How to avoid the salary question in the interview

There’s a common question that always comes up when I’m coaching negotiators and job seekers, which is:

How do I handle when they ask me to name my own salary, in the middle of the interview, or sometimes even in the middle of my application for a job?

Now, how to answer the salary question can be a really tricky and challenging and confounding moment in your job search process because you want to be nice. You want to be agreeable.  You want to show them you’re a team player and you’re a good sport, but at the same time, you don’t want to name the number first.

Whoever names the first number sets the entire benchmark or anchor point for the rest of your negotiation. It’s really important that we allow the employer to name their price.

We need to put the responsibility on the employer to name their salary range – preferably at the very outset in the job description itself.

We as employees need to hold employers to that higher standard moving forward, so it’s important we decline to answer their question when they ask us to name our price.

So how do you do that?

With this is three-step process that will help you get off the topic and put the onus back on the employer. Here’s how it breaks down.

1. Politely but firmly refuse

First when they ask you to name your salary, find a way to politely but persistently refuse.

You might say:

“I’m not comfortable talking turkey just yet.” 

“It’s a little early in the process to talk salary.”

“It’s a little premature to talk numbers just yet.”

You want to open your response to their request by making it very clear, as politely as possible, that no you will not be giving them an answer to their question.

I know this is hard. We have been socialized our entire lives to be ‘Yes’ people and people pleasers. But we need to flatly and clearly refuse when asked this. If you need to practice, just practice turning people down when they ask you for your number or when they are asking you out on a date.

Practice politely, but firmly turning people down. It is a skill that we absolutely need. It is challenging because it runs counter to everything we’ve been taught our entire lives, and everything we’ve been rewarded for our entire lives.

2. Assuage their underlying concerns

After you flatly, but firmly and as pleasantly as possibly refuse, the next step is to assuage their underlying concerns. What I mean is you want to reassure them that their underlying concerns are not valid.

Now, what’s their underlying concern when they’re asking you about your salary expectations? They’re worried they can’t afford you. They’re worried that they’re wasting their time and yours, and they want to cut the process off early if you’re going to ask for $100,000 and they only have $50,000 in the budget for this position.

In order to comfort them a little bit to reassure them everything’s going to be okay, which is honestly part of the process as an interview tactic, I encourage you to say something like:

“I’m sure if everything else falls into place, we won’t have trouble agreeing on a salary number.”

“I’m sure if we decide to move forward, we’ll be able to come to an agreement on salary then.”

“I’m sure if everything else falls into place you’ll make a competitive offer.”

What you’re signaling to them is, “Don’t worry, we can figure that out later, let’s keep this conversation going,” and basically reassuring them that you’re not wasting each other’s time – even if you possibly are.

To be clear, you may be reassuring them from a place of ignorance ’cause you might not know what they have in mind in terms of salary. A lot of negotiation and a lot of interview tactics are about winning them over, persuading them to give you a competitive offer, and then really weighing your decision.

When you are courting a company, it is not your job to be picky publicly in the interview process. It is your job to win an offer by being as persuasive as possible, and then you can be picky in terms of weighing that offer … but be picky privately. You want to get them to make an offer, so you can weigh your option, because you don’t have an option until you have an offer.

Say what you need to say to persuade them into making competitive offer without naming your price first.

3. Pivot

When I say pivot, you want to get the spotlight off you. You want to make this a swift one, two, three maneuver, so that you can move on and keep calm, right?

You might say, “Can you tell me more about the salary range that you had in mind?”

In other words, putting the onus on them. Ask the question back and put the ball in their court. Or you can pivot off to a different topic altogether:

“Can you tell me more about what success looks like in the first quarter of this position?”

“Can you tell me more about how my performance will be evaluated?”

“Can you tell me more about what the growth potential you foresee in this role might be?”

You want to give them an open-ended question to put the ball back in their court, and get it out of yours.

Put it all together

So, to put those three steps together, here’s what it might sound like all put together.

They might say:

Hey Emilie. What kind of salary did you have in mind?

And I might say:

You know, I think it’s a little early to talk numbers, but if everything else falls into place I am confident we’ll be able to find a path forward that works for everyone.

In the meantime, can you tell me more about what my future in this role might look like one to two years out from today?

This three-step strategy can really pay off and making sure that you’re not naming your price, if the employer you’re interviewing with, had a much higher budget in mind.

The worst thing you can do in your interview is say, “Yeah I was looking for $65k to $75k,” when they had a budget allocated for this position for $75k to $85k. Let the employer name their price. This is a game of verbal chicken.

In some ways, if they continue to ask you over and over for insight on your salary expectations, or God forbid, your salary history – which has become quite illegal in many states, since it perpetuates wage gaps in pay discrimination amongst women and marginalized groups. Rinse and repeat this three-step strategy.

And if they start to get abrasive or frustrated with you, make it clear that you will wait for them to make an offer. It is very assertive, which is why it is helpful to do this in person and not via email, so you can smile, nod, and use your vocal tone to soften the very assertive message that you’re presenting.

As per usual, whenever I give that advice I have to just give a disclaimer which is… We shouldn’t have to do this as women, but we live in a messed up world and I’m all about playing the cards we’ve been dealt while we change the game.

I find that this strategy can pay off big time and has really been proven out in the results that my negotiation workshop attendees received in the past.

They’ve negotiated 20%, 30%, and 40% raises when navigating a job change a promotion using these negotiation tactics and many more which I outlined in our free comprehensive Definitive Guide to Negotiating As a Woman, which you can download here.

If you want to practice in an interactive way through 2+ hour long workshop, you can access the recording of my live Negotiation Workshop for only $99 here.

This article first appeared on Bossedup.