Salary expectations: How to answer this question in an interview

Here’s how to answer the salary expectations question and make it work for you

There’s something simultaneously exciting and unsettling about broaching the money topic or salary question during a job interview. After all, a position’s salary is likely a big part of why you’re interviewing for a job in the first place. But, at the same time, money can be a conversational minefield capable of sinking an interview before it begins. Smart interviewees are conscious of that—so to help you become one of those interviewees, here’s the scoop on how to answer salary expectations questions during an interview.

The salary question your interviewer is likely to ask is simple. “What are your salary expectations for this position?” While context is important and you may want to specify your expectations under certain circumstances, the best general advice for how to answer that question is simple: don’t. By not giving an answer, you keep the employer guessing on all fronts and avoid marrying yourself to a particular price bracket.

How not to answer salary expectations during an interview

If you answer directly with an actual salary expectation, you run the risk of doing three things: lowballing yourself, highballing yourself, or otherwise revealing to the employer that you’re not as strategic and capable as they thought you were. If your salary expectation is way above what a company is willing to offer, not only will you have greatly hurt your chances of getting an offer since said company will think you’re out of their reach, but you’ll also look bad since it might seem like you didn’t research their financial situation beforehand.

As for lowballing yourself, the drawbacks there should go without saying: either the company will think you’re cheap labor and therefore not a quality applicant worth hiring, or they’ll hire you for way less than they might’ve and you’ll have basically left wads of cash on the table. Not good!

How to answer salary questions like a pro

If you’re smart, you’ll know how to answer salary expectations during an interview. When the subject comes up, you’ll simply respond with some variant of “you first.” Easier said than done, though, right? Wrong. It’s just as easy to do this in reality as it is to suggest it in concept.

Here’s an example of an interview I once had, which later led to me scoring the job offer. The interviewer asked me the dreaded salary expectations question, to which I responded casually by saying “Listen, since you’re the company and already have a certain amount budgeted for the role, it doesn’t really matter what my expectations are—why don’t we discuss what you’re prepared to offer?”

Make no mistake, this is a bold approach and it requires you to be simultaneously confident, daring, and cool as a cucumber. But if you’re frank with an interviewer and call their bluff, a few things happen:

  • They see you mean business. If you’re able to dodge a question and then reverse it on them, it shows you’re a  master tactician and, by extension, a valuable asset any employer would be lucky to have.
  • It keeps them guessing and gets you hard data. They don’t get to learn your past worth because you never divulged it, and in turn, it forces them to present a good offer, if not their very best offer, right out of the gate.
  • It gives you room to maneuver. If what the interviewer offers doesn’t sound great but you sense they’re holding out on you, this gives you the perfect opportunity to ask for more with a line like this: “Thanks for letting me know. That amount was close to my expected salary, which is…” At this point, you can hit them with whatever number you think is reasonable, based on your market research and the homework you did beforehand on the company you’re interviewing with.
  • You can go all-in. If you haven’t agreed to a number set by the company by the time a job offer rolls around, you can say some variation of this: “After careful research, it seems relocation/commuting logistics will be problematic with that number, so I cannot accept the current offer.” You run the risk of scaring away the employer and the offer, but there’s a good chance they’ll up the salary offer as well. Be prepared to lose it all, though, if you play this card.

Expert opinions on how to answer salary expectations

With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why the strategic non-answer is a pretty smart choice for most salary expectations situations. But don’t just take my word for it; other experts agree that silence is golden.

Melissa Llarena, on behalf of Forbes, wrote up her own thoughts on how to answer the question and came to a similar conclusion: “Be confident but flexible until you reach the stage where an offer has been made.” Don’t disqualify yourself by setting hard salary expectations before an offer arrives. After all, the end goal of an interview process is always to reach the offer stage, so stay in the game until it’s make-or-break time. Then, when they’ve already committed to you mentally with an offer, present your own.

Alison Green wrote advice of a similar tone for US News. Her key tip: “If your interviewer keeps pushing you to name a number and you keep refusing, you risk coming across as obnoxious or simply getting cut from the running.” Read the room—if your interviewer isn’t going to let you play coy, then shoot your best shot and name the singular number, not a range, that you’d truly be comfortable with.

The bottom line of answering the salary question

There are a few niche situations where it might behoove you to be straightforward about your expectations. For example, if you’re coming off of a high profile position and the new company isn’t sure you’d be within their price range, it might be worth being upfront that your salary requirements are negotiable and that the job’s duties, as opposed to its salary, are the main draw for you. But unless you’re really, truly passionate about the position to the point of being willing to lose a little cash, it’s unlikely you’ll want to go this route.

In general, don’t show your hand. Play it cool, reverse the question at the interviewer if you can, and above all else, don’t let transparency be your undoing. At the point where an interviewer asks you your salary expectations, they’re preparing to tie your entire worth down to a dollar value—so make them pay a pretty penny for it.