The 'Never Specify a Salary' Myth

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By Liz Ryan, BusinessWeek.com

Dear Liz,

I've always heard that it's best not to say anything about salary when you're interviewing for a job. Whoever mentions a number first has the disadvantage. I just don't want to waste my time on interview processes where the salary is too low for my background. How do I navigate that?

Thanks,

Bradley


Dear Bradley,

That old notion of keeping mum about salary during an interview process is bad advice. If you keep quiet about your salary requirements throughout the whole process, here's what happens: The company makes you an offer, and the offer is ungodly low. Now, you can't say, "If you want to get me, you'll have to drastically improve that offer." O.K., you can say that, but you've already put yourself at a huge disadvantage by letting the conversation go on for so long without mentioning your salary requirements. It was your job to do that, and you didn't speak.

Getting an offer to a candidate is a big deal in the corporate world. Three or five or 14 people may have been involved in approving that offer, including people in your own future department, Human Resources, Finance, and who knows where else. Once the offer is on paper (or in an electronic document -- same thing), it's set in stone as far the company is concerned.

It's like moving mountains to get that offer adjusted after the fact. You can't rely on the offer coming in close enough to your salary mark. You've got to let the hiring manager know what you expect to earn at your next job before anybody at the company you hope to work for starts talking to anybody else about offering you a job.

The best time to bring up the salary topic is at the second interview. It's not appropriate to do that at a first interview, because you don't even know at that early stage whether the company is interested in you. If you don't want to make the trip for a second interview before making sure your salary is in the ballpark, ask the person who calls you or writes to you to schedule the second interview, "Should we talk beforehand to get synched up on our respective salary expectations?"

Ignoring Phantom Losses

At this point, whether you communicate via e-mail or over the phone, you're going to have to share a number. You can get that number online at Payscale.com, or get it from a headhunter buddy, or from your own gut and experience. The last thing you need to worry about is the prospect of leaving money on the table by naming too low a figure. Companies are not making overly generous job offers to anyone. Get the job at a decent salary. Don't worry about a phantom five thousand dollars you imagine you might have given up by naming too conservative a salary level.

Now, if you name your number and the hiring manager blanches, you'll know that he or she wasn't expecting to pay anyone that much. That's not necessarily a problem. You're unlikely to be tossed out of the running for your "extravagant" salary requirement. The company will merely tell you, "That's not in our range, but if you could see your way to accepting this job at $20,000 less, we should keep talking." Then, of course, you have a decision to make.

Having a job is better than not having one, but you will have to make your own decision about your salary floor. If you can't live on the salary you're being offered and believe that someone else will pay you more, you can pass on the job offer and keep looking. You could even talk to the employer about filling in as a contractor for them while they continue their search.

Whatever you do, Bradley, don't stay silent throughout the whole interview process in the mistaken belief that He Who Speaks First Loses. That couldn't be more wrong in this landscape. You've got to name your price, and you've got to do your research in order to be able to price your background and skills fairly.

Best, Liz

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Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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