How to Answer Salary History & Expectations Questions

As a recruiter, I don’t ask people for their salary history, or their salary expectations, as part of the initial application process. That’s just tacky.

How to Respond if the Application Requires the Information

1. Perhaps you shouldn’t apply for that job. The employer has already shown you that expediency is more important to them than a reasonable negotiation process and respect for your boundaries. Don’t expect that behavior to stop after you go to work for them.

2. Instead of applying online, use the approach described here.

3. If you do apply online, respond to the “salary expectations” question with a number that won’t eliminate you from consideration. You can negotiate later — when you have better information about the job.

4. If you do apply online, respond to the “salary history” question by providing your current base salary.

Sample Salary History & Expectations Language

If you get to provide a narrative, try this:

“I am providing the compensation information you have requested. Please note that cash compensation and employee benefits are important to me. However, I plan to consider many factors in deciding whether or not to accept any job offer I receive.

My current base salary is $120,000. My employer also provides additional compensation and benefits.”

If you’re way out of their ballpark, you just saved everyone some time. If they think you might be under qualified, they will have to reach out to learn more about you.

I write executive resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Save time. Get hired. Email me at donnasvei@gmail.com for more information.

Image: Fotolia/Tom Wang
Updated June 2017

© 2010 – 2017, Donna Svei. All rights reserved.

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Comments 21

  1. Great post 🙂 People are often uncomfortable talking about salary (there are still a handful though who only think of salary :P), and you have provided some good tips on how they can answer the question without looking too needy or arrogant. Job seekers do have to push for what they want and not just settle. A good mix of pay plus benefits can certainly make life easier, especially when we are still trying to recover from this battered economy.

    Karen, The Resume Chick (on Google or Twitter for questions, comments or violent reactions)

  2. Thanks Karen for adding to the conversation and for supporting this post on Twitter (very kind). I like a compensation negotiation that has a natural flow. It’s good to establish fairly early on that employer and candidate are playing in the same ballpark. However, until they get to know each other better, neither party REALLY knows what they’re willing to do with pay, benefits, and perks.

    BTW, Karen offers great job search advice via Twitter. Follow @TheResumeChick.

  3. Hi Deborah,

    I do ask people what their compensation is. However, I don’t do it before I have talked with them and have some level of interest in them as a candidate.

    When I ask, I want to know if the candidate and my client are close enough on compensation that I think we can put a deal together.

    Cheers,

    Donna

  4. Good points. I never ask people this. In some cases, employers ask because they want to know how much money to offer you. They should know what your position is worth and not base it on a past position, especially if the past position was quite different.

  5. I always feel like I’m at a total disadvantage when employers ask me this question during a pre-screening telephone call, as I live in an area of the US that has a very low cost of living and equally low salary ranges. I know that if I were employed at a similar position in a metro area like NYC metro area, Chicago or Philadelphia, my salary would have been about50% higher.

    How does someone in my situation respond to this questions?

  6. I absolutely agree: “Don’t apply to a company that leaves you feeling uncomfortable from the get go.” Same goes for a company’s employment application. I’ve encountered so many that ask inappropriate questions! If it makes you uncomfortable, trust your gut and apply elsewhere.

  7. Ellyn,

    It’s good to educate yourself about the cost of living in areas that you might move to. It’s very common for candidates to note that the cost of living in their city is X and that it’s X+ in the city under consideration. You can do that and then turn the conversation towards internal equity.

    In addition, you can research salary surveys for your field in that location. Some exist, others don’t. Also check out payscale.com and glassdoor.com.

    Hope this helps!

    Donna

  8. Hi Anna,

    Thank you for your comment.

    Many of us spend more time on the job with our co-workers than we do at home with our families. A reasonable employer who treats people with respect is a plus for quality of life!

    Cheers,

    Donna

  9. Thank you for this! I have seen a few job postings that ask for this and I’ve never applied but I wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. I’m only 5 years out of law school and in that time I have worked in public service (state government) and now as a solo practice attorney so my salary history is going to be low. I don’t want to under-bid myself.

    Tony, I’m glad you found the post helpful! Donna

  10. Thanks Donna, for adding your usual clarity to a very touchy subject in your post and in the following comments & dialogue. I find in all aspects of business that people often don’t like to talk about money. Not just job hunting, but asking for a raise or telling the client there’s a change order, for example.

    We often forget that just because the question is asked doesn’t mean it must be answered or cannot be answered with a question of your own. In fact, job search (just like seeking a raise) is nothing more nor less than a negotiation. The same as in any other business transaction the principles of negotiation and win-win should prevail. You have offered direct clarity so we can all focus on the important issues rather than the ones that are “touchy” or “scary” – thank you again.

    JOSEPH

    Thank you Joseph. Donna

  11. Donna –

    Great responses to uncomfortable questions. However, when confronted with completing an online application, the boxes don’t allow for an open-ended answer – it requires a numerical response, or the app gets rejected. Any way around this? Many people would certainly utilize, er, excuse me, USE your answer – thanks!

    Blake

    Blake,

    LOL on the inside joke.

    Great question! Those boxes make me cringe. Hence item 1 in the post above. Practically speaking, use a mid-range, reasonable number. If you get the to the offer stage, and they refer back to your number, say you didn’t know enough about the position to be definitive so you used a middle of the road number to initiate a conversation. Now that you know more about the position, THIS NUMBER is your salary requirement.

    Donna

  12. Just my own personal and professional opinion, but the salary question is only uncomfortable because so many people are perpetuating the uncomfortable aspect. I look at it as just as much a part of the initial conversation as the job description itself. Employment consists of two parts – what the employer expects from the employee and what the employee expects in return – namely compensation. If you won’t consider a job without knowing what the job consists of and what would be expected of you should you get that job, why do we make such a point of expecting employers to consider us as candidates with no idea about what we expect from them? Shouldn’t that open conversation about expectations go both ways?

    Hi David, It’s wonderful to see you. It seems to me that if the employer wants to get the salary conversation going right away, that it would be helpful for them to publish their hiring salary ranges for jobs. I encourage my clients to do this. I have found that I get much better response to my outreach for candidates when they have at least a broad idea of what the job might pay. Donna

  13. Hey Donna – Thanks for the response! I’ll keep with my analogy and say that employers publishing their salary ranges for all positions is the equivalent of candidates posting their salary expectations on their resumes. In an ideal world everyone would do it, but there are always egos, competitors, internal and market parity issues, etc. that hold us back from that ideal world.

    I’m all for transparency from both sides and I think that everyone, not just employers, should want to get at least the initial salary discussion out of the way. If you’re an employer you should know your budget. If you’re a candidate, you should know your expectations. What’s so scary about the whole thing? There’s no need to be cagey on either side, and I wish that the influencers on the topic (and I certainly include you in this group) would counsel more people toward the side of honest dialogue between employer and candidate from the beginning. It just makes everyone enjoy the process that much more!

    I agree David. I think of it as “finding out if we’re in the same ballpark.” I initiate the conversation by sharing a hiring range. Very quickly, but voice to voice, I ask the candidate where they’re at compensation wise. I ask them to be very specific. I want to know their base salary, their bonus potential for the last two years, their actual bonuses for the last two years, any other incentive compensation, and any employee benefits that are particularly important/valuable to them. Then both sides can evaluate whether or not they want to proceed.

    Asking an applicant to dish up salary history and expectations via computer, which happens a lot, is very intimidating and upsetting to most applicants. There has to be a better way. Donna

  14. Amazing article !! i specially like the research about the company because that exactly gives you the valid range when you answer “what are your salary expectation?” so thanks a lot for helping us by giving us such a informative post and i am sure i am going to bookmark this.Thank You.

  15. Hello,

    Nice article for everyone to know how to discuss there salary in interview.

    Thanks for posting..!!

  16. Man, I’ve always hated the “salary expectation” question. I even remember that my very first job at Burger King had a part on the application that asked me how much I expected to make. I’m still to this day unsure why it was even on there, although I will always wonder – would they have paid me more than minimum wage if I had just written a higher number there?!

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