Picture this: You’re interviewing for an amazing position at your dream company. You’re absolutely nailing the interview and have the recruiter in your pocket after your engaging conversation and intelligent questions when you hear that one highly anticipated and typically dreaded question: “What are your salary expectations?”
Despite the increase in informational resources and societal conversation around pay equity, many of us still shy away from open discussions about money: rent, child care, spending habits, etc. The job hunt is no different, and applicants (especially women) often feel uncomfortable broaching the topic of compensation. While interviewing, we want to convey that we’re interested in the role at hand for reasons beyond a paycheck, but in reality, our bills still need to be paid.
That “how much can we pay you” moment is one that used to make me panic. I never knew what was appropriate to answer, if I was asking for enough, or if asking for too much would knock me out of contention for the open position. Then, a few years ago, one of my mentors gave me one of the best pieces of interview advice: It’s less about the questions they ask and more about the one I ask. Now, whenever I apply for a position and get to the salary part of the process, I no longer shy away. Instead, I ask something along the lines of “What is the budgeted salary range for this position?”
Asking the company what salary range they have budgeted flips the script while giving me good insight into the company and interviewer—it no longer puts it on me to give a hard number, especially in regards to my current salary (Note that in some cities and states, it’s actually illegal to even ask what someone is currently making during the interview process). While current compensation is a good springboard for a desired pay range, the cost of living is constantly rising, as should your salary.
In my first few roles, I didn’t ask the companies about their budgeted salary range. I didn’t negotiate at all before accepting the offer for my first job out of college, though looking back, I wish that I would have. By not asking how much each company had to work with, I put myself in a position to leave money on the table. If I go into an interview and tell a hiring manager I’m searching for a role that pays $50,000 to $60,000 but the organization’s budget is $75,000, I just cost myself $15,000 at minimum. On the flip side, if I’m asking for a six-figure salary but the company is offering a maximum of $75,000, I need to have an open and honest conversation with myself about my worth, my personal budget, a potential pay cut, and other benefits that might make up for that gap between my expectations and the budgeted reality.
Once you’ve asked a hiring manager what they’re working with, there are two ways they might answer: They can tell you or they can throw it back your way. The first situation is obviously ideal and can be a good indicator that the company is open, honest, and operating in good faith. If an interviewer doesn’t answer directly or says something vague like, “It depends on the candidate,” then you have a choice to make. You can delay answering with a response like, “I’d love to learn more about the position before determining an appropriate salary,” or you can deliver a range that truly works for you, which requires a bit more preparation on your end.
As with every stage of every interview, you should go in knowing your worth and what you’re comfortable giving up. A dream job with good benefits and a clear path to your career goals might be worth a pay cut and reworking your current budget. But if you’re reaching for certain savings goals or simply need to make your rent, you might have to walk away from an opportunity that can’t match what you’re looking for. Wherever your final salary range lands is a question for you and you alone to determine, though I’m personally a firm advocate for negotiating more. The only risk is the money you have to lose—the worst they can say is no.
While it might take some getting used to, inquiring about the salary budget during an interview is easily worth the reward. If a hiring manager is open with you and provides the salary range they’re working with, you then have everything you need to make an informed decision on whether or not you’d like to proceed with the given range, negotiate your offer, or end the interview process if a company can’t match what you’re looking for.
I asked about the salary budget early on in one particular interview process, and the interviewer gave me a range of numbers that was overall a bit lower than anticipated, but I could make the upper end work. I decided to proceed with the hiring process and ended up with an offer that fell at the very bottom of the range I knew the organization had to work with. Armed with this information and my worth, I seized the opportunity to push for more and successfully negotiated a higher salary.
Having the complete picture means you don’t run the risk of leaving money out there. We’ve all heard, “ask and you shall receive,” but if you don’t know what you’re working with, how can you ask the right questions about the job or yourself? I don’t really want to think about the thousands of dollars I might have left on the table at previous roles, but it’s been helpful to learn from previous mistakes.
The next time you prep for an interview, don’t be afraid to flip the questions about salary and beyond. Sure, they’re assessing you to see if you would be a good fit for a given team and company culture. But the job hunt is a two-way street, and you deserve a role that suits your needs, financial or otherwise.