Author: Amy Gallo. Published by Harvard Business Review on 2/13/2023.
There are many interview questions that inspire dread in an interviewee — from “What’s your greatest weakness?” to “Tell me about yourself.” But one in particular is especially complicated: “What are your salary expectations?” If you go too low, you might end up making less than they’re willing to pay. But if you go too high, you could price yourself out of the job. In this piece, the author offers practical strategies for how to approach this question along with sample answers to use as a guide.
Job interviews can feel awkward. You’re trying to prove you’re the right person for the role, but you never quite know what to expect or what your interviewer is really thinking about you. One of the most common interview questions — and one of the more awkward ones — is about salary. You know the one: What are your salary expectations?
Even if you have a strong sense of your desired compensation, you — like many people — may struggle to answer this question. It can be particularly difficult if you’re interviewing for your first job, or if you’re in the early stages of your career, and aren’t sure what an appropriate entry-level salary might be. Tori Dunlap, a finance expert and founder of the organization Her First $100K, says that it’s in fact one of the hardest questions to answer. As she explains in this video, “You’re going to get asked about either your current salary or your salary expectations, and this always trips people up.”
Many interviewees feel the need to respond with a specific number. But if you go too low, you might end up making less than they’re willing to pay. And if you go too high, you could price yourself out of the job. It pays to get this right, since your starting salary is often the basis for future compensation decisions, such as raises and bonuses. In other words, that initial figure will determine what you’re paid during your entire tenure at that company (no pressure!) so you want to get it as high as you can.
Here’s some of HBR’s best advice on how to answer this complicated question so that you can go into your next interview feeling more prepared and confident.
Strategies for Responding to “What Are Your Salary Expectations?”
Strategy #1: Redirect the conversation.
There are lots of reasons why you may not want to answer questions about salary directly. Perhaps you suspect that you’ve been underpaid in the past and anchoring with your previous or current salary would work against you. You don’t have to give a number. You have the right to protect your own interests. As career strategist John Lees says, “You’re not in a position to negotiate well because you’re still in unknown territory. The time to discuss salary is after they’ve fallen in love with you.” In that position, you’ll have more leverage and can feel more confident that you won’t lose out on money. There are also legal questions to consider.
Unfortunately, many job candidates go into interviews not knowing what is and isn’t legally allowed. In fact, there’s a close cousin to the salary expectations question that is illegal to ask in many U.S. states: What is your current salary (or your previous salary)? or What were you making in your last role?
Asking about salary history has been outlawed in certain places because research has shown that it contributes to pay disparities and furthers gender and racial inequities. Here is a list of states in the U.S. where this question is currently banned. (Though be sure to search to find the most recent information that applies to where you live since these laws often change and work in different ways.)
Here are two ways to redirect the conversation:
1. Turn the question around and ask about their budget.
Dunlap’s advice is to respond with something along the lines of:
I actually don’t understand the full scope of the role at this point in the process to accurately price myself, but I would love to know the budgeted salary range.
If the interviewer is forthcoming about their budget, they’ll likely want to know whether that meets your expectations. It’s OK to be vague at this point and say:
That’s helpful to know. If you were to offer me the job, is there room to negotiate?
2. Move past the question and go back to your qualifications.
You could say something like:
I’m still trying to fully understand the role and what’s involved. I’d love to continue talking about my qualifications and why I think I’m a fit for the position.
That’s not something I’m comfortable answering, but I’m happy to talk about my qualifications for this role.
There’s no doubt that these responses can feel like you’re dodging the question or refusing to answer it and that may be uncomfortable for you and the interviewers. Given the stakes here, this small moment of discomfort is likely worth it.
Strategy #2: Offer a salary range.
You may feel like you have enough information to answer the question or perhaps your attempts to deflect haven’t worked and the interviewer is pressing you for a response. In that case, you might consider giving a range.
To go this route, you’ll want to do your salary research before your interview so you have a realistic idea of the typical salary range for the role and can provide an informed response. In some places, employers are required to include a salary range on the job posting. That will give you the best sense of what they’re willing to pay, and will allow you place yourself within that range. You’ll want to compare your experience and qualifications with the job description to determine where in the range you might fit.
You can also do your own research, using sites like Glassdoor and Salary.com. This will help you understand what a fair salary might be for the position so that you can choose a minimum salary that you’re not willing to go below (note: that number isn’t something you need to share while interviewing but it’s good to have it in the back of your mind for when it is time to negotiate.)
Even with reputable sources though, it can be hard to translate average salaries across geographies or to the specific role. Is it reasonable to think that there’s a big difference between what a “data scientist” and a “data mining engineer” make, for example?
Another option is to ask people in your network — people who hold similar roles in your industry or maybe even work at the company you’re interviewing with. Of course, talking about money can be awkward but tackling a cringey conversation is worth it if it helps you know how to value yourself. If you’re working with a recruiter — external or internal — you can request the salary range from them directly. Whatever you find in your research, be careful not to get fixated on a specific figure, which can result in you being unhappy with the final number or accepting a lower salary than you might have gotten otherwise.
Once you’ve landed on a range you’re comfortable with, here’s how to share it in your interview:
- State your range and provide a rationale for why you’ve landed on that range, sharing some of the research you’ve done and noting the skills and experience that make you a strong fit for the position.
- Acknowledge that salary is just one of the factors that will play into your decision to accept the job or not. Make clear that you’re interested in knowing more about other benefits as well.
- Signal flexibility so that your answer doesn’t come off as a demand but as the beginning of a conversation. Express your enthusiasm about potentially joining the company.
Here are three examples of how this might sound like:
Sample Answer #1:
I’m looking for a competitive salary that reflects my qualifications and experience. Based on my research and the requirements of the role as I understand them, I would expect a salary in the range of $X to $Y. Of course, I’m open to discussing the details of the entire compensation package since salary is just one factor. I’m particularly excited to learn more about the opportunities for growth and advancement here.
Sample Answer #2:
Given my experience and expertise in [name specifics relevant to the job description], I’m looking to make between $X and $Y in my next role. I’ve done some research on similar roles and talked to people in comparable organizations — all of which helped me confirm that range. I know I’d be a valuable asset to your team and am open to learning more about your budget for the role and the other benefits that you offer employees.
Sample Answer #3:
I’ve been doing some research on similar roles and my understanding is that for someone at my level with my background and experience, I can expect to make a salary in the range of $X to $Y. Of course, compensation isn’t the only thing that’s important to me. So I’m eager to hear more about your benefits package, including paid time off and other perks. What’s most important to me is finding a place where I can thrive. I can be flexible around the exact numbers for a job that’s a great fit.
Choose whichever option feels most comfortable to you, and tweak the language so that it sounds like you. You’ll also want to add some detail about your qualifications so that you can highlight how your experience aligns with what they’re looking for.
Why do hiring managers and recruiters even ask this question?
It’s helpful to understand why interviewers bring up this line of inquiry at this stage of the interview process. The short answer: They want to be sure they can afford you. It’s in their best interest not to waste their time (or yours!) going through multiple rounds of interviews and putting together an offer, if they can’t meet a candidate’s compensation expectations. As author and career development expert Vicky Oliver explains, “Employers will always ask this question because every position is budgeted, and they want to ensure your expectations are consistent with that budget before moving forward.” The interviewer typically wants to determine if the candidate’s expectations around compensation and benefits align with the budgeted salary range for the position.”
From the candidate’s perspective, answering the question can help to ensure that the opportunity is a good fit for you and that there is mutual understanding about the compensation and benefits being offered. It can also help to establish a baseline for your salary negotiation later on in the process.
Whether and how you answer the question is up to you, of course. By following the guidelines above, you’ll be able to assess which approach feels most comfortable to you and which is most likely to keep you in the running for the job. Importantly, you’ll also have some tools to help make this potentially awkward part of the interview less awkward.