How to Answer the Trickiest Job Interview Question of All
It's not "Why do you want to work here?" or "What is your greatest weakness?" Here's how to get your answer to the real zinger down pat.
Illustration by Daniel Zender
Over the past six months, during what he calls “the endless job hunt,” Mike—who didn’t want his last name used due to said hunt—has been on 10 job interviews. Inevitably, at some point in the interview, the social media manager in his thirties gets asked The Question. It can take many forms, from “what is your desired compensation” to “what are you salary demands,” but it all comes down to the company getting a sense of how much they’re gonna have to pay you.
“I'm kinda honest,” Mike says. “I made $65,000 previously, and if I would’ve gotten the job I was promised before I got laid off, I would have made $74,000. When I first started the search, I was saying 65 to 75K. But on the advice from a friend, I was told to aim higher, so I went with 75 to 85K. But also, I've heard to not give this info out at all and negotiate later. Probably everyone is right and everyone is wrong.”
But who is right er and wrong er? How are you supposed to know “your number?”
Do a little digging
The first thing to know is that while it’s become increasingly illegal for prospective employers to ask candidates what their previous salary was, that specific question may still come up. And if it does, looking the interviewer firmly in the face and telling them “this is illegal” may feel righteous, but it’ll sink your chances at getting the gig.
“The first strategy I’d use is pretend they asked a different question,” says Alison Green, author of the new book Ask A Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. “Say, ‘well I’m looking for a range of x or y.’ A lot of times you will get away with that.” If the interviewer still tries to pin you down, you can get out of it by saying that your current company considers that information confidential. “But use a tone that is upbeat and collaborative,” Green says. “You don’t want to sound defensive, or say, ‘A-ha! I caught you breaking the law!’”
But a question that will definitely come up is, “what are you salary expectations?” Arriving at that number is where things get tricky.
Websites like Salary.com or Glassdoor.com can offer a glimpse of what compensation to expect in a career, but Green warns against using that as your primary data point. “There’s too much variation and off-base,” Green says. “I’ve seen it hurt candidates.” Rather, Green recommends more informal research by talking to one’s peers. Not by straight-up asking them what they earn—which can either be exaggerated, or irrelevant because of their particulars—but by throwing out hypotheticals. “If you were doing blank work for blank company, what would you expect to make?” she says.
Give yourself some wiggle room
When you’ve asked enough people, it’s time to calibrate your range. (You can further calibrate as you go on more and more interviews.)
To do that, interview coach Barry Drexler recommends a set of numbers that includes everything. Not just base salary, but any bonuses you’d expect, the value of any benefits, if you were due for a raise at your old job, and, if you’re interviewing at a higher level, the value of stock options that would be coming your way.
“The question they want to know is are you and them in the right ballpark, so it’s always best to give a wide range, not an exact number,” Drexler says. If you’re like ‘I’m looking for 90K, but also have benefits’ then it gets convoluted. It’s best to give them everything you have upfront.” But since the values of benefits can be murky, Drexler recommends offering a very flexible range during the interview. “You want to say, ‘I’m motivated by the opportunity,’” says Drexler. “It’s a turn-off if you’re just motivated by money.”
Most importantly, Drexler says, the interview is not the right time to negotiate, but instead more like a dance to see if you’re on the same general rhythm. If you both are, then it’s time to make the minor adjustments. “They will walk away from you if you negotiate during the interview process,” warns Drexler. “But not after they extend you an official, in-writing offer. Then you have leverage.”
Always aim high
And when you do get that offer, it never hurts to ask for a little more, particularly if you’re a woman, minority, or another marginalized group that is still grossly underpaid in America. In fact, you might go as far as to add 20 percent more than you expect to make. If all goes well, you’ll get it. And if not, well, there’s really no harm in asking.
“A lot of people worry that if they ask for a little bit more they’ll lose the offer, and that is so unlikely to happen,” Green says. “Ask for a little bit more. Even if it is a good offer, right in line with the market, ask for a bit more. It doesn’t have to be you making a complicated case about why you’re worth it. It could be one sentence: ‘I was hoping for something closer to blank, can you do it?'”
After all, you're worth it.