Do I have to respond to HR's request for salary expectations?
March 26, 2015 7:51 AM   Subscribe

In applying for an in-house counsel position where HR has asked me to state salary expectations on a job application before going in for a previously scheduled interview, can I ignore the request? Do I have to answer the question with a number or a range, or can I get away with something more waffling to put the ball in their court?

I was recently contacted by an acquaintance who invited me to apply for an in-house counsel job opening in their department at a large regional retail company. I sent in my CV and they scheduled an interview, so great, right? An HR representative then contacted me and asked that I fill out their form job application before the interview (something that is clearly drafted more for hiring front-line retail staff rather than professional personnel), and she requested specifically that I fill out a section asking about salary expectations. Given what I know about this company, I think they may pay slightly less than what I make now in a different industry, but there are other reasons I may consider making the move.

So my question is, what is my obligation to respond to the salary expectation question up front? Will refusing to state a number hurt or help me? If I can get away with it, I'm inclined to just write "negotiable depending on total compensation package", but will that annoy them and cost me in the hiring process? Is this something where the actual hiring team will understand my reticence even if I'm not ticking all the boxes on HR's wish list? For context, I know that I am one among several candidates they're talking to (less than 10 but more than 5), and I know the GC and the assistant counsel who recommended I apply and have good, but not close, relationships with both. I don't have the job in the bag walking in so I'd like to make the best impression possible, but I don't want to scare them off with a big number (or leave money on the table with a small one). I'd rather force them to make the first move. So, what is the expectation to state my expectation here?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (15 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I've always heard not to reply to that question. My default response in the past has been, "I'm open to a discussion about compensation. I've tried to do some research to gauge what I can expect with a title like this one. It's been hard to find any consensus online, so I definitely want to hear from you about what I can expect."

Maybe the Hivemind will disagree with me, and I'd be curious to hear what others think about this. But I kinda feel like... 1) you don't want to accidentally undercut yourself by stating a number that's lower than what they're willing to give you, and 2) if you're far and away the best person for the job, not committing to a number probably isn't going to change that. Let them go first.

Good luck!
posted by schooley at 8:09 AM on March 26, 2015

Similarly, the advice on salary is always "don't be the first one to blink" -- get them to put a number out first, but be prepared in knowing values for the market rate, what you want, and what you'd take.
posted by k5.user at 8:15 AM on March 26, 2015

It's not necessarily a bad idea to have a brief discussion about what salary ranges both parties are interested in before getting to the interview just to make sure it doesn't waste anyone's time. Getting time scheduled with the level of people that will need to interview you is not cheap or easy, so some employers want to be sure that they're in the correct ballpark for what you're looking for.
posted by Candleman at 8:15 AM on March 26, 2015

Getting time scheduled with the level of people that will need to interview you is not cheap or easy, so some employers want to be sure that they're in the correct ballpark for what you're looking for.

If they were actually legitimately interested in that, they'd be willing to tell you up front what their allocated range is for the job. The fact that they're not tells you all you need to know.

And to the OP, IME you can totally get away with being vague. I almost always respond to that question with "I will consider any reasonable offer" and it hasn't cost me an interview yet.
posted by asterix at 8:21 AM on March 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

This answer by Ruthless Bunny to a similar AskMe links to an excellent article that explains very well (among other things) how to respond to a request for salary expectation or history, and why you should not volunteer a number.
posted by ogooglebar at 8:32 AM on March 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

I generally try to ask if there's a range established for the position.
posted by betsybetsy at 8:46 AM on March 26, 2015

Before you even fill out the form or go to the interview I would call the HR person back and ask what the salary range is for the position. If they dillydally on the answer or answer it vaguely then I would know that they are looking to pay as low as possible. In that case you have nothing to lose by saying "I couldn't consider leaving my current position/job for less than/without earning more than $xyz."

If they do give you a range, then you know how to answer the question or whether it's worth pursuing the position.

You could also ask the people who recommended you apply for the position what they think a fair salary would be for the position.
posted by eatcake at 9:09 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

In-house attorney here. You already know some key things. You know a couple of people in the department, including one at roughly your level. What kind of firms did they come from, and what was their reason for going in house? If the AGC is a guy and was on partner track at a big firm, but went in house, he is probably making more money than at the firm; if it's a lady it's tougher because, often enough to be a trend, female senior associates will go in house for less money because it's easier to start/raise a family. What I'm getting at is that you can use salaries that are generally well-known--law firm salaries--to work your way very roughly to in-house salaries at your target company.

You also know that it's a large enough department to support a handful of attorneys. That means you're in a large enough market to have fairly reliable salary data online. Do your research on the market area using Salary, Glassdoor, etc. I know for a fact that "Assistant General Counsel" is an option. Search GC as well just to see what GCs in your area supposedly make, and work your way backwards to what an AGC should make and see if it lines up with the market rate the salary websites provide. Also, if it's a public company, you can figure out executive compensation from disclosures and possibly any special benefits the GC receives. Compare what the execs at your target company make and compare it to companies with similar market cap and within the same industry, then you have a rough ratio to compare salaries in legal.

I usually shoot for the low end of the range if I really need to look competitive, the high end if I'm a shoo-in, and the mid-range if I have a good shot. In your case I'd pick mid- to high- salary range and say you're negotiable based on the total compensation package.

In short, I think you should answer the question if you have some idea of the range. You know how much base salary will tempt you to leave your firm. Let HR know you know the range, pick a floor base salary number and then say you're negotiable upwards based on the total package. If you are totally clueless as to what sort of salary they're likely to offer, however, I'd be as vague as possible.
posted by resurrexit at 9:10 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

eatcake's advice is good general advice.
posted by resurrexit at 9:11 AM on March 26, 2015

I had *exactly* the experience of the comment JoeZydeco linked to last month. When I indicated the offer was lower than I was looking for their response was 'well, you didn't give us a number'. They did say they were open to negotiation, but they were so far away from where I felt I could be I wasn't optimistic it was going to end well. (I ended up accepting another much higher offer for a job I was more interested in before I finish negotiating with the first company).

I had always heard never be the first to give a number, but as I was doing my job hunting I read more than one article that indicated that advice is a bit outdated, especially in the era of Glassdoor, etc. After that experience, in the future I may give a response like eatcake suggests if I'm in that position again. I felt like I came across as not being serious with the first company, when in fact, I was serious, I just wasn't secure in what I thought I was worth in the market. When I first interviewed with them, I really didn't know what I could expect, but by the time they got around to making the offer, I was 6 weeks further along in my job search, had done a lot of interviews, a lot more research/thinking and had a pretty good idea what I wanted and thought I could reasonably expect to get. If I had known all that before I started with them maybe the offer would have been different.
posted by snowymorninblues at 9:42 AM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is there some reason you couldn't just ask your acquaintance in the department about what the salary range and benefits are likely to be? I know it's a bit of a taboo to ask people what they make, but this is a case where someone is actively recruiting you to the company and has an interest in helping you avoid salary-related misunderstandings.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 10:42 AM on March 26, 2015

I used to think giving a number was a mistake, too. But there is actually substantial research now showing that a range gives better final outcomes.
posted by smoke at 2:11 PM on March 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

20% higher than what you want, say it's negotiable. Don't give a range, you'll end up on the low end. One of the ways they decide how much you're worth is by how much you cost.
posted by dickasso at 4:38 PM on March 26, 2015

Yeah, in this day and age playing chicken about "who says a scale first" is a little silly. I would think of this as an ill-conceived ritual. Basically there are two things they can measure by asking you for expectations:
  1. Do you know what reasonable ranges are for comp for this role?
  2. How badly do you want this job?
Assume they have a range in mind for what they're going to pay for this role. If you came in super low relative to that range, it tells them either you are ill-informed, naive, or really want the job. If you say something plausible you're signaling that you understand the market and your place in it. If you come in high, you're saying "I don't particularly need this job" or that you're crazy. Once they talk to you in person they can disambiguate between the high/low states and have a better picture of your job thinking.

I would think of this basically as a way to signal to them that you know the market and they can't get away with lowballing you (which I don't think anyone really genuinely wants to do for a role like this) and if you adjust high or low it's your way to say "I feel secure in my job prospects" or "I'm willing to take a small hit on comp for some reason" which may or may not be good things to signal to them.
posted by heresiarch at 6:45 PM on March 26, 2015

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