What if they ask about salary?
July 28, 2016 4:45 AM   Subscribe

I'm in Texas and am looking for jobs in the northeast. (My applications seem to skew towards NYC, but that's not my target specifically.) I'm getting emails about arranging phone screens and it occurs to me that I might get asked about compensation. How do I start coming up with an answer beyond googling for a cost of living calculator? (And those come up with truly staggering figures I'd feel embarrassed naming, but that's a separate issue.)

Do those cost of living calculators account for the fact there's no state income tax in Texas? Right now, my employer pays for health insurance in full, but there's no 401k match.

I suspect I'm underpaid for my current market (I've had substantial raises in each of the two years I've worked here), but I'm not really sure how to tell. Glassdoor either has really small sample sizes or a still quite small sample for job titles that are general enough to cover people both significantly less and significantly more skilled than me.
posted by hoyland to Work & Money (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Cost of living will really depend on 1) city 2) housing situation (apartment/house; alone/roommates, city proper/in the burbs etc.) 3) having a car 4) commute length. I looked at a couple calculators comparing where I lived before moving to Boston a few years ago, and eh, they're kind of right and kind of wrong.

When I was doing a cross-country move for work, I started by looking at apartments that I would want in neighborhoods I wanted to live in at a price point I could afford based on job offer's salary range on Craigslist because I knew rent would be the biggest expense and used that to gauge whether the salary was sufficient.
posted by smirkette at 5:46 AM on July 28, 2016

My applications seem to skew towards NYC, but that's not my target specifically.)

It might not be, but that will make a huge difference in where the market is and what you should/could ask for. Much-lower housing prices are a major reason the population of Texas is booming so much; other parts of the Northeast will be a fair bit more expensive, probably, but NYC is its whole unique ultra-expensive animal.

A cost of living calculator isn't perfect but it's a good starting point; looking at rentals in neighborhoods you might like also is a good gauge. Keep in mind that big-city Northeastern life often means spending a lot less on transportation than elsewhere but a lot more on housing; NYC real estate is still very expensive but not *quite* as expensive as it might "seem" when you consider that it's entirely normal not to own a car, which is a significant expense for most Americans.
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:05 AM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Do not say a number first. If you have to put something into a form, but something obscenely high (like 1,000,000) or $1. If they push, ask what kind of numbers they have available. Also, see this.
posted by notsnot at 6:41 AM on July 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you have to put something into a form, but something obscenely high (like 1,000,000) or $1.

I strongly recommend against this. Some huge companies that use (annoying) application forms will automatically filter out candidates who are too far out of the range for the position. Without a human even looking at it. It sucks to have to put a number in those forms, but making up something outlandish has a non-zero chance of taking you out of the running before you even got started.

I also think the standard "do not say a number first" advice is over-simplified and not always appropriate (I can go into more detail, but this probably isn't the place). But if you're truly lacking any information about what the proper pay rate is for a position, you do want to be careful. In addition to the advice given so far, I'd also recommend doing research on Glassdoor and similar sites to see what other people are reporting for that area. In my experience, the accuracy of those sites isn't awesome, but it's better than no data at all (and probably better than what you'll get from a cost of living calculator).
posted by primethyme at 7:15 AM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Does your job have a related association? Associations will sometimes publish salary reports.

Are there any public sector equivalents of your job? I've sometimes seen salary ranges on federal or government postings (you'd have to take into account the COL for those as a lot of those listings are DC).
posted by typecloud at 7:32 AM on July 28, 2016

As the above comments say - do you research. But in the meantime (say, if you get a hot interview and no chance to research), you can say something like: "I expect to be paid in a range commensurate with my skills, experience, and the current market in ."
posted by dbmcd at 9:07 AM on July 28, 2016

Conversations about pay (or even thinking about conversations about pay) can be fraught. Fundamentally, you do want to get as much data as you can.

Everyone turns to online cost-of-living calculators. Their weakness, however, is that they are an average of an average of an average. Think about it this way. In your own city, there are places you could probably live happily and comfortably that cost less than what you're paying now. And, certainly, there are places you could live that cost way more than what you're paying now. Goodness knows you'd be comfortable there. Right? Well, the same economic range exists in every city and simply is not captured in most online COL calculators. If you do rely on COL calculators, look for one that offers "granular" detail. The calculator at the Bankrate website is a good example.

Tomorrowful offers good advice about looking for housing you would like. You can often do this online. Don't be extravagant. Consider properties that are similar to what you're comfortable with now. Do take into account any obvious small-town, big-city differences.

If/when you're able to visit a city you might relocate to, make a list of prices for everyday items you know you'll be buying in your new home. Think: milk, eggs, gasoline, cable, etc., etc. (This points to the importance of granularity in the COL calculator.)

Glassdoor is OK to start, but small sample sizes and the fact that the data is self-reported calls for a hefty discount on the validity.

In an early phone screen, you do want to avoid naming a number. You can name one too low and hurt yourself, or too high and hurt yourself. Your better bet is to "dance" with the question. You can use the it's-too-early-in-the-process dance step: "Gosh [be sure to incorporate innocent humility in your tone], it's so early in the process that I really haven't given the issue of compensation much thought. I'm afraid I don't have a good response." Or, you can use the apples-and-oranges dance step: "I'm kind of at a loss to answer that one. I'm familiar with pay and cost-of-living in My City, but really haven't investigated what they are in New City."

If pressed, you might try: "I guess that all I can say [more of that innocent humility] is that if we get to that point, I'm confident you'll make your best possible offer." I've never met an employer who didn't already think he was going to make the "best possible offer." You're merely congratulating him for doing something he's already inclined to do.

Sooner or later, of course, you'll have to get down to brass tacks on the subject of money. And that's why the research is so important.
posted by John Borrowman at 9:09 AM on July 28, 2016

When asked about current or past salary, I say, very kindly and friendly, "That's confidential information." and follow-up by saying something about how a good fit is the most important factor, and I'm happy to discuss money in a conversation that includes the full compensation package. And then a comment similar to the one above, "I'm looking for a dollar amount that's reasonable and attractive given my experience and skills, which I'm sure your company offers, based on its reputation."
posted by dancing leaves at 9:20 AM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Consider properties that are similar to what you're comfortable with now.

I would disagree with this one strongly. If you're considering moving to New York City, you're almost certainly simply not going to be able to have a property similar to what you have now unless you're a secret billionaire (and thus would not be asking this question!). And that's true, to a lesser extent, in most East Coast cities. Like, a good friend of mind is a well-paid doctor -- I'm sure in Texas he'd be in some huge house with a big yard, but in Boston his family is in a condo. You'll get paid more than you do in Texas, but almost certainly not enough to compensate for the differences in housing costs. Honestly it's just the reality of living in this part of the country.
posted by rainbowbrite at 11:38 AM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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