Here's how to answer these awkward salary negotiation questions

·3 min read

If we remember 2021 for anything, it could very well be the year when everyone quit. The Department of Labor reported a record 4.3 million workers turned in their notice in August, topping July by some 242,000 quits.

The good news is that this trend has put many workers in the potentially lucrative position of negotiating for higher pay with a new employer.

If you’re thinking of quitting soon or you’re simply interviewing to keep your options open, get ready for these awkward salary questions.

“How much are you earning at your current employer?”

Nervous young Asian job applicant wait for recruiters question during interview in office, worried intern or trainee feel stressed applying for open position, meeting with hr managers. Hiring concept
(Photo: Getty Creative)

Avoid this question at all costs, especially if you think you’re currently paid below market value for your skills or you are applying for a new role that would require more responsibilities.

For women — especially women of color — this question can be especially harmful. We are simply more likely than our peers to be underpaid for our work and overlooked for opportunities for advancement and the pay raises that come with them. If we tell a recruiter or hiring manager what we are currently earning and they base their offer off that figure, that could make it even harder to catch up to our peers.

The good news is that several states have made it illegal for recruiters to ask this question of job candidates (see if your state is one of them here). Otherwise, here’s a suggested response if you do get this question during the interview process:

“I’d rather not disclose my current salary and instead focus on the market rate for my skills today and the scope of this specific role with your company.”

If the question appears on an application form, fill in $0 or N/A.

“What salary range do you have in mind?”

Businesswoman Interviewing Male Job Candidate In Meeting Room
(Photo: Getty Creative)

I’ve mentored several dozen women this year as they’ve navigated the job market and I’ve seen this question come up earlier and earlier in job interviews. Time-strapped and overworked recruiters are juggling many candidate screening calls each day. They don’t want to waste anyone’s time by pushing forward candidates who are too expensive for their approved budget for the role, so they use this question to weed out folks early in the process.

Still, avoid giving a range early in the process. Even if you do your research and make your best guess at a good range, you may still be underselling yourself. You may also realize after a few interviews that the role is more complex than you expected and your range wasn’t high enough.

Try answering this way:

“I’d love to learn more about the role and its scope before discussing compensation, but do you have a particular budget in mind that you can share?”

Ideally, the recruiter will give you a range so you can decide if the compensation is in line with your expectations. If it’s way under what you hoped to make, ask them if there is potential for more. If it’s way above what you had in mind, do an internal happy dance and calmly tell them you are comfortable with the range but still want to learn more and get to know the team.

“I thought you said you were fine with this range originally?”

Nervous male candidate waiting for human resource team for a job interview in the office.
(Photo: Getty Creative)

Let’s say you do give an expected salary range only to later realize you asked for too little. By then, you may have an offer in hand that is at the lower end of the range that you gave and the recruiter may not be thrilled to hear you want more. Don’t take it too personally — they are probably just annoyed they have more work ahead of them.

Fight through the awkwardness and negotiate for more anyway. Here’s one way to approach it:

“Thank you so much for the offer. I’m absolutely ecstatic and can’t wait to start working with the team. Since we initially spoke about compensation, however, I’ve learned more about the role and believe the job scope as well as the market rate for my skills warrants a higher starting salary. Can you increase the base salary or total compensation package?”

Get ready for an uncomfortable waiting period before you hear back. Typically, recruiters and hiring managers need additional clearances from higher-ups if they’ve already gotten the budget for a particular role approved.

If they say the salary itself is firm, they may offer to increase additional types of compensation like an equity grant or sign-on bonus.

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Mandi Woodruff-Santos is inclusive wealth-building advocate, career expert and co-host of the popular podcast Brown Ambition. Her work has appeared in CNBC, Business Insider, Teen Vogue and U.S. News & World Report.

Follow her for more tips on career and wealth-building: Instagram: @mandimoney and TikTok: @maaandimoney

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