When I'm interviewing for a job, there are very few questions that trip me up. Hit me with, "Tell me about a time that you failed at work," or, "If you were a fruit what fruit would you be," and I'm dynamite. (I'd be an avocado, in case you were wondering.)
But ask me, "What are your salary expectations?" and my head starts to spin, equal parts anxious and annoyed.
- "What if I ask for too little? Or too much? Or seem too 'difficult' if I refuse to answer? What if I say the wrong thing and they reject me before they've even gotten to know me as a candidate?"
- "Surely they know what fair compensation in this role would look like. What should my expectations have to do with it? Why can't they just pay me what I'm worth?!"
Unfortunately, companies don't want to pay you more than they have to (thanks, capitalism), so as annoying as it is, you need to be prepared to answer this question (and its sister, "how much were you making in your previous role?") in a way that keeps the company interested and sets you up to get the best offer possible.
To learn how to do this, we sat down with former lawyer, entrepreneur, and founder of Level Up 90 Anica John to talk all things negotiation. She's helped hundreds of women in tech successfully navigate the interviewing and hiring processes. Luckily for us, she's crafted perfect responses to these two very tricky questions so we don't have to.
Question 1: "What are your salary expectations?"
Why You Should Defer The Question
You might be relieved to know that you don't have to provide a numerical response to this question. Actually, Anica advises strongly against it. There are two main reasons to defer this question and wait for them to make you an offer, rather than provide a number:
- You don't want to go too low - "If you go first, and you go too low, then you've anchored the negotiation at that point." If you've given away your previous salary, what your expectations are for a new role, you've already tilted things so that they're taking that into account when they put forth their first offer, and you don't want to do that at all.
- You want to take a holistic view - "Compensation in startups occupies 3 different pools. Cash & signing bonus/performance bonus, equity, and benefits. As candidates, we tend to only focus on the cash. Ideally, you'd get the job offer in its entirety and a better sense of the total compensation package, then you can decide where you can ask for more and where you don't have wiggle room." A great way to ensure you're not overlooking an aspect of compensation that's important to you is to prepare a wishlist that includes your wants and non-negotiable items.
Remember, "You don't owe anybody this information upfront."
The Best Answers
If you're asked the question in real-time:
Thanks for asking. I know that's an important conversation. I have some flexibility in my expectations, depending on the company and the role. I'd love to learn a bit more about both during the interview process, and then we can chat about compensation.
If you're asked via email or questionnaire at the beginning of the interview process:
My compensation expectations are dependent on the details of the company, and the specific position. I look forward to learning more about both.
If they push back:
I'm sure that you have resource planned very meticulously for this role. Assuming you have a range, and are talking to me because I fit somewhere within that range, it would be great if you could tell me where you think I fit. Then I can give you feedback.
Remember, You're Not Doing Anything Wrong!
"Be comfortable knowing that you're not being withholding or sneaky, they have more information, so it's not fair for them to ask you! When you know that, you become more confident in your firmer stance."
Question 2: "What was your previous salary?"
Although this question is now illegal in many states (including New York and California), it's still extremely common. It's particularly problematic when your previous salary was lower than market value, and you're looking for more fair compensation.
Don't Let A Low Previous Salary Hold You Back
"Remember that if you have been underpaid, and you're looking to level up to market rate or above, there's so many different reasons that people take that lower pay. You might take lower pay for flexibility, or you might really enjoy working at a company and they're early stage so that's all they can afford… If your previous salary is lower and internally you don't feel confident about that, it's completely normal. And hopefully that will give you confidence to be able to level up in the next job."
The Best Answer
I don't disclose previous salary information, but I'm so excited to learn more about the company and the role, and talk about the value I can bring. When we're ready to discuss compensation, I can share a bit more about my salary expectations.
Don't Feel Bad!
"Especially for women, because there's such a gender disparity in pay as it is, what it does is it compounds that over the years for women. So in the states where it's still legal, they ask what your previously salary was, and they base your new salary on the previous salary, which was probably lower than a man's salary anyway, and then over the course of your career, there's this compound effect, and so you have a right to say, you know, I just don't disclose that."
The Takeaway: Defer & Be Confident
Deferring the salary expectations question doesn't mean you shouldn't know your worth in the market—you should still do your research and be prepared with a salary range and firm walkaway number. That said, negotiating is hard enough as it is. Don't make it harder for yourself before it's even begun by disclosing more information upfront than you have to—knowledge is power in a negotiation, and you don't want to be handing that leverage over to your employer. You don't owe them this information. By showing that you're confident, thoughtful, and prepared, you'll impress hiring managers with your ability to stand your ground.
If you're still not feeling sure about your negotiation skills, don't panic—you can check out Anica's library of negotiation resources for more tips and scripts on negotiation and leveling up your career in general. You can also watch the full video with Anica here!
- Network with top executives even if you aren't looking for a new role
- First look at flexible, work-from-home, in-office roles
- Join live chats led by expert women in your field and beyond