It’s the question every job applicant hates. “What’s your desired salary?” How are you supposed to answer that? It feels like a trick question. The online job listing is all you know about the position. It sounds interesting, why guess at a salary when that’s all you know?

Is there a right answer for your desired salary? There might be, but it requires some homework. 

Factors that Affect Salary

Salaries aren’t One Size Fits All. Some variables affect how much you can expect to get paid.

  • Location is big. If the cost of living is high, your salary will get a bump. Locations with no state taxes sometimes pay less.
  • Some skill sets are in high demand. When the talent supply doesn’t meet demand, salaries go up. Certain tech skillsets and healthcare professionals are very competitive hires. (Don’t underbid yourself.). Attracting physicians to rural areas is difficult. Pay may be significantly higher than a disreable city. 
  • Education does not equal experience. Recent graduates can make the mistake of overvaluing themselves in the labor market.
  • Corporations have more money for talent. They also have better benefit packages. But those benefits are available to all employees, no matter your paygrade.
  • A union job has specific pay rates based on skill sets and experience.

Culture & Perks

Salary is one piece of the employment puzzle. But there are quality of life issues to consider as well. If you land a high salary but are working 80+ hours a week, is it worth it? There’s no right answer, but you need to ask yourself the question.

What do you need to live on? Do they match your 401k? When you’re starting out, your financial future seems far away.  The time will fly by. Invest in your future right from the start.

Paid Time Off (PTO) is another benefit you should consider – how much and how soon. Some companies offer stock options, especially if they are planning an IPO. Others will offer a signing bonus when you accept the job. Depending on the talent market, this can be a sizable lump sum paid.

Think about the work environment. Are you sitting in a cube farm? Is there a chance for advancement? Does the company have a cafeteria? Free coffee and soda?

If this is your first job, it might be worthwhile to make some compromises. You get experience and might have a chance to move up. You always have the chance to move on, but plan to stay for 2 years.

If you can’t make it that long – it’s not the right job for you. Jumping from job to job ahs risks. The biggest is that employers will not want to hire you in the future if they think you will leave quickly. 

Desired Salary Answer on an Application Form

When an application form asks for your desired salary, the best thing you can do is not give a number. If you’re filling out a paper form, just note that you will discuss in the interview.

But who has paper forms anymore? An online form is more likely and might only accept numeric responses. We still think you shouldn’t answer. If there’s no asterisk (*) next to the field, an answer is not required. You can leave it blank and still submit the rest of your information.

With a required field, you have to put something in there. Try using NA (not applicable) first. But if it wants numbers, put 333 or 777. Any series of numbers they can’t confuse as a salary.

Make a note in your cover letter about your answer. Explain you need to hear more about the position before answering. Then it becomes a reason to give you an interview. With a good resume or CV, you can use it to your advantage.

Now you need to prepare to answer the question at an interview.

How to Determine Your Desired Salary

People don’t just get hired anymore. Job interviews often include an initial phone screen and likely two in-person interviews. You need to do your homework to prepare.

Start with a deep dive on the company’s website. Learn what benefits they offer, read up on their culture, look at the org chart. If you know anyone who works there, reach out.

Don’t ask for anything too specific. You want a rough salary range on the position before you interview. If they don’t feel comfortable, let it go.

There are calculators for forecasting salaries. This calculator is from an executive hiring agency, Robert Half. Salary.com has a Know Your Worth research section to show what companies are paying for similar jobs. Glassdoor is a highly-regarded platform for researching salaries. (They also have a job board and company review by current and former employees.). MGMA is available for physicians. 

Make notes and compare any differences between sources. The point of this exercise is to know a salary range for that role in your location.

Understand what percentage of your pay package is guaranteed and what percent is contingent on your performance. Ask what percent of current employees meet the threshold to get additional bonus or stock options. 

What to Answer at an Interview?

We’re assuming a multi-step interview process for a white-collar position or management positions for a blue-collar role.

Phone Screen

If the desired salary question comes up on a phone screen, it’s easy to avoid. “I’d like to learn more about the position before we talk about salary.” Human Resources staffers do the phone screen. After you answer, try to turn the question around: “Did you have a salary range in mind?”

They might tell you but even if they don’t, it’s worth a try.

First Face to Face Interview

The first interview is normally with the immediate supervisor for the role. This is who you will be working for. Depending on the environment you might walk into a group interview.

Managers sometimes bring in team leaders or other managers. It’s less likely he or she will bring up money in front of other people. But you should be ready with an answer.

Here are some responses you can try:

  • “I’d like to hear more about the benefit package, if you don’t mind? That makes a difference in my salary expectations.
  • “I asked HR about the salary range, but she/he didn’t know. What are you thinking about for the role’s salary?’
  • “I’m currently making XX. This job has more responsibilities, so I assume the salary is higher. Do you have a range you’d like to stay in?”

This interview is still preliminary. It will focus more on your skills, strengths and weaknesses and past work experience. There are two main reasons for money to come up at this stage:

  • You’re in a competitive labor market.
  • They are interested in hiring you.

If that’s the case, you can counter a desired salary request with a question about a signing bonus. In a competitive labor market, you have a strong advantage when it comes to money.

Don’t play your cards too soon. The first person to offer a number sets the anchor. All further discussion is made with this number in mind. If you say you would like $70,000 per year then that is the highest salary you will be offered. If they were prepared to offer $85,000 you sold yourself short. 

Second Face to Face Interview

This interview is with your boss’s boss. Once you’ve gotten this far, the company has a definite interest in you. You’re on the shortlist, but not hired yet.

Unless there’s another interview, this is where you close the deal.

You should expect a conversation about money. Every candidate will get one. Think about how you want to respond. There are two tracks the conversation can take.

Expecting an Offer

If you’re confident an offer is coming, it’s okay to be candid about your desired salary. It’s still smart to talk in range and get feedback on that number.

“I checked the market value of similar jobs in this area and the salary range is $XX to $XX. Is that in line with what you’re offering?”

You can add a bit on to the high number. Not too much, just enough to see it flies. When companies want to hire you, they may go higher than average. Expect the offer to be at the low end of your range. 

Not Sure Where You Stand

You still want to be upfront about your expectations when asked about your desired salary.

Take a look at the range you researched. Bump the high end up by a few thousand dollars. Then suggest the actual high-end number as your preferred salary.

Example: Researched salary range is $60K to $75K. But use $65k to $85K in your discussion.

“The average I saw for similar jobs was $65k to $85K. I’d like to see between $70 and $75 thousand. Is that in your range?”

A second approach is not as aggressive.

“I was making XX at my previous job and am hoping to see a rise of XX%. Is that workable if you were to make me an offer?”

Some people use the question to find out if an offer is coming.

“I thought we’d talk about salary if we were discussing an offer? Is that where we’re at?

Be careful if you take this tact. It can come off as coy or unprepared. Discussing salary expectations at this stage of the hiring process is standard procedure.

If you have a job that you enjoy and you are being recrutied away you can be more aggressive. Prior to your first interview you could say you would never leave your current job for less than $100,000.

You can get multiple job offers and bid them against each other.  

Let’s Recap

The reason a company hires you is because they think you are a good fit. You have the skills, education, and temperament for the job. Salary is important but don’t get too caught up.

Finding a job you want and getting hired is the goal.

Figuring out what your desired salary might be is a matter of research. There’s data everywhere about the market value for different skills and industries.

Always factor in the other things you need beyond a paycheck. If you have a family, health benefits are huge. Sick time, vacation days and a reasonable work/life balance are important. Upward mobility is important. Is there room for growth or would you be stuck? 

When it comes to discussing salary, be calm and confident. The worst case is you don’t get an offer. Because a better opportunity – with the ultimate desired salary – is coming your way. Often jobs are stepping stones to where you want to be in the future. 

If you get multiple offers then see if they are wiling to match or beat each other. 

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