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A Guide to Deflecting the Current Salary Question in an Interview

Interviewing is a challenging process, and the most difficult part for many people is the question of money.

Most candidates are inherently uncomfortable with the subject – they don’t want to come across as greedy or solely money-motivated. It can also be tough to strike the right balance between being open and not disclosing information that could put you at a disadvantage down the line.

But those questions do come up: the salary expectations question, the current salary question and possibly more. Would you like some pointers on how to handle this tricky situation?

Begin with getting clear on three numbers: your ideal salary, the reasonable salary for the position, and the absolute minimum you will accept. Once you have those three numbers, add your current salary and a rough outline of your salary history over the last few years. Write them all down and don’t show that paper to anyone.

Sure, the current salary question may come up. However, here is a secret that your hiring manager or recruiter won’t tell you: neither one of them has a legitimate need to know your salary history. You are interviewing for a new position at a different company with its own set of budgetary guidelines, and your current salary is not relevant to the decision. [TWEET] Your financial situation is always a private matter. If the employer is not comfortable extending an offer based on your qualifications and fit, so be it.

Here are five more tips for addressing the pesky current salary question.

1. The right time to discuss the salary is when the employer is ready to make an offer.

Don’t get tricked into talking about salary in your first interview. Explain that you will be better equipped to discuss money once you understand the requirements of the job, and how well your qualifications fit the role. Mention that you are prepared to look at the overall package of salary, bonus, and other benefits, and that you understand the industry averages for your region.

2. Try to get the prospective employer to disclose the range first.

It is always better to get your hiring manager to talk about the budget for the position before you throw out any numbers of your own. You may need to prompt him or her, and do your research first. You might try something along the lines of, “Based on the industry data, positions at this level of responsibility call for X to Y. I am sure you have budgeted for the position with the competitive data in mind. What is your target range?”  

If you don’t want to ask for their range up front, consider this: “I would appreciate it if you could make an offer based on my experience and qualifications, as well as your budget for this position. We will take it from there.”

3. If you have to talk numbers, disclose your target range - not a single number.

Any one number can come across as an ultimatum – and those don’t work well in a negotiation scenario. By giving your prospective employer your range, you are leaving more room for a win-win outcome where your optimal salary range overlaps their budget. After all, everyone is working with limited resources, and you may not fully understand the constraints the hiring manager has.

4. Be sure you are talking to the decision maker.

There is another benefit to delaying the money conversation, and that is ensuring that you are negotiating with a decision maker. An HR manager may be a qualified professional in his or her own right, and alienating HR is not a smart long-term decision. However, your prospective manager or his boss has a better understanding of the department budget, your qualifications, and the potential value you stand to deliver to the company.

5. Smile, and remain in conversation.

This can be tricky when the current salary question comes up, especially if the negotiation feels confrontational to you under the best of circumstances. Do your best to manage your mental state, don’t get defensive, and stay in the conversation. Remember that demands and “yes or no” positioning does not work as well as open-ended questions and a genuine desire to explore options. You are in this conversation because you trust the employer to look for an optimal solution that works for both of you. If that statement does not feel true, consider the possibility that you are negotiating for the wrong position at the wrong company.

Now that we have considered the strategic basics for your overall approach, let’s look at some tricky scenarios.

What do you do if an online application form requires a salary history?

With online applications as a starting point for the hiring process, it might feel like you are at the company’s mercy. Skipping the question may get your application rejected, but disclosing your salary history up-front certainly does put your cards on the table too soon. You do have a third option. I suggest putting down your current target salary for every one of the salary fields. Then, use the first available comment box to clarify that all disclosed salary figures reflect your desired target salary. That way, you are not lying, and keeping private information close to the vest until the right time.

What do you do if the hiring manager gets aggressive with the current salary question and insists you just give him a number right now?

Well, you have a choice to make. You can certainly make a call to simply answer the question. However, don’t do it because you were bullied into it! If the hiring manager chooses to play heavy-hitter this early in the relationship, the dynamic won’t get more collaborative after you accept the position. I suggest taking a couple of breaths, reminding yourself that you are in control, and using the interviewing process as an indicator of what it will be like to work at this company.

What do you do if the salary range is below what you expected?

Here, yet again, you have options. Remember that money is one important piece of the puzzle, but certainly not the only one.

Look at the position overall – does it move you closer to where you see yourself in 5 years? Did you enjoy the hiring manager? What does the overall compensation package look like – and does the employer have any ability to budge on the number of vacation days, childcare expense allowance, the possibility of an early performance review and raise? What will your commute be like? Will the employer be flexible about you working from home? It is possible that the big-picture package of this offer comes out close to where you will ultimately be happy and overall well-compensated.

That being said, sometimes the answer is that this opportunity does not offer you enough in exchange, and you have to politely thank the prospective employer and turn down the offer.

That brings us to our closing point. Remember that you don’t have to accept an offer you are not happy with. Sure, you may feel pressured to accept a sure offer in favor of trying to negotiate and risking the possibility that the employer will change his mind and hire someone else. However, accepting what you feel is not a fair offer can lead to resentment and real dissatisfaction with the job. It can become a demotivating factor that affects the quality of your work, the consistency of your effort, and your attitude. So, if you are not feeling excited about the prospect of accepting the offer, it is best to continue your search.  

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Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!

Write your resume like a pro.

TopResume's resume worksheet is just like the one our pros use. Download it now for free and start getting more interviews!