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Money Talks in Job Interviews . . But Who Starts the Conversation?

I recently participated in a Twitter chat on The Art of Asking Questions on Your Job Interview, based on my book 301 Best Questions to Ask On Your Interview.

Upwards of 60 people participated and the mix of comments and questions was revealing. The hashtag for the chat is #HFchat. The transcript is here. The exchanges went fast and furious.  People had dozens of thoughts about the importance of candidates asking good questions. What are good questions? What questions should be avoided. When should questions be asked?   Is there a place for candidates to insert questions before being asked?  And what about money questions?

Be careful when talking about salary issues in a job interview.

Money, Money, Money

Conventional wisdom is that you should never bring up questions about money or benefits first.  The fear is that the employer will consider you mercenary, selfish, or overly interested in what the employer can do for you.  Unfortunately, I think that’s likely, so I suggest you wait until the employer brings up the subject.  It’s unfortunate because money is obviously one of the most critical issues in any employment conversation.  So why should the money conversation be relegated to the very end, almost as an after-thought.  “Oh, by the way, what are your salary requirements?”

I’m not saying that the money issue come first. But why should it go last?  I look forward to the day when the pretense ends, and employers and candidates can agree that the job is a transaction and the details of the transaction are fair game for negotiation.

For now, however, it’s simply not in your interest to talk about salary until the company has determined that you are the best candidate and is ready to make you an offer. In addition to any impression of greed a question about money might convey, you will be at a real disadvantage if you reveal your salary or salary expectations first. 

Here’s a dirty secret: In any negotiation, the party who names a figure first establishes the starting point.  If it’s you, you lose.  If the company had a higher figure in mind, it will automatically reduce that number to match yours.  And if the company had a lower figure in mind, the interviewer will tell you that your expectations are too high.

You can be certain the interviewer will ask you about your salary history, current salary, or salary expectations.  Here’s where your expertise with asking questions pays off.  Your goal is to deflect the question, often with another question.  You want the interviewer to tell you the range for the position, because then you can focus on getting to the high end of that range. But you can’t work to the high point if you don’t know it.  That’s why you want the interviewer to make the first move in the salary negotiation.  Who knows? Their offer may be more than you’d request.

Money Talks, Except In The Job Interview

It’s not easy to avoid the direct question—“What salary range are you looking for?”  Doing so requires practice and nerves of steel.  The good news is that you have an advantage.  The company needs to hire someone— hopefully that’s you—but the company cannot hire someone without also offering a salary.  “So the cards are stacked in your favor, as long as you hold your ground,” says Penelope Trunk in her Brazen Careerist blog. “The more times you can fend off the question, the less likely you will have to be the one to give the first number.

This works, even if you don’t have the upper hand and you really need the job,” she says.  In her blog, Trunk shows how to deflect the interviewer’s increasingly direct questions:

What salary range are you looking for?

“Let’s talk about the job requirements and expectations first, so I can get a sense of what you need.” That’s a soft answer to a soft way of asking the salary question.

What did you make at your last job?

“This position is not exactly the same as my last job. So let’s discuss what my responsibilities would be here and then determine a fair salary for this job.” It’s hard to argue with words like “fair” and “responsibilities”—you’re earning respect with this one.

What are you expecting to make in terms of salary?

“I am interested in finding a job that is a good fit for me. I’m sure whatever salary you’re paying is consistent with the rest of the market.” In other words, I respect myself and I want to think I can respect this company.

I need to know what salary you want in order to make you an offer. Can you tell me a range?

“I’d appreciate it if you could make me an offer based on whatever you have budgeted for this position and we can go from there.” This is a pretty direct response, so using words like “appreciate” focuses on drawing out the interviewer’s better qualities instead of her tougher side.

Why don’t you want to give your salary requirements?

“I think you have a good idea of what this position is worth to your company, and that’s important information for me to know.” Enough dancing–this is one last attempt to force them to give the number first. Hold your line here and you win.

You need to be alert in a job interview.

Trunk continues:  “You can see the pattern, right? If you think you sound obnoxious or obstinate by not answering the question, think of how [the interviewer] feels asking the question more than once. The interviewer is just trying to get a leg up on you in negotiations.

If you give in, you look like a poor negotiator, and the interviewer is probably not looking for someone like that. So stand your ground, and understand that the interviewer is being as insistent as you are. And it might encourage you to know that research shows that if you mirror the behavior of the interviewer, you are more likely to get the job. Sure, this usually applies to tone of voice, level of enthusiasm, and body language, but who’s to say it doesn’t apply to negotiation tactics, too? Try it. You could come away lots richer.”

So it is with the business of directly asking for a job. Still, the benefits usually outweigh the risks. If your tone is pitch-perfect and your timing is right, asking for the job will help differentiate your credentials from the crowd, reinforce your value proposition, and in extremely rare cases, even land you an offer on the spot.

The burden is on you to call it right. If your timing is even slightly off or your voice is a little too shrill, you will come off as grasping, clumsy, or, worst of all, desperate. If you’re going to ask for a job, please practice these questions with a trusted friend or mentor. Use a video camera to record yourself uttering the questions. Until you can pull off a vibe of relaxed confidence, I’d avoid these questions.


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