FROM THE TRENCHES: How to Talk About Your Salary in a Job Interview


How to talk about your salary in a job interview

Hiring managers often ask job candidates how much they make in their current position, which sets up a potentially awkward situation if an interviewee would rather not say. Applicants refusing to answer come off as uncooperative, but providing such information could hurt future earning potential.

“When it comes to extending an offer, companies are most comfortable using a benchmark for compensation and then applying a reasonable percentage increase above that benchmark to determine the actual dollars offered,” says career coach Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. “The problem is that they may be working off of a number that doesn’t reflect your real value out in the market. So if you have been underpaid and are looking to move to address this disparity, providing the hiring manager with your current salary and history will only serve to keep you below market.”

Acknowledging that use of previous pay as a baseline to determine a new hire’s salary contributes to historically underpaid groups remaining stuck with lower wages, some states prohibit employers from inquiring about previous compensation. Many other companies voluntarily skip the question because they realize modern applicants—such as freelancers, consultants, people re-entering the workforce, career-changers, and part-timers—do not possess an easily translatable salary history.

This trend offers little comfort, however, if you’re still stuck in the hot seat, so prepare for the subject beforehand by thinking out how to deal with inquiries about your present salary.

Know your worth.

Research compensation before the interview. Such information helps judge where your current salary stands compared to what people in comparable positions with similar backgrounds earn.

If there is an unfavorable discrepancy, you can draw attention to it if pressed to reveal your present earnings. Perhaps try something like, “My present salary is $X, but from my research, people with my background in this industry tend to fall in the $Y to $Z range, which is what I’m seeking.”

Redirect the conversation.

Instead of a flat-out refusal to answer, consider gently approaching the issue of compensation from an alternate angle.

“If they push you to reveal a number, it is acceptable to share your expected salary instead,” says job search strategist Sarah Johnston, founder of the Briefcase Coach.

She notes that you even could try getting more information from the interviewer before stating any numbers by pivoting back with something like, “Do you mind if I ask you a question, if it’s not too sensitive? What is the salary range for the role?” Knowing this information gives you the framework for your response.

Postpone answering the question.

Lastly, you can try to hold off on answering until later in the interview. The hiring manager may not return to the question, or at least you’ll buy time.

Cohen suggests trying this statement as a way of politely delaying your response: “I was expecting that you would need to know either my compensation history or my expectations. I’m happy to provide that information, but hopefully we can hold off for the time being. Right now, I’m thinking what’s most important is the role and my potential to add value immediately. I’ve done my homework. I know what these positions pay, and I’ve also heard that you (the organization) are really fair.”

If still insistent, candidates may need to just give in. As Cohen notes, “You can always negotiate the terms and dollars when an offer is extended. Hopefully, at that point they’ll realize how valuable you are now and have the potential to be, and that you’re worth far more than they initially thought.”