Why You Shouldn’t Talk Numbers

What is your expected salary range?

One of my favorite functions as a recruiter is helping to prepare candidates for job interviews.  In this capacity, I’m often asked what the best or safest response is to one of the most feared and controversial interview questions likely to be asked at one point or another – “what’s your expected or target salary range?”  A simple Google search on the topic is sure to reveal a wide range of differing opinions and strategies on how to respond, but one thing we can all agree on is that the wrong answer could potentially lead to negative consequences.

A recent article I read suggested that the right thing to do when asked for a desired salary is to answer with a range, and to have the low end of the range be a fixed percentage above the lowest salary you would accept (your walk away rate). Logically that makes sense, as you have presented a range inside of which any number would be a salary you’d happily accept. However, strategically speaking, answering with a specific number, or even a range, can still potentially artificially cap your earning potential if you answer too low, or take you out of serious consideration if you answer too high.

 photo credit: christina@wocintechchat.com

So, when candidates ask for my input here, I generally pose two questions for them to first consider:

First, “what would an applicant like yourself hear if a prospective employer told you the salary range for the position you applied for was between $75,000 to $85,000?,” 

Predictably, the answer to this question is always the same – $85,000. It is nearly impossible to hear a salary range and not imagine or at least hope that the top number is the number you’ll be getting. 

Next I ask, “what do you think an employer hears when an applicant says that their expected salary range is $75,000 to $85,000?” 

If you guessed $75,000 like most people, you might be surprised to hear that, unfortunately… you’re wrong.  Business-savvy employers  – especially those large enough to extend more offers in a year than most job seekers receive in a lifetime, have more data and more experience on the topic of salary than the candidates they interview.   Simply put, they have a high degree of confidence (driven by firsthand proof) that at offer time, most candidates will accept salaries that are at least slightly less than candidates asked for during the interview process.  With that in mind, when candidates state their range during the interview as $75,000 – $85,000, employers tend to expect that you would accept something closer to $70,000 or maybe even $65,000 when an offer is on the table. 

The obvious conclusion here is that it would be wise for candidates to inflate their target ranges from the get-go in order to compensate for the anticipated wiggle room..  (e.g. “If $75,000 is my minimum, I’ll say $80,000 is my bottom line and land right where I want at $75,000.”  Resist this urge;  chances are it will backfire.  Pumping your salary expectations up in an attempt to cover the perceived delta is a dangerous game.  For starters, your experience may not warrant the higher salary range you present.  After all, we are admitting here that you are intentionally raising your range above what you actually need or would accept.  There’s a good chance you’ll be stating a range that is above market rate and if that’s the case, you may price yourself out before getting the chance to negotiate back down to your real number.  

The harsh truth is that the salary question (when posed by an employer) is based on a false premise to begin with – namely that you, the candidates, gets to decide how much someone is willing to pay you. 

At the end of the day, it is the market itself that drives salary ranges.  This can vary by region of course, but like I mentioned above, companies spend a great deal of time and energy studying and mapping out salary ranges across their company and region to determine what they should expect and can afford to pay for each position they need to fill.  Because of this, they tend to be more tied to their expected salary ranges than candidates are to theirs, and during the interview stage at least, are less likely to want to stray from whatever range makes them comfortable.  If flexibility on their end is in the cards, it is much more likely to occur at offer stage once they have committed to hiring someone in particular and are feeling ready to fight for that person, specifically. 

This does not have to be as tricky as it may sound.  For the most part, it is recommended that you, the candidate, should be applying for jobs that are appropriate based on your specific work experience and accomplishments and that more or less match the requirements outlined in the job description.  As I said before, more often than not, the market at large will dictate what the going salary range is for the job opening to which you are applying and individual candidates speaking about their target ranges don’t have much influence on pushing a company’s range. As an applicant, you’re not exactly in a position to name your price, especially before reaching the offer stage, so being asked to do so is both an unfair proposition and an unrealistic exercise.

So, what’s the answer?

The answer is this: Don’t talk numbers unless you have to. Clearly I am not suggesting that you should refuse to answer the question. I am saying that there are ways to give a satisfactory answer that does not leave you open to being “wrong.”  My intention here is not to offer a fool-proof script on how to answer this or any interview question.  The insight and suggestions offered here are to simply have you think about the nature of the question and your position on the topic in a way that does not pin you to a specific range.

Instead of giving a figure, focus on what you have control over – your experience and the work presented in the job description – and why you are so extremely well suited for this job, and this company, at this point in your career. Express that you are only interviewing for similar roles because they are directly in your wheelhouse based on your current experience, skills, and interests. Finally, explain that you feel confident that the market will provide guidance as to the right income for the role and that you trust that the company’s offer will be within a reasonable, market-appropriate range.

Now, the pressure to come up with the right figure is on them, and if they are excited about you, and want to entice you to join their team, they will make an offer at the top of their range, and possibly even outside of it.

JORDAN: Here are additional thoughts.  How / where to we fit them in.

 – Salary conversations take the emphasis off your specific experience, interest, and skills and forces employers to compare you to the price of other candidates as opposed to the skills and experience of other candidates.

 – Speaking in detail about salary expectations is like negotiating an offer that you don’t yet have.    It’s a waste of time, leads the interview down a less productive path, and takes the emphasis off your skills and experience and places it on budget alone.  If you pace yourself and have that conversation after the safety of an offer in-hand, you will have more leverage to aim high because the employer has already proven to you that you are of great value to them.