How to Answer the Dreaded 'Salary Question'

It’s a question that you can expect to be asked sooner rather than later during a job interview. It’s a question that seems to be a “loaded” one in every sense of the word, and usually that’s in fact what it is. It’s a “trick” question too. It’s designed to quickly and efficiently eliminate as many candidates as possible from a hiring manager’s “candidate pool.” It’s also a question that, if you’re like many job candidates today, you absolutely dread having to answer. The question can be phrased in a variety of ways, but it’s usually phrased something like this: “What salary are you expecting?”

Why do most job candidates so dread this seemingly innocent, apparently quite appropriate question? Primarily it’s because they simply aren’t quite sure how to answer it without putting themselves in a “lose-lose” situation:

  • If the salary they cite is too high, they fear (not without some justification!) that they will be quickly and automatically out of the running.
  • If  they cite a low salary figure, they fear (again, not without some justification) that they risk significantly undervaluing their personal brand and “worth” in the current job market and, as a consequence, will end up “painting themselves into a corner,” if they are the candidate ultimately selected for the position.

In this blog I am going to show you how to diplomatically deflect this question and postpone answering it, at least until salary negotiations reach a serious stage, if at all possible.

How should you answer the ‘salary question’?
As is so often the case when it comes to competing in today’s highly competitive job market, there is no one, all-encompassing, fail-safe answer to the “salary question.” However, here is how my recruiting firm coaches our candidates to initially respond to the salary question, and we have found it to be quite effective:

Hiring Manager: What salary are you expecting?

You: “If I am your candidate of choice and, in turn, if this is the right opportunity for me, then I know the offer will be more than fair.”

The psychology behind this answer is three fold:

  • First, by using the words, “If I am your candidate of choice” you are demonstrating that you know you have to prove yourself and earn the right to be their candidate of choice, i.e., you know nothing is simply going to be handed to you.
  • Second, by stating “in turn, if this is the right opportunity for me” you are demonstrating back to the company that you have choices and that, if they like you, they also need to sell themselves to you.
  • Finally, the phrase “then I know the offer will be more than fair” is suggesting that you indeed want not only a fair wage but one that is “more than fair,” i.e., on the higher side.

Will this answer satisfy every hiring manager every time? Of course not. But it works often enough to use it, in order to avoid being derailed early on in a job interview.

But let’s suppose, just for the sake of illustration, that you encounter a hiring manager who remains insistent and will not be “put off” by this answer. Here is how you can deal with that situation.

Hiring Manager: “Well, how much are you earning in your current job?”

You: “Mr. Hiring Manager, I appreciate your interest in knowing what I am earning in my current position. I really do. More importantly, at this point in the process, how do you see me bringing value to you based upon our conversation thus far?”

The object here is to get the hiring manager’s attention redirected on other issues and off the salary issue, at least for the time being. Keep in mind that salary negotiation is a game. If you’re dealing with a seasoned hiring manager, he or she will know that as well, and perhaps even respect you for holding your “cards” close to your chest.

Obviously, at some point—perhaps during the initial interview, perhaps at a later interview, if there is one—you are going to have to declare your salary expectations. Otherwise you risk alienating the hiring manager by being branded as someone who is simply contrary or evasive. That means, of course, that you will have had to have done your “homework” regarding what represents a current competitive salary range for the position. Here are two great resources for accomplishing that:


The tools featured in these two sites enable you to determine appropriate salary ranges for various jobs, at differing levels of experience, and among various locales. Based upon the current economic realities, you will then know what a reasonably fair range is for a position. Then you can answer the “salary question” in one of two ways:

If your current/previous salary is/was in the range that your research suggests, simply say, politely and professionally,

“My current/previous salary is/was X dollars. But, Jim, the most important thing here for me is the opportunity. Again, I truly believe that, if I can bring value to you, and XYZ is the right company for me, salary certainly can be worked out.”


If your salary is/was out of range for this position but the opportunity is truly of interest to you, then answer in this manner:

“I am looking for a salary in the range of X to Y. But, Jim, the most important thing here for me is the opportunity. Again, I truly believe that, if I can bring value to you, and XYZ is the right company for me, salary certainly can be worked out.”

The objective of course is to stay in the game, to ensure the company has gotten to know you and that you have gotten to know the company. Most importantly, though, is that you will have demonstrated your worth to the hiring company.

Other salary considerations
Clearly, all of us want a job that pays us a fair and reasonable salary and one that provides competitive benefits. But, in my professional experience, I have found that rarely does the typical job candidate have any legitimate or reasonable idea about what any particular position is actually “worth” in the current job marketplace or within a particular company or industry. Rather, what the candidate usually has is a strong belief regarding what he or she thinks the position is worth. There can be—and quite often is!—a vast chasm between these two extremes, particularly in a down economy and in a highly competitive job market.

It is therefore crucial that you keep this fundamental, virtually irrevocable salary principle firmly in mind: The salary that is offered for any position is determined solely by what the hiring company has determined the position is worth to the company—not by what you the job candidate think the position is worth or “ought to be worth.” And this fundamental principle is particularly relevant in today’s post-recessionary economy and tough job market. Moreover, understand that it matters little to the hiring company what salary you currently are earning or the salary you may have earned from your most recent employer.

It’s also important to realise that, as a general rule, the larger the hiring company, the more “set in stone” are the salary ranges for virtually any position within that company. So, no matter what you may have been earning at XYZ company, that doesn’t mean you can necessarily expect to be offered either the same amount of salary or a higher salary at a new company. Ironically, the smaller the company, generally the more flexibility they have, within reason of course.

And finally, while it should go without saying that there are certain responses to the “salary question” that you should avoid like the plague, I know from experience that a cautionary warning is nonetheless in order.

Under no circumstances should you respond to the “salary question” in this fashion:

“I just need a job; I’ll take whatever the job pays.”


“This position reports to you so you should know what the pay range is. I’d be interested in knowing what that figure is.” (I just finished reading a book that actually recommended this kind of flippant, self-defeating answer!)

Any answers along these lines—and I have known too many job seekers who actually said things like this in job interviews!—will brand you as a candidate to assiduously avoid and put you immediately out of the running.

Remember this: The best position to take when it comes to any facet of new job negotiations, including salary negotiations, is to clearly and quickly  brand yourself as a person who can make the company money and/or save the company money. Once you have convinced a hiring manager, and the company he or she represents, that you can do either (or both) of these things, the “salary question” tends to become far less of a pressing issue.


Skip Freeman is the author of “Headhunter” Hiring Secrets: The Rules of the Hiring Game Have Changed . . . Forever! and is the President and Chief Executive Officer of The HTW Group (Hire to Win), an Atlanta, GA, Metropolitan Area Executive Search Firm. Specializing in the placement of sales, engineering, manufacturing and R&D professionals, he has developed powerful techniques that help companies hire the best and help the best get hired.

Contact Skip at [email protected]

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