How To Answer The Most Dreaded Interview Question (what's your Salary expectations?)

THE most feared question you are going to get in a job interview or initial phone screen is the "what are your salary expectations?" question. The answer is critical because of how it impacts your the next steps in the process. It can:

  • Rule you out as a candidate because of high expectations that are out of the position range. Even if it doesn't rule you out there will be a black cloud hanging over you throughout the interview process.

  • Anchor any future compensation discussion at a number much lower than the range the employer was willing to offer you for the position.

First, it's helpful to understand going into this process is that there are a number of variables that will impact your final total compensation package. Some are absolute and others can be negotiated. Let me explain.

The static or absolute variables include:

  • Payroll records. Many organizations participate in large employment databases that house your employment history and payroll data. If you were making $35k and you indicate that your salary requirements are $65k it may raise some eyebrows but.....

  • Positions have ranges attached to them. Depending on available data to the employer, they may be tight or very wide. Compensation teams are looking at huge payroll databases that are market specific, these include services like or

You may find flexibility with:

There are some areas that employers may have flexibility and some times it can be significant in terms of total dollars or benefit. It's important to remember that all of this is treated as income and taxable.

  • Bonus compensation. This could include sign-on, retention, or performance based opportunities to earn potentially higher compensation.

  • Flexible benefit packages. These could include; travel, relocation, make-up, clothing, automobile, education-tuition, health care, etc.

  • Cost of living adjustments. Many large national or international organizations will have temporary adjustments to base salary to compensate employees moving into expensive markets such as NYC, Los Angeles, or San Francisco.

The answer to the salary requirement question is .......

"Thank you for asking. My salary expectations are that the total compensation package is commensurate with my skills and experience and aligns with the role and responsibilities of the position. It's a bit early in the process to give you a specific number without knowing more. Also there are probably a number of benefits that impact total compensation and might be hard to quantify at the moment".

The interviewer may push you for a number (if you haven't impressed them with the thoughtful answer above). This is where you need to do your homework. You should have already gone to to research the salary range of the position in the market you are looking at. It will be displayed as a range and you need to insert yourself into the range at a point you believe you have earned and can defend it. So the answer might be something like this.....

"I've done some research on payscale and for the pay range of this role in this market and believe the range for people with my experience is $75k-$95k. I believe my experiences warrant a total comp package on the higher end of that scale for these reasons......"

Some other things to consider:

  • Do not lie about or embellish about your past compensation. Remember if you were at a large regional or national organization your payroll data could be easily accessible to future employers.

  • On an application the question should be answered on a look forward basis, not historical data. It should include your total comp., including bonus and value of benefits. You should also be able to defend it.

  • I believe the availability of data to employers is one of the reasons that agents and recruiters are becoming obsolete. There isn't the wide range that there once was in total comp. Also, use a coach or mentor in the process and you can craft your own total package with the hiring manager or HR/Comp Team.

In Summary:

  • Think about total compensation, not just a base salary. Use some of the ideas from above.

  • DO YOUR RESEARCH. I use when negotiating comp packages with employers. It is accurate and completely defensible. It's always best to have data/facts on your side when evaluating offers and opportunities.

  • Stay away from a number until you completely understand the role and requirements because you don't want to anchor low or get tossed early in the process.

  • Don't embellish or lie about your current comp. The potential employer has data and information that could question your integrity.

  • Don't fall trap to the notion that an agent or recruiter is going to get you more money.

Be Bold. Be Great. Be Timeless.

About Mike McNamara:

Mike has held C-Suite, Executive and Senior Sales, Marketing, Business Development, and General Management roles with Equifax, Cox Enterprises, WW Grainger, and Federal-Mogul Corporation. Mike has led sales, service and operations organizations of over 1,500 associates and accountable for P&L responsibility in excess of $250M.

Dedicated to giving back, Mike formed The MBAR Group in 2009 with the sole intent of providing pro bono career and business consulting services to the underprivileged and underserved. Today as founder and CEO of TalentBlvd, he coaches a number of high profile business and media personalities as well as holding advisory board positions guiding a number of multimedia and small business startups.

Mike earned his MBA from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University and holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan State University. He is a past chapter President of the American Marketing Association. Mike and family split time between their adopted state of Missouri and family home in NW Michigan where their philanthropic causes include The Kingdom House – St Louis, BACN in Benzonia, MI., and Samaritan’s Purse, Boone NC.

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