How to Answer the Dreaded Salary Question


It finally happened! A recruiter from your ideal company just reached out to you and wants to set up time to talk about a position they have open.

You get on the call with the recruiter, everything is going well, and then they ask you the most dreaded question of all, “What is your current salary and what are you looking to make in your next job?”

As a former recruiter and now as a career stylist, I am constantly surprised by how many people are completely caught off guard by this question and unprepared to answer it. So, I’m going to give it you straight. You need to expect this question early in the recruitment process, have a well thought out and honest answer, and understand that this is not a trick question designed by recruiters to lowball you, if and when you get an offer.

Ok then, so why do recruiters typically ask this question so early in the process? Most commonly, this is an effort to assess 3 key things about you:

  1. Is your total compensation too low or too high? If your most recent compensation isn’t within close range, recruiters may question whether you are too junior or senior for the role, thus indicating a potential misalignment with the open position. They will need to decide quickly whether to start the interview process (which is very time consuming for you, them, and those conducting the interviews) or keep you in mind for a different role, if and when it opens up. However, they also take into account the compensation practices of your current or most recent past employer (whether notoriously low or high paying), if you’d be relocating from a place with a lower or higher cost of living, and if you’re making a career transition for which salaries won’t be aligned. Depending on the circumstances and what the hiring manager is looking for, they will determine whether to move you forward in the interview process.
  2. Will they run the risk of losing you at the offer stage? No recruiter wants to bring a candidate all the way through the interview process only to have them be disappointed by an offer that doesn’t match their financial needs and ultimately decline the offer. Recruiters will do almost anything to avoid a decline. Therefore, setting salary expectations upfront are crucial for their success.
  3. Do you know what you want and are truthful about it? Recruiters don’t like surprises. When it comes to your financial happiness, they want to know what’s important to you and what’s not. So tell them! Nothing frustrates a recruiter more than getting a “fairytale” story of a candidate’s current compensation package as a tactic for trying to give themselves a huge raise when switching jobs. If you want to make more money than you do today, be honest and say it. Recruiters are incredibly savvy and know what their company’s direct competitors and other industry players pay, so don’t try to fool them. They may even ask you to submit a copy of your last paystub or annual earnings statement to prove it. Getting caught in a lie will backfire on you and land you on the blacklist of that company forever!

Never forget that a recruiter’s main performance measure is how quickly they fill open headcount with quality candidates. Therefore, they want to spend their time focused on the best possible candidates who will ultimately accept the offer. Learning the answer to the salary question is one element of their overall strategy for success.

Ok, now it’s time to prepare your answer for this dreaded question. Take out a sheet of paper get it it all written down, and then review it each time you engage with a new recruiter.

  • What is your current or most recent total compensation?
  • Base salary
  • Bonus – don’t forget to figure out the pro-rated amount you’d leave on the table if you were to leave your current job in the next month or so.
  • Both vested and unvested stock options – calculate the approximate value of unvested options based on today’s stock price
  • Benefits – anything you didn’t have to pay for at your current/previous company that you normally would at most other companies (eg. 0% medical premium, free food, etc.)
  • What is your IDEAL compensation?
  • Total amount you want to make with base and bonus
  • Equity
  • Benefits and perks that matter the most to you (e.g. paid parking, ability to work from home 2 days per week, etc.)
  • Determine the minimum financial compensation package you’d be willing to accept.
  • Are you willing to take a pay cut for the right job and company?
  • Is your current job worth leaving for a pay cut or even equal pay?
  • If you’re not currently employed, are you standing up for your value and worth?
  • For each new potential opportunity, take into account relocation or change in your commute.
  • Will your costs go up or down if you were to relocate or change your commute (e.g. increased gas costs, parking, your time, etc.)?

The salary question often makes job seekers feel vulnerable and uncomfortable but it doesn’t have to be that way. You don’t have to be the only one revealing this sensitive information. I highly recommend letting the recruiter know that you’d be more than happy to share your salary expectations, if they would also be willing to share the compensation range for the open position. If you’re going to be showing your cards, it’s only fair that they show some of theirs, right? They may not tell you for various reasons but it’s up to you to determine whether they are being as honest as they can or if they are keeping you in the dark due to a misguided future negotiating strategy. Then, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to move forward or not.

To sum up, the key is to be honest not only about your most recent compensation but also how you’d ideally like to be compensated in your next job. Then, let the recruiter respond and take it from there. Recruiters need to know what they’re working with so giving an answer which doesn’t reflect what you truly want, only hurts you in the end.

About the Author

As a Career Stylist, Kelly Studer has been transforming careers for ambitious professionals and executives at Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and everything in between.