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The salary question: answer like a pro

What are your salary expectations? It can be a killer of a question to answer in an interview, especially if you’re unprepared. It may seem like a straightforward question, but it’s often tricky to answer.

What you say in response can make or break whether you land the job and earn what you want.

The most important thing is to not be caught off guard. Think through the answer before you enter the interview room and rehearse it so you sound confident. If you’re working through a professional recruitment firm, they’ll handle the negotiations on your behalf.

Try to think about what salary would make you say ‘yes’ during the interview and what salary you’d be prepared to refuse on the spot.

Here are some questions and answers to kick start your thinking process and some tips for delaying answering the question.

Q1. How do I decide what the role is worth?

Research is key. Never go with your gut instinct.

Talk to your recruitment company and make sure you look at what the salary scale is, if it’s stated in the job ad. If it isn’t, look at similar positions requiring similar education and experience as you have, to determine a reasonable scale. SEEK can be a gold mine of information for this. Narrow your search, if possible, to location (city or region) since different areas command different salaries. An ICT specialist can command more money, for example, in a major Australian city than they can in a small town.

Armed with research, you’ll be able to state with confidence that you believe an $xx to $xx salary range is competitive for what the market will bear for the role’s responsibilities. This is also a softer approach than abruptly stating: ‘I want $xx and no less.’ This can be a real turn off for employers.

Q2. How hard do I negotiate during the interview?

You need to exercise some caution. You want to prove to the employer that you’re confident in what you’re worth, but you don’t want to leave them with the impression that you’re pushy, arrogant and not willing to budge even if for a small amount.

One tactic is to say that you know the position was advertised at $xx and so are expecting a salary in that vicinity. Or you can ask the employer what they’re thinking of paying for the role, which puts the onus back on them.

Also, remember that no matter how keen an employer is to have you on board, they may have a strict limit on the salary and can’t go beyond that.

Q3. Isn’t it best to start low and negotiate from there?

Never start low. Once you state a low number that’s what the employer will have stuck in their head. Usually when people move to a new role they’re expecting to get paid at least a little more.

Also, you start low, the employer may feel you lack confidence in your worth. On the other hand, stating you’ll only work at the top end of the scale can reflect over confidence and/or lack of flexibility.

Q4. How can I be proactive in answering this question?

If it works in the interview, you could raise the topic before being asked the question. Be confident and frame the topic along these lines: ‘I’m keen on a position that’s a good match for my skills, experience and cultural fit. I’m confident you’re offering a salary that’s competitive in the current market for the role’s responsibilities.’

Q5. Shouldn’t I just put what I want on my application, so the employer knows in advance?

This isn’t wise because it can influence an employer. Before even preparing an answer, you should have a sense of what someone in your field, and in your geographic area, typically earns. This will allow you to answer with a reasonable salary range.

Q6. What if the employer offers me a salary level and I want time to think it through?

You shouldn’t feel obliged to address such an important issue right on the spot. Thank the employer for the offer and let them know you want to think about it overnight. If the salary offer is lower than what you currently earn you state say that and let them know you’re looking for a little more to make it worthwhile moving jobs.

Q7. If the salary level is far too low, should I take the job anyway?

It’s hard to do this in a competitive market but unless there are other positive benefits attracting you to the company or position, you should be prepared to walk away. This depends on your personal circumstances also. If you have a large family and a hefty mortgage, for example, and have been looking for work for a long time without success, this could influence your decision.

Q8. Should I ask to augment the salary offer with other sweeteners?

Think in advance about other benefits you might like. Ask if there are benefits that are part of the salary package, but don’t start stating your preferences because you can come across as being too pushy. Benefits could include flexible work hours, bonuses, pay rises, additional days off work, or health benefits like gym memberships. These additional forms of compensation may swing your decision towards taking the job. Once you’ve asked the question let the employer provide you with details.

Remember to calculate the value of each benefit. Free parking, for example, is worth approximately $4,000 before tax, and sometimes even more.

Q9. How do I handle a counter offer to make sure I get paid what I’m worth?

Remember that the employer’s offer is just that. It’s an offer. It’s the beginning of the discussion on salary, not the end point.

If you counter at the top end of the scale and indicate you’re not willing to budge, you may lose the position by leaving the employer with the impression that you’re overqualified and won’t stick around for long anyway. If you do ask for the top of the scale, explain that you’re doing so because you believe your education and experience are worth it.

Q10. What should I say if the employer asks what I’m paid now?

Most times when an employer is asking this question, it’s because they don’t want to scare you away by offering a salary that’s too low. They’re trying to gauge what would work for you and for them.

You don’t want this answer to influence your desired salary so be careful. Think about side stepping by saying something like: ‘This role isn’t exactly the same as the role I’m in at the moment, so it’s not possible to compare. It might be better to work through all the responsibilities so we can work together on a salary that’s fair for both of us.’

Again, this is another time when you can put the onus back on the employer by asking what salary they’re considering. Once you have that information you can provide a figure in the range or explain that you might need slightly more to take the role. Make sure you provide your professional reasons for how you’re suited to the position and outline other skills and/or tasks you can complete that the employer might not have thought of. Always relate this to the position requirements, however. Never, for example, say you want more because you  have debt or a large mortgage.

If you’re working with a professional recruiter, it’s safe to let them know what you’re earning now. They’ll treat this information confidentially.

Final tips

  1. Be prepared. It will help you navigate what can be a tricky question.
  2. Remember that stating your salary expectations too soon during your interview can box you in.
  3. Think about all the benefits of the company and the position, not just salary. This include work-life balance opportunities.
  4. Don’t be aggressive but also be aware that some employers are looking to low ball salary because they’re looking for the best deal for them.
  5. Don’t sell yourself short but don’t walk away from a company that offers intriguing benefits outside of money, just for the sake of a small amount.
  6. Always think in terms of what you get in the hand. Sometimes even though the salary may appear much higher, it might push you into a higher tax bracket so what you actually take home is less than what you thought. Always work this out before accepting the salary.

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