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One of the single most popular questions in career forums is, "How do I answer the salary question?" For many people, just thinking about this subject can throw unnecessary stress into what would normally be a great interview. Someone is going to ask me about my salary requirements and I don't know what to say.

Rolf felt that his interview day had gone well. Each of the seven meetings that he had been through had been enjoyable and yet each was remarkably different. He really liked the scientific discussion with several of the other scientists. And it been enlightening to hear his prospective boss, Ramesh, talk about the direction of the company's product pipeline. Everyone he had met seemed like a great person.

Sitting down again with Ramesh at the end of the day, he could see by the fellow's smile that he was also feeling positive. It was true that there was a very good fit for him in the company. When Ramesh began to describe how the stock option program worked, Rolf had the uneasy feeling that a discussion of his salary requirements was right around the corner. He knew that this was a weakness for him, as he wasn't comfortable with how the offer process would play out. Despite how well the day had gone, Rolf didn't feel at all ready to answer this one.

"Of course, we'd like to have you back to meet a few other key people in our organization," Ramesh began. "Before we go further, however, I'd like to know what salary you'd be expecting if we were to make you an offer. ..."

A Very Important Distinction

My first suggestion is that you take the time to prepare for this question. (Sure, preparing for it means that you have to presuppose a positive outcome to your interview day, but what is wrong with that?) The first rule regarding the "salary question" is to do your homework. This includes learning the dynamics of the offer process.

Future employers will ask you two types of salary questions. First is, "What is your current salary?" This is a simple, direct question that involves no negotiation--and it is one that needs to be answered completely. Tell the employer your current salary. Include any bonuses or incentives to which you are entitled. And, if you have some great nonsalary benefits, tell them about these as well. If you try to avoid discussing your current salary, you may look like you have something to hide. Giving that impression is unnecessary, so long as you recognize the distinction between a question about your current reimbursement and that other salary question.

This trickier question sounds much more like the one that Rolf was asked, and you must be very careful with your response. This question has nothing to do with your current earnings. It deals with your expectations for the job on offer. If you are asked this question, you must be prepared to answer on the basis of some very specific intelligence that you've gathered about the company's range of salaries.

Here are a few pointers to remember at this juncture:

  • If you're asked about the salary that you'd prefer if the job were offered to you, avoid answering with a number if you can--the old negotiation expression "He who speaks a number first, loses" definitely applies here. See the sidebar for some specific suggestions on dealing with this question.
  • If you must name a number, remember that it is likely that it will be either too low (and hurt you) or too high (which turns the prospective employer off). Very rarely does a candidate name a figure that is right on target. As a result, it is best to gather accurate information on salaries, and the only way to do this is via the networking process. Don't count on "Salary Wizard" Web sites for help--the most popular one is off by as much as 20% for biotech salaries.
  • A common mistake is that some scientists try to come across as professional negotiators. This "hardball" approach is rarely successful and only serves to turn off everyone involved in championing the offer through the process.
The "Expected Earnings" Question

No one likes a "canned" response to a tough interview question, and this applies equally to the salary question. Nevertheless, it can't hurt to consider a few strategies that work so that you can put whatever seems most appropriate into your own words.

Strategy 1: Delay Your Response. "I really need to think about my visit here today and what I know about the job responsibilities before I can answer that question."

Strategy 2: Compare Yourself to Others. "Can you tell me what range of salary you have for other employees with a similar education and experience level to mine?"

Strategy 3: Make a Candid Request for Advice. "Susan, perhaps I should rely on your help here. You've been in the industry for many years and I am sure you have a better handle on what might be appropriate for experience like mine. What number would you find competitive if you were in my shoes?"

Strategy 4: Turn the Question Around. "I'm expecting that you'd offer me a competitive wage, but what that might be is probably best determined by how I fit into the range of experience of other employees. What range did you have in mind for this job?"

The Culture of the Employer

The way that a hiring manager extends an offer has a lot to do with the culture in his or her company. I like to distinguish these cultures by describing one type as the "first offer, best offer" company and the other as the "let's negotiate" firm.

I used to think of this difference in terms of large and small employers. It seemed to me that the large companies were the "first offer" type, and the smaller biotechnology companies wanted to negotiate with their job candidates. Then I found a hiring manager in a big pharmaceutical company who was a most aggressive salary negotiator--and a few smaller companies that made candidates a fair offer and stopped the process right there.

Regardless of whether a large or small employer is extending you the job offer, you'll want to know as much as you can about what kind of company you are dealing with. If your new employer is a "first offer, best offer" firm, you will have someone in the organization, often the human resources department, contact you with an offer that has been scientifically prepared, using side-by-side comparisons with others in their employ who have similar experience levels. (When receiving an offer of this sort, there may still be other items that are negotiable. See Perksmanship: Optimizing the Little Extra's). This company will not generally enhance their offer after the fact. There is a conscious decision on their part--the company does not want to be perceived as a firm which would "lowball" an offer, and it is generally reflected in offers that are competitive.

Contrast this with the "let's negotiate" company. This situation can be a bit more intimidating because you are never quite certain that you've gotten all there is to get out of the well. You can usually spot these companies by the questions that they ask. In my example above, Ramesh is asking Rolf about his expectations because Ramesh would prefer to negotiate an offer.

What should Rolf do now?

There are only two options: Defer the response to this question or turn it around and get Ramesh to name a number first.

Although I can't get into an entire discussion of negotiation in such a short article, at this point Rolf's job is to "up the ante" with a higher number. Take the range of salary that you were considering as fair and give the employer some numbers at the higher end of this scale. For example, if you were looking for $63-68K and they offered $59K, you may want to counter with a range of $65-70K, knowing that they will come up short of this number but still be within your range.

Closing Thoughts

Many candidates suffer from the misconception that job offers are easy and cheap for a company to extend. One fellow told me recently that he'd like to simply wait for an offer--although he wasn't at all interested in making the move to that firm--"just to see what my market value is." Doing this can earn a person an unsavory reputation in our closely networked industry that will take more than a few years to wear off. Offers are not cheap and easy for companies to make--most go through a complicated and often exhaustive effort to prepare that offer letter.

By doing your homework and knowing your approximate market value in advance, you'll be prepared for this discussion when it comes up. Eliminate the stress factor. Recognize that this is the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle and that an entirely new stage of your career is just around the corner.