Michael Sterling

The Elephant in the Room – Talking Money in an Interview


It’s big. It’s awkward. It’s intimidating. It’s the elephant in the room at most all job interviews. The salary question. There are a number of questions candidates’ dread, but few strike as much fear as talking money in an interview. Ask for too much and you may loose the job. Ask for too little and you’re undervaluing your skills and worth.


In the course of my career, I’ve had many job seekers contact me for help after losing an ideal job simply by flubbing the answer to the compensation question. I remember one professional who, in effort to seem casually confident, answered a question about desired salary with – “How about 1.5 million?” Apparently, the hiring parter suggested the candidate take his comedy on the road. No surprise, that answer didn’t close the deal.


So, what do you do? And what do you say?


What to Do


  • Never bring up salary early in the interview process.
  • Be prepared if the interviewer does.
  • Deflect and Redirect. Side-step the question. Work to redirect the discussion back to the value you will bring to the firm. Sell your experience and highlight your skills.
  • Try to push the salary question to later in the hiring process.
  • Have Your Research Ready. If you’re pressed to discuss money, know what the position pays in the city in which you’ll be working. Check out websites such as salary.com, careerbuilder.com or glassdoor.com.
  • Leave your ego at the door. Over-inflating your value is a signal that you may be demanding and difficult.


What to Say 


There are two common salary questions – “What is your current salary?” and “What is your desired salary?” I recommend you have a couple of answers at the ready for each. In both cases, broad-stroke answers are the best. The goal is to both inform and investigate. You want to answer honestly while also working to discover the position’s salary.


Q: What is your current salary?


Option #1 –  My compensation includes a base salary and bonus, based upon my skills and my performance, for this market. No doubt your firm bases its salaries on similar criteria. To insure we’re aligned, what is the range for this position?


Option #2My current salary is in line with my skills and performance for this market. I’d like to learn more about this position, its salary range, and your firm so we can determine if I’m the right person for the job. 


Option #3 (if pressed for more specifics) – I currently earn in the mid-sixties and will have a performance review next month at which time I am expecting a pay increase. I’d like to know more about the compensation for this position. What is the salary range?


Q: What is your desired salary?


Option #1I’d really like to know more about the position and your firm before discussing salary specifics. Maybe you can give me an idea of the salary range for this position and the firm’s bonus plan? 


Option #2Once we determine how my skills and experience will benefit your firm, I’m sure we can agree upon compensation. What more can you tell me about the position, its salary range and your firm?   


Option #3 (if pressed for specifics) – In my review of the market and similar positions, it appears that compensation is in the $_______ to $ _______  range, is this the range for the position? 


In a situation in which the interviewer insists on an exact answer then, by all means, be precise. State your salary, bonus, benefits, expected increase, and so forth. If any special circumstances need to be outlined, do so.  For instance, if you accepted a lower salary at your current firm in exchange for a four-day work week make that known. Follow the specifics you provide by re-stating how you will bring benefit to the firm. Build value and establish yourself as an asset.


Don’t Cross the Line


While talking money in an interview is fine – never negotiate in an interview. If the interviewer attempts to negotiate – don’t go there. Hold the line. Keep the interview focused on determining if you are right for the firm and if the firm is right for you (see: Culture Clash? Find a Better Match). If you and the firm aren’t a match in goals, values and professional development; money isn’t going to bridge that gap. 


There’s only one time to talk turkey about money – after an offer has been made! Once you know the job fits—and the employer sees your value—you’ll usually be able to agree upon the compensation you’ll receive.


How have you handled the “Elephant in the Room?” I’d love to hear from you. Connect with me on LinkedIn.


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