Yesterday we had a meeting in a shared open office (imagine a big hot desking space used by many small companies). At the next door table, a job interview was taking place and we couldn’t help overhearing. It sounded like a management / strategy consultant applying for a growth start-up.

The chap was doing quite well. He answered all the technical questions precisely and seemed to have the right qualifications and experience. The interviewers were obviously impressed.

Then came the question: “what are your salary expectations?” 

The candidate was clearly flummoxed. He gabbled for a while and ended up saying “salary’s not important to me”. Uh oh.

After the candidate left, the interviewers debriefed. They concluded that this chap was nearly as qualified as their current favourite, but they would be able to offer him a much lower salary than the other contender. So on balance, they’d be getting a good deal.

On the one hand, it’s great news for the candidate we’d overheard – he’ll likely receive a job offer. The downside will be a far lower salary offer than he could have achieved. That’s not to say that he couldn’t negotiate upwards; just that the starting point will be more difficult than it could have been.

This is a thorny question and one you need to answer strategically. There are some things that you should do to prepare:

Know your worth. Research compensation packages (salary + bonus + benefits) for similar jobs (industry, seniority). Trawl through the jobs boards and ask friends / colleagues. Understand the salary progression with your current employer and decide when you’re likely to be promoted / get a raise.

Ask the question first. It’s not inappropriate to ask the employer what the compensation package is before you schedule an interview. If you’re a good candidate, they need to attract you and not vice versa. It’s also OK to ask the question in the interview, particularly a final round (although the reply might come “what are your expectations?”).

Decide the strength of your position. This applies during and outside of the interview. During the interview, be sensitive to the signals that your interviewers are sending you. In the example above, it was clear to us that the employers were keen on the candidate; for instance they were using the phrase when you work with us” rather than if you work with us”. If you sense that they’re keen, you can confidently ask them to show their hand first or aim high with your opening position.

Outside of the interview, your position is stronger if you show other options available to you (i.e., with your current employer or with other prospective employers). It’s stronger still if you have another offer on the table.

Put yourself in the employer’s shoes. Be sensitive to the size and type of firm that’s interviewing you and think about where they might be able to be flexible. Are they likely to offer high fixed salaries and small bonuses or the opposite?  Is there commission? What are their benefits worth? Could they offer you share options? A sign-on bonus? If it’s a young company / start-up, could they offer you equity? What would their competitors offer?

Prepare an answer. There are a number of questions that you should prepare for prior to any interview. This is one of them. Your answer may change depending on how you perceive the strength of your position. In this case, prepare a few answers and decide which one you’ll use when.

Be confident. If the interviewer senses weakness they’ve gained the upper hand.

After you’ve prepared, there are a number of options for how you answer:

The “right back at you“. Salary negotiations are just that; a negotiation. So it’s reasonable to ask the employer to make the first suggestion.

The straight answer. Decide what’s reasonable and stick it out there. The downside is that it will be very difficult to negotiate upwards from this point. As a rule of thumb for negotiation, he / she who declares their hand first normally comes out worst off.

The range. If you’re not comfortable declaring a specific figure, come up with a range with your current salary somewhere towards the bottom (assuming the industries and companies are comparable). This will give the employer confidence that you’re in the same ball park. You might provide sources for your range i.e., “given my current salary and industry average wages…”. Just make sure that your high figure doesn’t come across as ridiculous.

The delay. At this point a job offer isn’t on the table. The employer is just testing the waters. It’s a reasonable answer to say something like “I’d request that this discussion take place once an offer has been made. I trust that the package will be appropriate for the industry and my level of experience. In the mean time, I’m very interested in learning more about the role”. 

As with most aspects of a job search, negotiating a salary will be easier if you have done your research, prepared an answer and have a firm view on what you want, including the compromises that you are, and are not, willing to make.



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