Why Do They Ask “What Are Your Salary Expectations”? - Why Answering Salary Interview Questions Is Tricky

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Why Do They Ask “What Are Your Salary Expectations”?

What’s the most anxiety-inducing question you can get in a job interview? For most candidates, it’s “what are your salary expectations?”.

Answering “what are your salary expectations?” incorrectly might cost you a job offer. Alternatively, you could end up underpaid. And let’s be honest, the only thing worse than not getting a job is getting one that comes with an offer that’s insufficient to support you and your family.

In this article, we’ll show you how to answer this tricky question and negotiate the offer of your dreams.

They ask this tricky question because company leaders and HR professionals want to know if they can afford you before they invest time and resources courting you to come to work for them.

Additionally, despite a general market value for certain positions, some companies pay more/less for them. This means that the company is sniffing around. The salary they expect to pay for a certain position may be lower or higher than the average rate.

Another possible reason is that they’re trying to see how you value your work. Are you confident enough to ask for what you deserve or will you meekly accept whatever they offer?

  • Your mission: Sell yourself and prove your worth to their organization before you reach the point of salary negotiations.

Why Answering Salary Interview Questions Is Tricky

Usually, “the salary question” contains one or both of the following questions:

1.     How much would you like to earn?

2.     How much do you earn at the moment?

The question(s) can come up early, as part of the screening process. They can also pop up later, after you’ve answered a few behavioural, skill, or background questions.

In some respects, being asked about salary expectations is good. It indicates that there is some interest in having you come to work for the company.

The other side of the coin, though, is that when you’re not prepared, it’s easy to give a wrong answer. It can cost you a decent salary or even a job offer.

Your mission: Expect the salary expectations interview question and prepare in advance.

Mistakes to Avoid in Your Salary Expectations Answer

“What are your salary expectations?” seems like an innocent question. It makes sense that potential employers would want to know a ballpark figure for your expectations, right?

Not so fast. Be aware that candidly stating your salary expectations too early in the interview process can lead to problems.

Mistake #1: Talking about it too early

Early on, the company isn’t necessarily sold on you just yet. They’re still feeling you out and comparing you with other candidates. You’ll have better leverage to negotiate later, so it serves you best to avoid mentioning a specific number too early.

Mistake #2: Setting the desired salary too low

You may be tempted to sell yourself short in order to move forward in the process. While some businesses will jump at the lowest offer, there are plenty of others who understand the marketplace. They’ll shy away from candidates that seem too eager to lower their standards to get the job. It may make them worry that you’ll lower your standards elsewhere as well.

Additionally, do you really want a company that makes you feel like they’re only after the cheapest possible deal? Or do you want to work for a company that’s after the most qualified candidate for the job?

Finally, going too low can put you in a position where you can’t afford to accept the offer, yet can’t afford to turn it down either. This is especially true for job candidates who offer low-end figures out of desperation and hopes of getting the job. This rarely leads to a happy work situation.

Mistake #3: Setting the desired salary too high

Big numbers can price you out of consideration before you’ve even had a chance to make a good impression. Low or high, if you propose an amount that’s outside of their expectations, it can affect your image and the interviewing process.

How to Craft a Good Answer

How to answer what are your salary expectations?

Before you consider answering the question, it’s important to know the current average rates for jobs in your field and in your job market (location). These can be found on websites like PayScale, Glassdoor, and Salary.

Do some research to understand the market salary range for the position, the size of the company you’re interviewing with, the location, and your experience level. You will probably find some conflicting information and wide ranges in some places, but at least you’ll get a general sense if you look at several sources.

Your goal is to arrive at a reasonable salary range that takes into account the market value, your experience, and your current or most recent salary. This way, if pressed, you can name a number that’s based on real data, not just what you want.

You will also want to think about best-case scenarios (what salary offer would make you say yes on the spot?) and worst-case scenarios (what salary offer would you walk away from?).

How to put off answering the question

Experts recommend putting off answering the salary question as long as possible. Here are a few suggestions to strategically delay answering “what are your salary expectations?” with a specific number.

When asked: “What are your salary expectations for the job?”

This is a great opportunity to sell yourself while putting pressure on the organization to make a fair offer. Say something along the lines of:

“I’m more interested in finding a position that’s a good fit for my skills and interests. I’m confident that you’re offering a salary that’s competitive in the current market.”

This way, you’re letting them know that you’re confident in your abilities and respect yourself too much to sell yourself short.

At the same time, you’re giving them an opportunity to earn your respect by making a fair offer. By doing this, you’re tactfully letting them know you’re not desperate and expect to be compensated appropriately for your time and talent.

By playing hardball on the salary issue and not giving in and answering right away, you’re also letting the company know that they’re getting a savvy and tough negotiator if they hire you. This may be the perfect incentive for a better salary offer.

Naturally, some interviewers will press further for a specific number. At this point, you can say something like:

“Well, according to my research and past experience, my understanding is that 75-90K per year is typical based on the role and requirements.”

This frames the number as “here’s my understanding of what’s competitive

”as opposed to “here’s what I want.

If you’ve done your research (see above), you’ll be able to quote a reasonable range and then they can respond.

When asked: “What are you making now?”

For the most part, interviewers ask this question believing that offering a salary 10-15% higher than your current salary will be sufficient to make you accept.

There’s a number of reasons why this question may be tricky to answer for many candidates. Most typically, they are either underpaid or overpaid in their current roles. They fear an overly high or low number could lead to an unattractive offer or knock them out of contention. Others may be making a career change or moving from commission-based to salary work. Or they’re simply in a situation in which the comparison isn’t valid.

If you’re making “too much,” the interviewer may feel that you’re overqualified and they can’t afford you. This can be a problem because in that case they probably won’t extend the offer. Yet, you’d be willing to accept it and get a lower salary — perhaps because you know you are/were overpaid, you’re making a career change, or you’re prioritizing work-life balance.

However, it’s far more common for someone to be underpaid and worried about the perception that there’s something “wrong” with them for that reason.

But many people choose jobs with lower salaries that are compensated by other perks such as bonuses/commission incentives, flexible working hours or reduced hours, health and retirement insurance, growth opportunities, and similar.

When pressed to give your current salary when you know it would sabotage your chances, consider the following tactic to delay the question a little longer, if not put it off altogether:

“Since this position is not exactly the same as my current job, let’s discuss what my responsibilities at this company will be and work together to determine a fair salary for this position.”

If you feel you must reveal your lower salary earlier than you would like, don’t forget to mention the contributing factors too. Employers will understand that a job in Iowa paid less than a job in New York City, for example.

PS: We broke down all the details regarding salary expectations and negotiations in our detailed Negotiation Curriculum. Take a look if you want to negotiate like a pro.

Sample Answers

Now that we covered all the key elements to consider, here are additional examples of good answers that you can use. You’ll notice they’re short and simple if you played well so far, giving the actual answer should be a breeze.

Sample answer #1

“According to the current market situation, my location, and my experience, I’d say $X-$Y would be the best option here.’’

Why we like it: The candidate made sure the interviewer knows that they have invested some time to do the research. They’ve also taken into account the key elements, such as the situation in the market and their level of experience.

Sample answer #2

“I was digging around and saw that the current range for my position and seniority is somewhere between $X and $Y in this industry. This seems reasonable.’’

Why we like it: The candidate shows they’re also taking the industry into consideration. A senior technical writer for a SaaS company won’t earn the same amount as a junior/medior writer for a small eCommerce company that produces wooden picture frames.

Sample answer #3

“According to my research, the reasonable amount would be $X-$Y. It’s based on my location, seniority, and the market situation. But I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this.’’

Why we like it: In addition to the research, the candidate is proactive and invites the interviewer for a discussion. It means they’re open to discovering new information and reaching a decision in agreement with the company. A great example of collaboration!

Bottom Line

You don’t have to live in fear of interview questions about money or being extended a low salary offer. Following these tips will help you navigate the tricky waters of salary negotiations and compensation expectations while keeping your head above water.
Most importantly, be aware that you have options, regardless of whether or not they’ve been presented to you. Salary is not the only thing you can negotiate – you can do it with perks such as working from home, PTO, moving expenses, stock options, start dates, maternity/paternity leave, and so much more.
If you want to know more, our Negotiation Curriculum has a ton of actionable tips to help you answer the salary expectation question and negotiate your dream position.