“What is your desired salary? What is your target compensation?” These are common questions job candidates and seekers likely have or will encounter on a job application or in an interview question when speaking with a hiring manager. Maybe you just quit your job and are now encountering these questions.
How do you respond? What if you share a salary that is too high? Or too low? How do you even come up with a number in the first place?
In this guide, we break down everything around the dreaded but inevitable desired salary question. 🌟
We’ll go over:
Why employers ask about your salary expectations and when to expect the question.
How to be prepared when you’re asked to share compensation expectations.
How to fill out the desired salary question on an application or in a cover letter and how to respond in a live interview.
Exact phrases you can use when the question comes up, and strategies to prepare for the conversation.
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Why do employers ask about desired compensation?
There are several key reasons potential employers will ask for your desired salary or salary expectations.
Ensure they have enough budget to hire you. If your expected salary is well above this role’s average salary range, the company will likely not be able to hire you in any case. If the hiring manager can know that sooner, they do not need to waste their time and your time in continuing the conversation. If your salary expectation is right on the edge, advance notice helps them get to work cutting out more budget to offer you a role at your desired salary.
Ensure your priorities are aligned with theirs. Salary is not the only reason people take on a job. Earlier stage startups, bootstrapped companies, and impact-oriented organizations are usually looking for people who are motivated by more than salary and instead motivated by mission. By weeding out people with overly high salary expectations, they can better determine who is solely or mostly incentivized by salary and who is more inspired by the mission and doing meaningful work.
Ensure they are hiring at the right seniority. Salary expectations are closely tied to seniority level and job title. More senior people are paid more. By understanding your salary requirement, companies can also better gauge where in the hierarchy you are aiming to be and what level of leadership you are targeting. If they are looking for a very junior hire but you share a senior manager level salary target, they can clear up this misalignment earlier on.
Be prepared to negotiate. If you give a salary target on the higher end of the role’s range but still in the ballpark, the company can be prepared to negotiate with you, should they anticipate getting to the job offer stage with you.
What is your desired salary?
Do your research before the job interview process. Regardless of if the company asks or if you choose to share, you should still have a desired salary range in mind. Here is how:
Find salary survey data. Use data points on the average salary for your desired job: your department, company size, company stage, industry, and geography, seniority level. Triangulate between these different data sources to get a gauge for what others in similar situations are making. Know what is a fair salary, what is a realistic expectation, and what is a typical salary. An Elpha member shared more about how they conducted salary research prior to negotiating . However, it is important to note that crowdsourced market data sites like Comparably, Payscale, and Glassdoor are notoriously inaccurate for tech salaries in particular, so do take these data points with a grain of salt. Only incorporate this information directionally and as just a very rough approximation, a general ballpark, instead of taking them precisely at face value.
Project your expenses. Will you have a car or need to buy or rent one? How much will rent be? Will you have roommates? How much is the cost of living in the city you are in or will need to move to? Will you have relocation expenses? Or other one-time expenses? Are you expecting higher expenses moving forward (if you are expecting a child or getting married or supporting parents)? Build a spreadsheet to estimate your own expenses to back into what you would ideally like to target for your annual salary.
Understand your experience. Within reason, if you have more experience than the average person applying for the role, you may have more bargaining power to ask for a higher salary. Do research on what the average years of experience is for other people at similar levels in the company and industry.
Know your worth and your walk-away number. Have a concrete number in mind that is your absolute threshold, your minimum salary. Anything below that number, you should walk away. Negotiation is always a possibility but never a guarantee. An Elpha member shared more about the power of knowing your worth and how to show strength during challenging processes where companies negotiate near your walk-away number. Also read more tactical advice for negotiating as a woman of color , and how to believe and show your value in the salary negotiation process , from Elpha members.
Ask your trusted friends and family for feedback. Sometimes we underestimate our own worth. When you have a sense of your range, ask your trusted friends and family members to share their honest feedback on your range.
What to put for desired salary on an application
Sometimes online job applications ask for your desired compensation even before you speak to anyone from the company. If it is a free text desired salary field, default to writing “salary is negotiable.” Do the same on your cover letter or resume. If a number is required (i.e. if the field does not recognize plain text), enter “000.”
How do you answer the desired salary question in an interview?
It is usually in your best interest to have your prospective employer share their range first. If their offer is at a higher salary than what you would have proposed, you just captured a surplus. If their offer is at a lower salary than what you would have proposed, that is still good to know, and you can negotiate to what your target was (if they are unwilling to negotiate up to your target, it would have been useless to share your target anyways).
An Elpha member shared several salary negotiation stories that speak to the power of getting companies to share their range first. Another Elpha member shared best practices for getting the company to share their salary figure first .
Here is suggested language for when you’re asked the desired salary question:
“I would love to better understand the job so I can share more appropriate salary expectations further along in our conversation”
“I am flexible for the right role”
“I’m willing to consider an offer you think is fair”
“I usually reserve salary discussion for when I’m receiving a job offer - is that the case here?”
Here is suggested language to encourage the company to share their number first:
“What is the budget allocated for this role?”
"I'd like my compensation package to be in line with what you would pay someone with my experience at your company. What does that range look like here?"
“I am flexible - would love to hear what you had in mind”
“Do share what you had in mind, and I can share my feedback”
Beyond the base salary itself, consider the entire offer (paid leave, equity, bonus, healthcare, commission, location flexibility, etc.) and try to get the company to reveal more about it by saying something like “salary alone is less important to me than the whole package - would love to better understand what else you offer.”
When and if you are ready to share, ideally in the offer stage and ideally after you have heard the company’s number first, support your range with the evidence and research gathered above. Mention that you are willing to negotiate (if that is indeed the case!)
What are other best practices?
Practice, practice, practice. Practice speaking in a confident tone before the actual conversation. If scripting out talk tracks for different scenarios makes you feel more confident, do so! Practice in front of a mirror to notice your facial expressions. Practice with a trusted friend who can give you feedback. Watch other people role-play negotiation scenarios, as an Elpha member recommended .
Be firm. The recruiter or interview will try to press you to share or reveal more information. They are used to and instructed to be persistent, but they cannot force you to share. As long as you are polite, stay adamant and push the desired salary question out for as long as possible.
Start high and give a range. Give a range to show flexibility and create optionality for yourself and the company but make sure you start high, at least above your walk-away number. If you do share a range before the company shares theirs, the range you share becomes an anchoring point for later conversations. Negotiation will only bring your number or range lower if you are the first one to share your target, so start as high as reasonably possible.
Negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. It can never hurt to negotiate. If a company thinks less of you or takes your offer away for negotiating, you dodged a bullet in not working there anyway. Elpha members shared lessons learned on negotiation from men and general negotiation tips .
We hope this guide has been helpful for you in navigating the desired salary conversations in your next job application and job interview! If you're looking for new opportunities, join the Elpha Talent pool to get matched directly with openings that fit your skills and what you care about