see data but I've found it to be a gold mine of useful salary information.
posted by gsh at 7:37 AM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Don't answer this question. "I would have to think about that", etc.
posted by xammerboy at 7:43 AM on December 3, 2008

Why not give them an honest(ish) answer? I really don't think all this mealy-mouthed "I'd just be happy to be on the team sir!" stuff is necessary or hepful, it just makes you sound like someone who's willing to be lowballed.

I usually answer by naming the salary I got at my last job. Sometimes I add that I'd like to make more this time, but it's usually implied. This is a good way to get them to reveal the range they're thinking about- if they can't pay as much as the last gig did, they'll usually tell you what they can pay at this point (and offer a string of excuses about why you should pick them anyway).
posted by drjimmy11 at 8:18 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't turn it around by asking what the company has in mind. As a hiring manager, I find this kind of turnabout tactic grating- this question is essentially part of the interview process, and if I ask you a question, I want an answer, not another question. It also says to me that you (a) don't have any idea what you're worth and (b) lack confidence (see above).

Yes, well, your asking the question in the first place is pretty grating to the prospect as well. It implies that (a) you are going to play games and try to screw them out of a reasonable salary, since you apparently aren't willing to simply state the pay range you have already budgeted for the position. Or, (b) you haven't done your homework and have no real idea what the going industry rate is for that position.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:25 AM on December 3, 2008 [9 favorites]

I dislike the cat and mouse game regarding salary negotiation because eventually one of us has to give up a number and I'd rather be forthright about it, so I always have a range in mind. I base it on my current salary because the follow-up question to "What salary are you looking for?" is usually "What salary do you currently make?" If the two are wildly different, then I better come prepared with some fine justification.

If the potential job is essentially a lateral move with similar responsibilities, then I typically ask for 3-7% more than my current salary, as that represents a cost of living adjustment (3.9% this year for Federal workers). If the potential job involves additional responsibilities than my current job, then I consider it a promotion and ask for 5-15% more.

Mutant makes a great point about soft compensation. One company tried to low ball my salary by offering bonus money to bump the total compensation, but the thing to consider is that raises, promotions, and 401(k) contributions are all based on salary so cutting your base salary also cuts future earnings. The company came back with a higher salary offer, and in my second year working with them, they cut the bonus program.

I've found that when I come prepared with a salary range and justifications that managers are appreciative and receptive.
posted by hoppytoad at 8:51 AM on December 3, 2008

Response by poster: spot on advice from mutant, as always. thanks, mate.

I would be armed with the market rates for your area and comparable markets.

that's my main problem. I don't have those for germany, where this interview will be conducted. I have these numbers for the states, where I until recently worked, am somewhat comfortable with numbers for the united kingdom but I lack them for germany. this being advertising creative jobs there don't seem many good numbers out there and I lack the personal network there to ask for personal opinions among peers.

I think it's good to tactfully say that you want a competitive salary.
sounds good in theory but I'm not sure how to get that out practically (in german, natch) without coming off as strange. but I'm gonna think about this one particularly.
posted by krautland at 9:06 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

It depends on whether you think they actually want you for the job. Typically, when it has been a job that really wanted me, I have quoted a salary/fee that is just above what I think their range is. They then offer me the top of the range. I accept, and we are all happy.
posted by hworth at 10:03 AM on December 3, 2008

Seconding everything Mutant said. Also, if the german ad industry works as in the rest of EU, I've seen numbers vary wildly between small-to-medium vs. large agencies, and also between larger vs. smaller cities.
In Germany I expect you'd get top salary in Munich and Frankfurt (perhaps something less in Berlin, Stuttgart). Obviously, your seniority is a huge factor in this.

(I HATE that question. Dear headhunter: if you truly like me, put a number on the table and we start talking).
posted by _dario at 10:18 AM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

The common wisdom is that the first person to mention a figure loses. But that is just the common wisdom. How much do you think it's worth?
posted by yclipse at 4:27 PM on December 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

As with so many other things, Rands has good advice on this subject.
posted by [user was fined for this post] at 8:30 PM on December 3, 2008

I am an Exec. Recruiter so I deal with this question frequently.

I would answer this way:'' I currently make x with x vacation x health insurance and 401k etc. This position is the promotion I've been looking for (assuming it is) and I'd expect you would make a compelling offer for me to make the move".

I don't ask what someone will take for the job, I do expect they'll tell me what they are making now so everything is up front and fair.

If you approach it by sharing the facts, they should come back with an offer that works or may need just a few tweaks. If they low ball you, do you really want to join them? It's not in their best interest to offend you.

If you aren't employed right now, tell them what you were making and don't give in to a lower offer. You were worth it, you are still worth it. If it's the only thing you've got going or the job of a lifetime, maybe and only maybe do you suck it up and take a less than perfect offer.
posted by nelking at 11:37 PM on December 3, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: nelking: your advice is very good but the added difficulty is that what's being paid for the same job from one country to the next is not necessarily the same. I have a good idea what to ask for in england or the US but I am not sure if I should go 10k lower or even higher in germany. that's why I am trying to get out of the question without providing a number for an answer.
posted by krautland at 7:28 AM on December 4, 2008

So my corollary to this question is if there are different negotiation cultures/strategies (is it even acceptable?) in different countries - i.e. is a German company even going to ask that question or will they simply present an offer and that's that...

I ask because so many positions in non-profit and governmentally-affiliated organizations are based on or linked to the pay scales set for German bureaucrats.
posted by polexa at 10:12 AM on December 4, 2008

Best answer: Thorzdad is dead-on, and when someone presents you with this question it's an excellent opportunity to interview them back, since how this unfolds will tell you a lot about the interviewer and the organization.

Disclaimer: I am not remotely unbiased in this, and agree with Thorzdad's conclusions. His characterization of it as a potential attempt to screw you may be strong, but successful organizations do not endeavor to pay people outside the appropriate industry wage. It's long-term counter-productive, since on average people will not work for sub-par compensation, and I would rather work for successful organizations.

Personally I don't reveal what I make to anyone, period. Some places will balk at this, and I accept that consequence. Before I took the position I have now I had someone demand the information before even scheduling an interview and I politely declined to share. They were less than polite in their reaction. I consider this a net win for myself since I didn't accidentally end up working for douchebags.

In the interview process, when it comes up, I use a variety of "Salary is just one part of what's important to me in compensation. I really couldn't name a figure that would be acceptable without knowing the details of things like retirement and health care benefits too." I've also said "I have an idea of what I want in overall compensation, do you think we're at a point where we can put the details in writing and talk about a start date?" That does a good and polite job of saying that you'll talk about this when it's serious pre-hire time and borders on "closing question" territory.

The few times I've been pressed past that point have varied. One flat-out expressed concern about if they'd be making an offer I found acceptable and I was able to say honestly that I was aware of their stated range for the position and I felt comfortable that we'd be able to agree on a number within that range that would work for me. Another insisted, and I said that if they could provide me with the details of their vacation policies, health care, and retirement plans, including percentage I'd be contributing to health care and what match, if any, they would make to the retirement then I could give them a number. They declined, and I don't work there.

Personally I'm okay with that, but I know not everyone is willing or able to pass on chances that way. If you want to be less of a hard-ass than me you could do a little up-front research and determine what you think a decent number is. Nothing's stopping you from saying "Well, without knowing about these other factors, I was assuming $X, but depending on P, D and Q that might be different than what would be right." I do NOT agree that you can't subsequently ask for more, assuming you can articulate a reason and are not just trying to jerk them out for a few more bucks.
posted by phearlez at 11:27 AM on December 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: phearlez: the retirement/health care issues are pretty much standardized in germany - socialism is kind neat that way, and vacation time will be pretty standard as well. it being germany that prolly means between five and eight weeks per year. so it really just comes down to what they offer on a cash basis.

I really like your idea of saying do you think we're at a point where we can put the details in writing and talk about a start date? as that's something I could pull off politely in german. (let's face it, how something translates is a huge issue in such interviews.)

the research part is where I have failed. as stated before, this is not the kind of industry that has set wages and I would have to know a person in a comparable situation there to run a few numbers past them. since I don't know whether to adjust my number 10k down or up from what I'd ask for in the US (where I *do* know what I'm worth), I'll prolly follow your advice and spin this by smiling happily and taking that question as a sign they wish to make an offer.
posted by krautland at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2008

Response by poster: is a German company even going to ask that question or will they simply present an offer and that's that...

depends on the industry. a lot of areas have set wages and you can pretty much look up what you could expect like you could do with government pay grades or they will list it in job ads. smaller companies or industries on the other hand operate on an individual basis. the main difference between germany and the US would be that discussing your salary among coworkers ("let's find out if we make a similar amount") is poo-pooed. germans are a bit more uptight in that way. (it's also sometimes considered somewhat offensive to ask someone who they voted for...)
posted by krautland at 12:05 PM on December 4, 2008

You could also do the research from a different angle: figure out what it's going to cost you to live in the manner you want. Be up front in your negotiations that you don't know what the typical compensation is for this position but X is what you have come up with to have a comparable standard of living.

This presumes, of course, that you're at the appropriate time for this conversation. I think that if you're not ready to make the offer then you have no business talking about it with me, but that's my personal standard. It also presumes that you trust the organization not to screw you. I think smart companies don't behave that way, but that presumes you're able to tell at that point...
posted by phearlez at 2:11 PM on December 4, 2008

Them: How much would you like to get paid?
Me: $x! (where x is some absurdly high amount for the job)
Them: Well, that's more than we are looking to pay.
Me: Well how much are you looking to pay?
Them: $y - $z.


Me: That's acceptable.


Me: Sorry, thank you for your time and best of luck to you in your search for a candidate.
posted by Brian Puccio at 12:24 AM on December 6, 2008

"The compensation I seek is in the area of $XX,000, either initially or in the near future."
This gives some negotiation room, and with research can be an accurate answer that isn't too presumptuous or aggressive.
posted by pithy comment at 6:13 AM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: wow Brian, you pretty much nailed how I didn't with to come across. congrats.

in case anyone wonders: they did ask, I did use phearlez tactic of asking about an offer and they did ask again. I threw out the us-market rate minus 10% and was told that was at the upper end of their scale but that it might be possible if I accepted some added responsibilities. there will be either some freelance or another interview with a different board member, so I suppose I didn't crash and burn right then and there.
posted by krautland at 5:17 PM on December 6, 2008

Good luck!
posted by polexa at 3:40 PM on December 7, 2008

For the record, the real issue with Brian Puccio's approach is that the second half of that conversation just doesn't happen when an organization asks the salary question inappropriately soon. They're not at the negotiation phase yet, they're just fishing for information that can in no way help you.

Either you underprice yourself, in which case you either look inexperienced/insecure or you provide a poorly run organization the chance to underpay you for the few months before you figure out that you're being fucked, or you overprice yourself and discourage them from going further with you.

As krautland demonstrated, when you actually have this conversation in a receptive position, you might be able to sway someone into paying what you want because they've taken a shine to you or discovered you can fill other roles as well.

Good luck, krautland. I have to admit, though, I feel a little cheated to discover that all this time you HAVEN'T been IN kraut-land. Next thing you'll tell me that girl scout cookies aren't make with real girl scouts....
posted by phearlez at 8:41 PM on December 7, 2008

Response by poster: I feel a little cheated to discover that all this time you HAVEN'T been IN kraut-land.

but I always kept my location updated in my mefi profile!

well, even so. I grew up there. twenty-something years before I moved abroad. it's been eleven years now but strangely enough I'm not excited to go back.
posted by krautland at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2008

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