Ask Dana: In the interview – How to have the dreaded ‘salary conversation’

Job Salary Conversation


In an interview, how do I handle questions related to salary? I’m afraid of sharing information that may knock me out of the running.

Answer from Dana:

There are two types of salary questions the interviewer could ask:

  1. What is your current (or most recent) salary? Answer this question honestly — the hiring company will be able to validate later. However, make sure to break your prior compensation into base salary and bonus. If they want you, they want to know how they can construct a competitive compensation package.
  2. What is your desired salary? Whatever you do, avoid answering with a number. Why? Too low, and they’ll offer you a salary that’s lower than market value. Too high and they’ll think you’re over-qualified or that you won’t be happy in the position after six months. Bottom line, the hiring company will say “we can’t afford him/her.”

Here are some answers to always have in your hip pocket for this question:

  • I am confident that will offer a competitive compensation package, so I don’t have one number in mind.
  • I don’t have a specific goal in mind, as I understand compensation packages come in all shapes and sizes.

If they push you and say, “we really want a target from you,” I still recommend repeating, “I wish I could give you one, but my goal is a combination of the right company with a market-competitive compensation package, and I’m very excited about his opportunity.”

Now, for the salary question you want to ask them: “What is the salary for this position?”

DON’T. I Repeat: DON’T DO IT!

It doesn’t matter how far along you are in the interview process, who you are interviewing with (including HR), or how badly you think you need to know. Never, ever, ever ask anything related to your finances. This includes:

  • “Is there a stock plan?”
  • “Is there a bonus?”
  • “What is the commission structure (sales)?”
  • “What is the salary range?”

Why? Because you will receive their salary proposal when you get job offer — and then it’s time to negotiate. If you do ask, you can appear cocky and presumptuous, and it raises suspicious about your priorities (even though they know money is important to everyone).

I look at an interview like real estate: There’s only a fixed amount of property (or time with the interviewer) and you want to maximize that real estate by ensuring every move is helping rather than hurting your chances. So make sure that you ask questions, too.

Here are some of my favorite questions to ask in an interview.

  • I’m very self-motivated. How will you measure my success in this position after one full year?
  • It’s very important for me to meet as many team members as possible in the first 30 days. How will you recommend I do that?
  • What are the top three skills or experiences you are looking for that may not be mentioned in the job description?
  • Which characteristics stand out in your top performers?
  • I’m a perfectionist in some areas. What are the aspects of this position that absolutely require precision?
  • What do you find most creative about what you do? (Replace “creative” with another positive skill of the position.)

Now, ask yourself: Do you want to “waste” a question on your compensation? Or do you want to ask several of the above questions?


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