An acceptable answer to a salary inquiry?
September 7, 2009 4:36 PM   Subscribe

How do I respond to an interviewers salary questions?

In just a few days I have an interview with another company. From past experiences I know that at some point I will be asked what I currently make. This normally wouldn't be a problem but I am hesitant to do so with this interview.

I know that in this new but similar role you generally make at least 20k more than what I make now. That's a fact. What I fear is that I may low-ball myself and drastically reduce my earning potential if I tell them, even though I am just as qualified as everyone else. This is assuming everything goes well and I get an offer. 

Should I not answer with a number and just tell them it's negotiable?

Should I exaggerate my current salary to something closer to their standards?

Right now I am leaning towards the negotiable option but it's not set in stone.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (28 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
If they ask you what your current salary is and you say, "it's negotiable", you won't make any sense. If they ask you what you'd like as a salary than than that's a different matter.

If I were you I'd just say what you're currently making. If they lowball you can always negotiate.
posted by kylej at 4:40 PM on September 7, 2009

You can always say, "I don't feel comfortable answering that question." Really, they can't make you say. Or, you could say something like, "When you factor in the excellent benefits/bonuses/whatever, my pay was within the same range as this job."
posted by Houstonian at 4:50 PM on September 7, 2009

"I am making XXX but i would expect to make XXXX working for your company, my resume speaks for itself."
posted by Max Power at 4:51 PM on September 7, 2009

"That job is behind me now. I'd rather look forward and focus on a competitive compensation that's fair both to me and to the company. I'm sure any offer you make will be an appropriate one."
posted by TruncatedTiller at 4:56 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]

The rule is pretty much: whoever says a number first is at a disadvantage in the subsequent negotiation. You should do everything you can (while trying not to look too squirrely) to avoid giving a number during the interview; let them decide they want you for the position and make you an offer -- THEN talk salary.

In real scenario terms? Well, to some extent you've got social norms on your side. If you act confident enough, in my experience you won't be pressed much beyond your initial resistance (as long as your resistance is framed professionally). Like so:

Company ABC Interviewer: your position at XYZ company...about how much would you say you're making? [alternative: What kind of salary are you expecting in this new position?]

Anon: Well, I would prefer to leave salary discussions for later. I'm much more interested in making sure that I'm a good fit for Company ABC and, of course, vice versa. As we've discussed, I believe my skills and experience will be a strong asset to ABC in the role of [Position], and I would naturally expect to earn a salary commensurate with that role.

Vary the specific wording however you want (and also to fit the precise flow of the conversation); the key bits are to exude confidence, to imply that you know what the position is worth, and to take every opportunity you can to emphasize and demonstrate your qualifications and fit for the position.

Good luck!
posted by shelbaroo at 5:00 PM on September 7, 2009 [14 favorites]

Say: "I'm expect the fair market rate for my abilities and the position you're hiring for."

Then smile.

And as shelbaroo mentions, never be the first to mention a hard number. Just keep coming back to "fair market value".
posted by orthogonality at 5:09 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I will be asked what I currently make.

Q: "What do you currently make?"

A: "Not enough, har har har"
posted by Palamedes at 5:32 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Noting the advice to not give a number, you definitely don't want to lie or pull an arbitrary number out of the air, you could easily take yourself out of the running for the position if they found out you had lied, or thought your number was too unreasonable to use as a negotiating starting point. Practice the lines above steering away from an actual number, and remember your current salary is really not relevant to the discussion.
posted by snowymorninblues at 5:48 PM on September 7, 2009

Q. What do you currently make?
A. With all respect, I don't answer questions about my earnings.

Unless this is a sales position, in which case, expect to show paystubs.
posted by zippy at 5:55 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Not only are all such questions just attempts on the company's part to lowball you, company policies banning or discouraging discussion of your salary with your fellow employees are attempts to prevent you from finding out that you've been lowballed: so be aware that this is illegal.
posted by kenko at 6:08 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

Interesting - had this conundrum myself when moving from non-profit sector to very-profit sector.

My solution? I found out what the company was paying/prepared to pay for that kind of role (it's grand when you have a friend in HR, but you could ask around peers and get a reasonable estimation), and then I lied.

Lied Lied Liar my pants were so on fire. I bumped up my salary by 25k - and then said I would expect a raise on that, moving into the for profit sector. They readily agreed and in one fell swoop I got a 45% salary increase.

Dunno if this is good advice for recession-times, but your biggest - maybe your only - chance for a large rise in most companies (esp the bigger ones), is when you join. It's also your best opportunity to convince them that you're worth the money.

So see how much you can get. It's not a war - you can always back down. If they really want you, they'll be pretty upfront with how much they are prepared to pay. I got a big rise, but that was because my salary was so pathetic before. You need to find out what they pay in general and keep your request realistic. If you can find out how desperate they are to fill the role, so much the better.
posted by smoke at 6:16 PM on September 7, 2009 [8 favorites]

I absolutely must disagree with shelbaroo's advice about how to respond to such an inquiry. In my experience (of being the interviewer, not the interviewee), immediately changing the subject like that, or worse acting like the interviewer asked a different question, is an immediate ding on your candidacy. Be direct and straight forward and don't 'spin' a question that is as specific and objective as "How much do you earn now?" You're not obligated to answer, and you can certainly provide valid reasons for why not, but don't say "How much do I earn? Well I don't want to talk about that, btw I'm a great fit for the job!"
posted by telegraph at 6:58 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

If this were my situation, I would be honest and say

"At my previous position I made (rough estimate), but my financial situation was--well, let's just say sub-optimal (laugh here), which is part of why I am interviewing here with you today."

I'm sure this would break a few interviewing rules, but if you are in an industry where
1. Pay is generally uniform for particular employers, and
2. You are listing your previous employers on your resume,

they probably already have an idea what you were making. Everybody wants more money when they move jobs, I don't think you lose "points" by being honest about that. At least you wouldn't if I were interviewing.
posted by Phyltre at 7:10 PM on September 7, 2009

Exaggerate your current salary to something closer to their standards, but don't overdo it. Obviously you have a good idea what they will pay you. Just don't overdo it, you'll still be ahead financially ( if given the job), and in time you'll probably be getting a raise or two if you deserve it. Hopefully that will bring you up closer to the "20 k" increase you think your entitled to. Don't be over greedy.

Good luck!
posted by Taurid at 7:39 PM on September 7, 2009

The bizarre thing is that this question is such a transparent attempt to con you—your current salary has no bearing on your ability to perform your new duties, and if the salary they offer is too high, or too low, well, you can tell them then. The only reason to want to know this is to know how low they can go.
posted by kenko at 7:44 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

First I'd dodge this question until an offer is on the table. Say you'd prefer to discuss that once you both and the company had determined that you're a good fit. There's no reason to discuss money at all prior to an offer on the table. If this is a largish company they have a very good idea what the position should pay - so you only lose if you answer this question. You also should really only be discussing the topic with an HR representative not, usually, with the hiring manager. When I've been the hiring manager this wasn't discussed with HR until we decided to make an offer.

Now in your position you likely are looking for a pretty decent bump, some might be looking for just a small premium on what they are currently making, in that case they may want to tell them what their actual salary was and say they're looking for an increase.

In your case you're likely better off just saying, "I'd prefer not to discuss my previous salary, how about you make an offer and we see if we can make it work?"
posted by bitdamaged at 7:46 PM on September 7, 2009

Don't get into a long conversation about it. It's a waste of valuable interview time when you should be making the person believe you are the best candidate. Here is what I use, "I make a base salary of X plus generous bonus package." That way you've got wiggle room when you get the offer.
posted by 26.2 at 7:56 PM on September 7, 2009

Saying the right thing at this point is hard- you're trying to deflect them from knowing about your current salary by explaining that the current and future salary should not be too related. In my transition from a postdoc (lowpaying) to a real job, this was pretty easy to convince them of. However, they had the number already, because all applicants go through a website which required a radio-button to indicate a "current salary range" (very sneaky, HR department!) HR lady looked at the number, agreed that postdoc salaries were not comparable, and we moved on, with her - I would assume - thinking about the lowest they could get away with paying me. I then approached it by saying I was sure there was a range of salaries she had in mind for the position. [pause]. [she's acknowledging but not saying anything]. I explain what makes me better suited for the job than the minimum requirements they had posted, and how this should clearly put my salary at the top of the range they had in mind. I think this helped. I can't swear to what went on in HR lady's head.
posted by aimedwander at 8:48 PM on September 7, 2009

I would answer with something along the lines of, "I get paid xxx right now. But it is not the same job for which I am interviewing." "What is the salary range of this position for which I am interviewing?"
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:29 PM on September 7, 2009

Perhaps the Noel Smith-Wenkle Salary Negotiation Method might be useful to you. The basic idea is: don't be the first one to say a number. The nice thing about the method is that it provides lots of helpful phrasing and detailed guidelines on how to steer the conversation.
posted by ourobouros at 9:48 PM on September 7, 2009

I recently reviewed a book about how to negotiate your salary called, aptly enough, Negotiating Your Salary. This is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. You can purchase it for download from the author's website.

I used the techniques he describes to negotiate a business deal and ended up with a lot more money than I would have done if I'd just approached the situation blindly. You will more than regain the money you spend on this book. (No, I am not the author. I just think it's a great book.)
posted by jdroth at 10:51 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

I tell them what I was making previously. It establishes a baseline. If you do a good job, you get a raise. But, it depends whether what you were making was similar to the current prospect or not. May depend on the industry as well, I work in software.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 11:41 PM on September 7, 2009

I tell them the range of other jobs that I've been approached for by recruiters to establish my market value. They pick the lower end of the range. I am aggressive in setting the range.
posted by zia at 3:57 AM on September 8, 2009

Ridiculous advice above (mostly).

When asked what your compensation is, answer the question honestly and directly first. If you need to editorialize, feel free to do so, but you're probably better off not editorializing unless your pay is absurdly below market.

The time for salary negotiation is after you get a job offer, and of course they know that you are going to want to make more to make a move. You are free to turn down the job if they don't offer you what you want -- but you are never "free" to get back an offer that you lose for obnoxious game-playing while interviewing.

By the way, interviewers ask what your compensation was / is not in order to manipulate your offer down, but because compensation levels are by far the most consistent and objective metric of your current / former job. In the vast majority of organizations, ranks and titles tell very little, and job descriptions are intensely subjective and edited. In other words, we want to know your salary for the same reason a college wants to know your SAT and not just your GPA.
posted by MattD at 7:07 AM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

NTM, perhaps the current/former salary is what it is/was because you were a bad negotiator then, too, and the person who hired you was more than happy to take advantage of a cheap new employee, or you got lowballed and didn't know it and took it, or you didn't know what reasonable compensation was for the role (think first job out of college) and your future raises, starting from a low base, made your eventual salary also low, or you're a woman, or whatever.

The second-to-last factor there almost happened to me (I didn't end up taking that job); I don't think that my duties would have been lessened to be commensurate with my lower compensation.

This was at one of those places with a "don't discuss salary with coworkers" rules.

You know. For privacy.
posted by kenko at 8:13 AM on September 8, 2009

The answer to the toughest interview question - Brazen Careerist by Penelope Trunk
There's a lot of advice on this blog about how to interview: Tell good stories, ask good questions, be a closer. But here's only one most important thing to remember: when it comes to discussing your potential salary, never give the number first.
posted by junger at 10:06 AM on September 8, 2009

Q: "What do you currently make?"

A: "Not enough, har har har"

Sorry, Palamedes, but that comes across as uncouth & unprofessional. I'd be taken aback by someone acting that way, that late in the hiring process. You're still being interviewed, up until you sign the employment agreement.

But far, far worse advice came from MattD:

When asked what your compensation is, answer the question honestly and directly first.

I "let down my guard" and did this before a consulting job, and instantly lost 25% of my prospective pay. How do I know? Because a senior exec had already discussed my pay with me... which is why I wasn't in "negotiation mode" when I spoke with the CEO, who then dropped my pay to exactly that of my previous position (plus some added benefits).

By the way, interviewers ask what your compensation was / is not in order to manipulate your offer down, but because compensation levels are by far the most consistent and objective metric of your current / former job.

While the 2nd point you make is true, the first point is patently wrong. Employers are interested in getting a bargain at the negotiation table, but not at the cost of employee dissatisfaction. The simple meeting point of those two curves is slightly above your previous pay - you get a pay boost; they don't pay any more than needed.

Many of your other points were valid, but these two are just dangerously wrong. I double-dog-dare you to find a single negotiation advice book that agrees with you.
posted by IAmBroom at 7:01 PM on September 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

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