What are you worth? Answering the salary question

One of the more challenging, and some would argue unfairly, asked questions you may face in an interview is:  “What are your salary expectations?”  I personally don’t have a problem with the nature of the question, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy question for a candidate to face. Forms of this question are commonly used by recruiters and hiring managers to get a sense as to whether your compensation requirements are in the ballpark of the range they have budgeted for the position.  

The first piece of advice I would provide is that you should try to avoid laying out an absolute minimum, thereby drawing a line in the sand.  That approach will close way more doors than it will open, especially if the salary range is below your minimum.  On the flip side, if your number is at the bottom end of the employer’s range, you might have ‘lowballed’ yourself.  One of the maxims of negotiations is that the person who throws out the first number loses

Another point to remember is that when comparing civilian to military pay, you are comparing apples to oranges.  I’ve seen where a candidate takes the company’s base salary and compares that to the combination of their direct and indirect military compensation. When I say indirect, I’m referring to medical, PX/BX privileges, tax advantages, etc.  While that could be a fair comparison in some cases, it doesn’t take into account the performance-based pay potential that exists in many civilian companies such as bonuses, commissions, profit sharing, stock options, etc., not to mention other perks such as car allowances, cell phone, overtime, etc. 

Given these differences, it can be difficult to make a true one-to-one comparison. So if asked about your salary requirements, we recommend a more nuanced approach. First, you can communicate to the interviewer that compensation is just one of many criteria that are important to you.  And if one of those criteria is on the low end, it can be made up for by a different factor that is equally or more important.  On top of that, since you may still be early in the process when this question arises, you may not know enough about the duties and responsibilities to make a fair assessment of your worth.  

If you wondering how such a response might sound, here’s an example:

 “Addressing compensation has always been a difficult area for me to address. I know my value to the military, but not so much to a company such as yours. On top of that, at this point, I don’t have the greatest understanding of all of the job requirements and expectations associated with this position. So with that uncertainty, I really want you to know that I am truly flexible when it comes to pay. I believe that I have done a good job budgeting my money and can make lots of things work. As long as the job is for a role that I love, the company culture is a good fit, and the position offers a realistic opportunity for me to grow in terms of responsibility and pay, then my first-year salary pay becomes less important. If all of those things are in place, I’m sure we can arrive at a compensation plan that is equitable for both me and your company.” An approach like that may serve to deflect the question to a later conversation, but only as long as you sell them on your ability to perform the job requirements. Nonetheless, deflecting doesn’t always work; an interviewer may not let you get away with that response. Here’s a follow-up question that you could face:  “John, that sounds good, but it’s important that I screen each applicant for salary, because I really need to know if we can afford you before we go further.” 

If this were to happen, then there may be no side-stepping the issue. We recommend providing a range that captures your desired salary with a 10%-15% margin above and below.  When providing the range, it’s still important to emphasize that pay is important, but that you are not about to let a great opportunity slip by due to that one factor.