With a little prep work, answering salary expectation questions in an interview can be easy

As you go to interviews, you should expect to be asked about your salary expectations. Employers ask about salary to discover how much of a match exists between the money they'll be offering and a candidate's compensation expectations. The closer the match, the higher the probability that a company will feel good about extending an offer – and the better the odds the candidate will accept it. 

Most interviewers will ask one of two questions: 

The most important thing you can do when those words escape the interviewer's mouth is to not panic. The only way to avoid panic is with preparation – this means research and practice. You have to learn how to answer salary expectation questions so that you don't get lowballed and so that you don't price yourself out of the position. 

What's the comfortable middle ground, though? If you didn't wake up with the ability to read minds, you'll have to do some work. 

The question isn't a trick

There is a legitimate reason you may need to answer the salary expectation question during an interview. It's not a way for the hiring manager to get out of offering you a job. However, an inappropriate answer could do just that. So, before you start researching salary (which is the first step in knowing what to say), it's critical to know why you're being asked about salary.

To avoid wasted time and effort

The main reason that you're going to be asked salary expectation questions during your interview is to ensure that no one's time is being wasted – yours or theirs. 

Picture this: you've just had a wonderful interview with hiring manager #1. There was great rapport; you joked, you answered all the questions with ease, and you left with a sense of accomplishment. Then, you get a call for a second round of interviews. Oh, joy! A couple of days later, you drive back to the place, pay for parking, and make your way into the office. During that second round of interviews, you find out that the salary range they're offering is $10,000 less than you expected. Well, shoot! You've just wasted two days' worth of time, 10 gallons of gas, and however much it cost you to pay for parking. None of this takes into account the time and effort the company has wasted in interviewing you.

To assess your ability to manage pressure

Since salary expectation questions in interviews are often met with job seekers panicking and being defensive, in some cases, hiring managers get a glimpse into how you handle something that makes you uncomfortable. In a perfect world, salary expectation questions wouldn't exist, because companies would list salaries on job descriptions. But since that's not the world we live in, be sure to walk into that interview room ready to answer the salary expectations question with grace. 

Expert tip: Remember that your entire interview should be a two-way conversation, rather than a question-and-answer session. You can put everything they ask you right back to them by asking your own questions.

Get ready to answer salary expectation questions in an interview

Considering that your interview is the time you're supposed to prove you're the best candidate for the job, you can use the salary expectation question as one more way to show you have what it takes. 

There are several strategies you can use to effectively answer this question and prove you're the best person to fill the open position that the company has available.

Research prior to your interview

Many organizations won't reveal the salary of the position they're filling. So, preparing for the salary expectation questions requires good pre-interview research. Use sites like Glassdoor, Indeed, or PayScale to research salary ranges based on experience, education, and location.

Remember that geography plays a large role in determining salary, so you want to base your answer on the job's specific location, not on a small town or large city that's hundreds of miles away from where you'll work.

Understanding the value of your skills and experience will also help you to determine your specific compensation requirements. The more experienced you are, the more you can potentially ask for. Finally, take into account other factors such as a change in commute, medical benefits, or company incentives that could affect your overall pay.

Contact people in your network

You've probably heard it said time and time again – networking is crucial to job search success. Well, here's one more way that your network can help you. Talk to people who have similar roles as you and find out what they're paid. Of course, don't send them a message that says, “Hey, how much money do you make?” That will not be received very well. 

Instead, open a line of conversation about how you're searching for a job. Let them know you're in the preparation phase of getting ready for interviews. After a bit of back and forth about that, ask them how they would respond to the salary expectations question. 

How to answer salary expectation questions in an interview

Now that you've done the legwork and have a basic idea of what you should expect to earn in a new position, it's time to formulate your answer and practice saying it

State a range of pay, not a single number

Come up with a pay range that's acceptable to you and – based on your fact-finding – also makes sense to your potential employer. 

For example:

“I understand that salary is much more than dollars and cents. Notwithstanding that, my research shows that based on my experience and education, a fair range for this job in this area of the country looks to be between X and Y dollars.”

This leaves room for negotiation on both sides and doesn't back the employer into a corner. Based on the response you get, you'll know immediately if you're in the employer's salary ballpark or if some negotiating is needed.

An important note: this is not the time to negotiate. That comes later. Instead, answering this particular interview question about salary expectations is about putting a reasonable and confident offer on the table that you can back up with evidence. Done well, it lays a great foundation for any negotiations to come.

Turn the question around

This is another situation where having done your research is critical, because you can use actual numbers to ask the interviewer a question instead. 

For example:

“Based on my research, [job title] roles in this area and industry pay between Y and Z. Is that consistent with the range you'll pay for this position?”

If you haven't done your research yet or couldn't find enough detailed salary data, you can say:

“Since we haven't discussed what the full compensation package looks like yet, I'd love to hear your general range for this position as well as any other types of compensation you offer. That will help me to understand how salary fits within overall compensation and I can better answer the question.”

You could also avoid the question – for the time being. Understand, though, that if this works out, they will eventually circle back to ask the salary expectation question again. 

“I'd like to ask you a few more questions about the position requirements before I answer, so I can give you a truly accurate picture of my expectations.”

The goal, if possible, is to have the company present you with a salary offer before you state your expectations, so you'll know where they place your value on their scale. Then you'll be ready to negotiate if needed when that time comes.

Give a specific number to the salary expectation question

Further down the line, there will come a time when you have to nail down a number. Hopefully, you can hold off getting to this point until the last possible minute, when you've had the opportunity to dig as much information about compensation out of them as possible. 

You may also find yourself in a bit of a bidding war for a position. If you hit this type of wall, it's critical that you do some soul-searching. 

  1. Are you in a bidding war because the company is really a desirable place to work?

  2. Are you in a bidding war because the company likes to pit people against each other?

These questions are important because they help you to discover more about the company's culture and whether you actually want to work there. 

If it's time to give a specific number, you should do so by also offering a range based on the information you've found during your research.

“Based on the skills I have – [skill 1], [skill 2], and [skill 3] – that are specifically mentioned in the job description, I feel that $60,000 is a fair salary; however, I would be open to negotiating any salary within the $55,000 to $65,000 range, depending upon other compensation factors.”

By saying it like this, you've left the door open for them to have some wiggle room with what they offer and you give them a chance to wow you with things like paid time off and other perks that can make up for a lack of dollars and cents. 

Expert tip: Every time you get the opportunity, you should remind the hiring manager that you understand that compensation is more than salary.

Answering salary expectation questions in an online application

When it comes to answering the salary expectation question in an online application, some experts believe that you should not provide that information at all. Leave the question blank if you can, or put in a zero if the field requires an answer. Putting "XXX" in the space will also work.

If you have to provide a number and it must be higher than zero, go back to your salary range research and use a number on the higher end of the range. This is because you don't want to lock yourself into a salary expectation that's too low simply because you haven't yet had the opportunity to directly ask about job and salary specifics in an interview. 

Salary expectation questions in the bag

As they say in Hollywood, “That's a wrap!” 

As you move through your job search and toward your next role, you're bound to come across the salary expectation question in an interview. Just make sure you do your research so that when you go to answer, you're confident and accurate without being off-putting.

Interview coaching can also be a huge help. With a professional coach, you'll learn all the best tools to confidently present your experience and value when discussing salary issues, so you get the pay you truly deserve. They can also point you in the right direction about whether to discuss it openly, turn the question on the interviewer, or deflect the question altogether. 

Feeling less-than-confident about your next interview? Our interview coaches can help. Learn more about our interview coaching services today! 

This article was originally written by Lisa Tynan and has been updated by Marsha Hebert.

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