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How to Answer Salary Questions

Anthony Balderrama, writer

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Americans aren't keen to discuss money. We like making it and we like spending it, but money doesn't belong in polite conversation. It sits on the shelf of forbidden topics, alongside politics, religion and sex.

Yet, one of the requisites often found on a job posting is, "Include salary history."

You haven't even met anyone at the company yet and you're expected to divulge information only you and your bank account know? How rude.

Like it or not, salary talks are part of job hunts, and often they arise in the early stages of the game. For a topic as sensitive and tricky as money, how should you proceed?

And what if you don't?
When a job posting tells you to include salary history or requirements on your résumé, you have only two choices: do it or don't. Sure, you can ignore it or dance around it by writing, "Salary to be commensurate with experience and responsibilities." That doesn't change the fact that you haven't handed over any hard numbers. And that's fine, as long as you realize you might remove yourself from the running, says Sue Fuller, director of talent management for EDL Consulting.

"When a job posting requests salary history, the purpose is to identify candidates who are in a viable compensation range," Fuller says. "In these instances, it is important to show salary history. Otherwise, the risk is to be excluded from consideration."

Job seekers aren't hesitant to hand over financial information only due to manners; they are afraid to hurt their chances of getting a good salary or even the job. For example, if your current income is higher than what this job will pay, the employer might assume you won't take a salary cut and remove you from the pool of applicants. Conversely, if your salary is well below this job's rate, the employer can lowball an offer. Either way, you lose.

The interview
Even if you're able to sidestep the issue during the application process, you might encounter it during a phone interview. Unless you like long, awkward silences, you'll have to address the issue.

"The best answer is to tell the employer what you are currently earning [or most recently earned]," Fuller suggests. "At that point, compensation is not at a negotiation stage; it is at the information gathering stage. This is an important distinction to understand."

If you're asked what you expect to earn, not what you did earn, Fuller recommends you give a realistic range for the position. This gives the employer an idea of what you want and can lead to a discussion of whether that pay aligns with what he or she had in mind.

Regardless of when the topic arises, Fuller stresses that job seekers be honest about their salary history. Employers can verify your salary in a matter of minutes these days, so lying only serves to make you look bad. Just because you give a high number doesn't mean the employer will match the amount, Fuller says.

The real purpose of salary talks in the beginning is to get a clear picture of what you're worth and what the company can offer. This is why Fuller advises as much flexibility as possible on your part.

"When an offer is made, the candidate can negotiate several tangible and intangible factors that may include a six-month review, incentives, benefits, career development and/or flexibility," Fuller  says. "Candidates should realize that value proposition [is about more] than just dollars and that companies will reward employees who perform."

The dos and don'ts
As with any portion of a job hunt, there are bad signals you can send to an employer and vice versa. For example, you don't want to show up wearing beach attire to an interview. At the same time, you don't want to work at an office where all the employees looked unhappy and terrified of the boss. Salary talks have similar red flags.

"During salary discussions, an employer does not want to hear about financial pressures candidates may have, such as debt, loans or, especially, maintaining a lifestyle," Fuller cautions. "Showing an appreciation for the tangibles, intangibles and the big picture will go a long way. [Also], employers will screen out candidates who are all about the money and not about the contribution and advancement of the organization."

But be wary of employers during these conversations. You need to trust what you're being told; otherwise you probably don't want to work at the company.

"Candidates who cannot establish trust with an employer about the role, the expectations, the compensation and the future outlook should not accept an offer with an employer," Fuller says. If you have no faith in what you hear, can you imagine what it will be like to work for this employer every day?

Anthony Balderrama is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. He researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues.

Last Updated: 27/07/2009 - 1:11 PM

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