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What’s The Right Way To Ask Job Candidates About Their Salary Expectations?

Talking about money can be awkward, but there is a way to bring it up that’s both strategic and fair.

What’s The Right Way To Ask Job Candidates About Their Salary Expectations?
[Photo: Flickr user Pictures of Money]

Whether you’re applying for a job or hiring for one, you inevitably have to have a potentially awkward conversation about salary. But who should offer the number first and what’s the best way to bring it up?

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Career expert Alison Green (aka Ask A Manager) helps this reader figure out how to broach the subject of salary in a way that is mutually beneficial.

I work in HR and am somewhat new to the field, with less than three years’ experience. Part of my job is managing recruitment at my company. When I receive a promising resume, I will email the candidate to arrange a phone interview. In that first email, I ask: “What are your salary expectations?” If the person replies, “I am looking for salary between $X-Y” but I know the position pays (usually quite a bit) lower than that, I will advise the applicant that their expectations are higher than what the position pays, and ask if they are still interested in the phone interview. Sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.

I have read some of your posts and it seems many job-hunters are uncomfortable with revealing their salary expectations so soon in the recruitment process. So my question to you and your readers is, what is the best, most professional way to ask a candidate’s salary expectations? If you applied for a position and were asked for salary expectations, how would you respond?

Before you answer, I think it’s important to provide some context. First, most of the positions I recruit for would be considered entry-level, requiring only 1-2 years’ experience. Secondly, when I recruit for these positions, I always get quite a few who applicants, who, judging by their previous positions, likely earned a much higher salary, for example, a former director of regional sales applying for an obviously entry-level administrative position. I don’t want to get their hopes up or waste their time. Thirdly, my company does not like including salaries in job advertisements.


Rather than putting the burden on the candidate to tell you their salary expectations—at a point where they know very little about the job or the details of the benefits—why not just be straight with them and tell them the salary range you’re planning to pay? After all, that’s information you do have, as contrasted to their position of having really limited information at this stage. Say something like this: “I want to let you know that the salary for this position is $X-Y. If that works on your end, I’d like to set up a phone interview to talk more.”

Too often employers operate as if candidates have one salary that they’re seeking, regardless of the responsibilities and pressures of the job, the hours, or the benefits. But salary expectations should be significantly dependent on those things, and candidates really aren’t in a good position to throw out a salary number until they’ve had a chance to talk with you and get a much deeper understanding of those factors. By asking them to propose a number early on, before they have that information, you’re denying them the ability to name a salary that they’ll actually be comfortable with—which can result in unhappy employees who don’t stick around long, feel valued, or put in the extra mile.

I realize that you could argue that there’s a similar effect when the employer names a number first and the candidate agrees to proceed, but it’s just unfair to put the burden of coming up with a number on the candidate who has almost no context about the job, when the employer already knows what they’re willing to pay and is just being coy about it.

So just tell them. “The salary range is $X. Does it make sense to keep talking?”

If your company absolutely won’t let you do that (although this is a different thing than their refusal to put the salary in the ad), then the next best approach would be to say: “Can you give me a sense of the salary range you’re seeking, with the understanding that that may change as you learn more about the job?”

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But I’d rather you just give them your range.


This article originally appeared on Ask A Manager and is reprinted with permission.

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