“Desired Salary?” How to Answer it and Get it.
You don’t get the salary you deserve; you get what you negotiate.
Negotiation starts well before you get an offer and the most important step comes in the screening call. In this article I’ll tell you why the “desired salary” question is so important, how you should answer it, and what you need to do to maximize your earnings.
Why your “Desired Salary” Answer Really Matters
How you answer this can make a material difference in your offer. Your offer might not exceed your current compensation, or it could represent a 10-40% increase. Also, pivoting success in the interview process, initial offer, and reactions to counter offers.
For young professionals, the right situation and answer can make a material difference. We see it often affect the eventual compensation package by 2-3x.
The long-term impact is even more staggering. Adjusted for inflation-based raises, the lifetime value of a $20k raise over 25 years is over $770,000. If you learn and implement this successfully, the lifetime value is well beyond $1M for most professionals.
Want to see what a meaningful raise would do for your career earnings? Check out our Career Earnings Calculator.
Why Recruiters Ask about Target Compensation vs. Desired Salary
Recruiters don’t ask about your target compensation so they can low-ball you, but that’ll happen if you answer the question poorly. Ultimately, they just want to make sure the company is capable of making an offer that would satisfy you, and they don’t want to waste their time if that’s not feasible.
Most people think salary negotiation happens after an offer is extended. While the actual negotiation does happen at that point, salary negotiation really starts in the screening call.
Questions about your salary vary from company to company. In some states and cities, it’s illegal for a company to ask about your salary history. Look up a current list of those places to know if this is relevant to your job search.
Ultimately, the question comes in a few different forms:
• What is your current compensation?
• What is your target compensation?
• What is your desired compensation?
• What are your salary requirements?
But it all boils down to the same thing: is your compensation goal aligned with what the company can offer?
When the recruiter asks you this question, there are two important thing you must not do: DO NOT lowball yourself and DO NOT ask for more than what’s budgeted for the role.
Desired Salary vs. Desired Compensation – There Is a Difference.
These are two topics that seem very similar but are significantly different. Your desired salary is only the cash your employer is paying you; this is before taxes and does not include non-cash compensation. Your desired compensation takes into account the total value of any financial benefits; this includes your base salary and non-cash compensation, such as benefits, vacation, stock-options, health insurance, stipend, 401k, etc. Typically, the value of non-cash compensation will range from 40-60% of the value of the cash compensation, but it can be significantly higher in some cases.
A recruiter will be pleased if they can confirm that their budget for the role and your target compensation are aligned. This is the main reason they ask.
Giving a number that’s below their range or at the bottom of it will result in the recruiter seeing you as lower in value. If you get an offer, it’ll be lower than what’s possible. Even worse, you won’t have room to negotiate. If you ask for $100k and they offer $105k, asking for more will be off-putting and may make the company question your value.
Giving a number that’s too high will typically terminate the interview process. You might get lucky and the recruiter will tell you that’s above their budget, giving you the chance to course correct. More often, they just won’t offer an invitation to the next round.
The right answer? Don’t give them a number right away.
The Golden Rule of answering this question is to not answer till the timing is right, if at all.
Instead, you want to inquire about what they have budgeted for the role. Most recruiters will just tell you. Remember, they just need to check the box.
It’s important to ask about this in a way that doesn’t raise any red flags. It doesn’t work to answer with “actually, could you tell me what’s budgeted for the role?”
If your answer comes across as odd or inauthentic, this will raise a red flag for the recruiter. You might get the information you want, but it will jeopardize your chances of advancing and getting an offer. You need to make the recruiter feel like the best way for them to get their answer is to answer your question first.
Templates only work so well because it’s all about the execution. Your tone, speech speed, and inflection all communicate the intention behind the words. That said, here are some words that work:
“You know, I don’t really have a specific number in mind. I’m more focused on the overall fit of the role and company culture. Just to make sure we’re in the right ballpark though, what’s budgeted for the role?”
Most recruiters will give you a range.
If the range is above or aligned with your target, you can check the box by saying:
• “Great, that range is aligned with what I’d expect,” or
• “Okay good, that’s in the ballpark of what I expected” will check the box for the recruiter.”
If the range is below what you’re targeting, consider whether it’s worth continuing the process. I recommend saying, “hmmm, I’m really interested in this role but that’s lower than other opportunities I’m exploring. Is there any flexibility around that range?” If there isn’t, the role may not be a fit for you. However, you might want to ask if there might be a possibility of creating a position of greater responsibility that would have the higher compensation you seek, and discuss how you might be able to deliver higher value.
What if they push back?
Sometimes a recruiter won’t answer your question about their budgeted range. It’s uncommon, but it happens. They might say “the range is flexible based on experience” or “it’s company policy not to share that kind of information.”
You want to keep the conversation from getting awkward without committing to a specific target salary.
In this case, I recommend shifting the conversation to research you’ve conducted. Here are two examples:
1. “Oh, well I did some research and it seems like the market average for this kind of role is around $100k. Is that in the ballpark?”
2. “I did a little research on Glassdoor, and I know the information isn’t always accurate, but it suggests the range is $90k-$110k. Is that accurate, or close enough?”
These responses are valuable as they preserve your negotiation power for the future. Check the recruiters box and ensure that this role can pay you, what you desire.
Maximizing your pay by using the company’s budgeted range is only one strategy. You also need to conduct market research to prepare for these conversations.
What’s your actual value?
Whether you just want to understand how much you could be getting paid or you want to have the information available in case a recruiter pushes back on giving a range, it pays to know your market value.
No one site is perfect for giving you this information. There’s no “right” answer out there and the less common your role, the weaker the information will be.
That said, here are some of my favorites:
For roles at Tech Companies, the information from Built In is most reliable. They aggregate salary information based on specific communities, like BuiltInSF. Their communities include Boston, New York City, Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Colorado.
PaySacle is great for evaluating your current salary at your current role. It provides unmatched customization to evaluate salary and offers. They do the most comprehensive evaluation out of any salary evaluation tool.
For researching compensation for roles at a specific company, Glassdoor is still your best option. While LinkedIn Salary is improving, it’s interface isn’t adequate for more detailed searches.
What if they don’t bring up salary or compensation?
When you get to the end of a screening call and the recruiter hasn’t brought up compensation, there’s a risk that it never comes up until an offer is made. If you’ve done your research and you know the offer is going to be plenty high enough, it’s not worth asking about.
However, if you’re not confident in a company-specific salary range, it’s worthwhile to ask about. We would hate for you to spend hours preparing for and going on interviews, then spend time writing thank you notes, only to get an offer that doesn’t even match your desired salary. Let’s cut straight to it and avoid waisting everyones time. If that matters to you, it’s not worth the risk of not knowing.
For the more timid, you could say something like: “When is an appropriate time to check that we’re in the same ballpark for compensation?”
However, a recruiter will likely ask you about your targeted desired compensation instead of offering a range. When you are the one to bring up compensation in conversation, it’s not as easy to say that “you aren’t focused on compensation”.
Instead, I recommend being direct: “While I don’t have a specific target salary in mind, I want to make sure we’re at least in the ballpark. Could you give me an idea of what’s budgeted for the role?”
Your tone should be one of wanting to make sure you and the recruiter are on the same page. Experienced recruiters won’t think twice about this question, they get it. You’re doing them a favor.
Salary Negotiation is a Dance, Not a Battle
The entire salary negotiation process is all about collaboration with the hiring manager- from your first screening call through negotiations to a final offer. You don’t want to be at odds with a company, battling to eke out every cent. If you approach it this way, it’s unlikely a company will want to hire you.
Most companies want to pay you a fair wage. What you say and how you say it will dictate what they perceive is fair for you, including any discussion unrelated to compensation.
Help your recruiter “check the box” on compensation while learning the salary range and you’ll be in a strong position to negotiate.
Are you prepared to handle the “what’s your target compensation” question with confidence and poise?