Tackling the dreaded salary requirement question

Companies often ask for salary history and/or salary requirements.

Dear Sam: Companies often ask for salary history and/or salary requirements. I've always found this awkward to answer. As far as salary history, I've spent the last few years self-employed, so my income has fluctuated, often dramatically. I don't quite know how to word it. And for those ads that ask for salary requirements, I'm never comfortable responding. In the past, I've said something like, "in the range of..." but then stated that everything was negotiable. I'm afraid of pricing myself too high and thereby pushing me out of the running, or stating a figure so low that I'd have a hard time living on it. I also don't want to sound like I'm not worth it ... my skills and experience have value. I'm sure you'll suggest that I research a company or industry, but that's not always possible, particularly with a blind ad or for small companies. Do you have any advice? – Paul

Dear Paul: Having been self-employed does present a more difficult situation due to your varied income. You can certainly use the approach to simply state that your requirements are flexible, but of course you risk elimination, as you haven't really answered the employer's question. I'd try to avoid providing a salary history if at all possible, solely due to your self-employment and your salary fluctuations. If you have to provide a salary history you might want to present that information in your cover letter instead of the traditional technique, which is to list it on your resume. In your case, this would allow you to provide your history while not self-employed, along with a statement explaining that your salary history while self-employed varied greatly and is not indicative of your current needs.

When asked for a salary requirement however, there are a few standard approaches, five of which I have detailed below.

Response One: Tell the hiring manager what you want to earn. If you have a base salary requirement state it as such so to tell the hiring manager that you probably expect a little more. The risk in using this approach is that you will be immediately disqualified because your amount is too low or too high.

Response Two: Give the hiring manager a wide range. Most employers have a range for each position, and the hope when using this strategy is that your ranges overlap at some point. You can either state that you want compensation in the "Mid 50s" or are seeking compensation from "$50-60K." The challenge here is not presenting a range where your lowest amount is their highest available compensation or vice versa. You could secure a job earning $50K instead of $56K, just because you put your range as $50-60K. Hence the second strategy of "Mid 50's" might work more to your favor.

Response Three: Avoid the question by stating that you are seeking competitive compensation for someone in your field, or are flexible as to your total compensation package. By doing this you avoid answering the question and disqualifying yourself because of a number, yet you answer the question to a certain degree. You also tell the hiring manager, by using the second approach, that you realize that there is more to a compensation package than just your salary.

Response Four: Communicate that you would love to discuss your salary requirement once a mutual interest has been established. This gives you the opportunity to assess the functions of the position to which you are applying, and fairly evaluate what you should be compensated for such an engagement.

Response Five: Don't respond. A lot of candidates take this approach and hope their experiences, accomplishments and skills pull them through despite avoiding the question entirely.

At the end of the day, you have to make an educated decision on which strategy you want to employ, and whether the risk involved it worth taking. All the best!

Samantha Nolan is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and owner of Ladybug Design, a full-service resume-writing firm. Do you have a resume or job search question for Dear Sam? Reach Samantha at dearsam@ladybug-design.com. For more about Sam's resume writing services, visit ladybug-design.com or call 614-570-3442 or 1-888-9-LADYBUG (1-888-952-3928).

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