55

I am finishing up a graduate degree and am looking for my first full-time job. I recently had a second interview (Skype) with a place I'm interested in and the interviewer asked me what my desired salary was. My plan for this question has been to politely refuse to be the first person to offer a number and that's what I did, in an indirect way. The interviewer pushed to get a number from me, even saying something along the lines of "what is your dream salary for this job, even if it's high?" I still refused to offer a number, eventually directly ("I don't want to offer a number right now, if that is all right.") After the direct refusal the interviewer moved on to other questions.

I've looked through other questions on this site on this topic, and there is lots of advice on how to answer the "desired salary" question. However, I didn't find anywhere that answered specifically the question is it okay to refuse entirely to answer the "desired salary" question? Are there any downsides to absolutely refusing (politely) to be the first party to throw out a number?

I'm wondering because, in my situation, I don't really have any previous salaries I can point to as a baseline for expectations, and many of the positions I'm applying to are specialized or at specialized companies that don't have enough people working those positions/companies to give Glassdoor, etc., a handle on estimating salaries. I suspect these places will pay well, but I don't want to inadvertently offend them with too high a desired salary or give myself a pay cut with too low a desired salary and that's why I have taken my stance of not wanting to offer the first number.

Duplicate? I believe the specific question as I have worded it is not a duplicate, though I realize my search may not have been exhaustive and/or its answer may have been addressed in another question. Please point me there if so, otherwise I argue that my specific question is not a duplicate.

  • 3
    You might be interested in Does the first person to mention a number in a salary negotiation lose? – a CVn Dec 31 '18 at 20:40
  • 8
    Note that although the accepted answer in the linked question says "the first person to name a salary loses" the author does in fact name a salary (range) first, in order to set expectations. – mcknz Dec 31 '18 at 21:07
  • "My desired salary [changes based on the role, but it] is whatever my favoured job offers me." – insidesin Apr 29 at 1:46

13 Answers 13

17

tl;dr
You always want them to go first, but you can't not answer a direct question. You need a placeholder that sort of answers the question without giving away the answer.

I've been on both sides of the fence, hiring and being hired, multiple times.
For the record, I hate that we have to do this at all. Companies should automatically know what we are intrinsically worth and just pay us that without playing any games. But that isn't the reality we have to work with.
There are a couple of things in play here.
First is that on initially getting hired, you have more leverage than you will for a long time. This is the time to ask for a higher salary.
Once, I agreed to a lower starting salary than I wanted with the agreement that I would get a 10% raise after 6 months if I proved myself. I got the raise, but only after HR had a huge fit about it. In the end, they only gave in because I the manager had already promised it. I could never have gotten 10% if I had waited 6 months to ask.
Second, the salary they offer you is based on a mix of what they think you are worth to them, what they think you will take, and what competition you have. And the supply and demand factor plays a much larger role than your intrinsic value.

As a hiring manager, after a series of interviews, I generally have a list of candidates that I've attached values to.
"I would offer the first guy 64K-66K but he is asking 70K.
The second guy is probably around 60K, and he is only asking 55K.
Third guy, I would go as high as 75K, but he is asking 90K."

So knowing the salary range for the position doesn't tell you as much as you would expect.

What you need to know is what is the range they are thinking of offering you.

As an employer, I always want the candidate to give their desired salary first.
As a candidate, I always want the employer to give their anticipated range first.

In the above scenario, assuming they were all viable candidates that could accomplish what I needed from the position, I'd hire the second guy, offer him 58K, and we both come away feeling good about it. He could probably have gotten 60K if he'd asked for it, but not 62K. If he had asked for 62K, I'd go to the first guy and ask if he'd take 68K with a 2K signing bonus.

It's not that the manager is mean or stingy. It is that I have a tight budget and any money I spend one place, I can't spend elsewhere. I already can't give as much in raises as I want. Any I save here increases how much of a raise I can give someone else or buys some software we've been needing.

Lastly, the third guy may well be worth 90K, but he may not be worth that to me in this position. Conversely, he may have taken it for 75K but I probably won't ask him to. I would rather that he find a position where he can make 90K. If he is only worth 75K to me, then this position isn't going to use all his potential and he's probably not going to be challenged.

Conclusion, you always want them to go first.

One way to answer the question, as a candidate, is to go with the future theoretical.
"Well, eventually I'd like to be making X, but I'm not there yet. This position looks like it should provide exactly the experience I need to be more valuable." This lets the hiring manager stretch but doesn't cut you out of the loop.

  • Interesting - you would expect no negotiation once you make an offer? – David Rice Apr 29 at 15:38
  • Just speaking from my experience, there is frequently negotiation after the initial offer. But if I've already said that I'm looking for 60 to 70K, and I find out they were willing to go up to 85K, I'm going to have a hard time of convincing them that I really need 80K. – BWhite Apr 30 at 21:15
70

As an employee, I hated answering this question. As an employer, I realized that it's wonderfully practical. It gives me some small insight into how self-aware you are about your abilities and your sense of confidence.

Like all questions, there's two ways to look at almost anything.

A person with a nominal resume but a high-salary expectation may be...

  1. Self-centered or arrogant despite the polite courtesy shown in the interview.

  2. Enthusiastic but a bit shy, meaning the resume isn't the whole story.

A person with a great resume but a low-salary expectation may...

  1. Be nervous, naturally self-disparaging, or have low self-esteem.

  2. Have padded their resume.

A person with a good resume asking for a salary in line with what you think the position warrants...

  1. May have done their research about your company.

  2. May have a clear idea about their actual value.

Alone, a datapoint like this is nothing more than a flag indicating that more questions may need to be asked and what those questions should be. Am I, the employer, dealing with the perfect employee? A gem with a bit of baggage? Somebody who will blossom in the right environment? Or someone who isn't paying attention or thinks the world owes them something?

And here is where you get to discover whether or not the glass is half full or half empty. If you're the kind of person who always sees the negative side of life, you'll see this as an opportunity for an employer to turn you down. If you're the kind of person who is more often positive, then you'll see this as an opportunity for an employer to see your value.

However, in my experience, the option to tell me nothing is always bad. Yes, you certainly always have the right to decline to answer. But what are you telling me? At best — nothing. That is actually more of a reason to pass on you than telling me something. The less I know about you, the less likely I'll take a risk on you. (At worst you're telling me that you didn't do your homework, or don't understand my industry, or don't want to negotiate with me, or don't want to talk to me, don't... don't... don't...)

So, my recommendation is to give them an answer. A well-considered answer that reflects your honest assessment of your worth in my industry.

Your school should have a job counselor. This would be a great question to ask that person to get an idea of the different ways this information is used during the hiring process and how to better assess an answer for yourself.

  • 90
    I don't think this will make a reader more likely to open their mouth. Basically your two bulleted points say: No matter whether your guess is above or below the number I was thinking of, it's a count against you. Do you want to hire people who can do their job, or psychics who can guess which number you're thinking of? – Henning Makholm Dec 31 '18 at 21:41
  • 7
    @HenningMakholm, I understand what you're saying, but there it is. No employer I've ever known (or me, for that matter) was worried about the exact number. The issue was, what do you think you're worth? Only a fool would say, "this job is worth 65K, no more, no less. Anything above is arrogant, anything below is desparate." The hiring process is nowhere near that objective. – JBH Dec 31 '18 at 22:40
  • 40
    Don't take it so literally. But still what you're saying is "this is a useful question to ask because it may give me a reason to think less of the candidate". From that description it seems to be in the candidate's best interest to refuse to answer, if for no other reason then to avoid the risk of falling into one of your two possible outcomes. – Henning Makholm Dec 31 '18 at 22:48
  • 40
    @JBH: What I'm observing is that the only way you have presented how to look at the situation is to give examples of how it can be dangerous for the candidate to answer. It's not even a matter of coming out behind in the salary negotiations; you're saying that you're using the question as a trap where a wrong answer can get the candidate rejected. – Henning Makholm Dec 31 '18 at 23:48
  • 13
    @DougO'Neal, you're doing it wrong in exactly the way this answer describes doing also doing it (wrong). Instead, you should consider informing candidates of the expected salary range, and let them decide whether it is acceptable to them. – hkBst Jan 1 at 14:02
45

is it okay to refuse entirely to answer the "desired salary" question?

Yes. You can clearly refuse to answer any question you prefer not to answer, for any reason.

Are there any downsides to absolutely refusing (politely) to be the first party to throw out a number?

Certainly. Most interviewers expect an answer when they ask a question. Your refusal to answer could be ignored, could go down as a negative, or could even cause a complete rejection.

You have to decide how important it is to you not to answer any question. While it's a fairly common negotiating strategy to try not to be first to mention a salary, this strategy has significant risks. That's particularly true when the interviewer pushes hard for an answer.

  • 3
    Most interviewers expect an answer when they ask a question. Interviewer here. I'd disagree with this. Everyone on the hiring team understands some things are better for HR and the department head. We've asked lots of questions that get side-stepped and we're like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ and move on. Which office you want to work out of, pay, time off, and loads of other topics are just things that come up in interviews and we're happy to move on from without an answer. Our job is to determine if the candidate would be good at the role, not if the company is getting the best bang for the buck. – user1717828 Jan 1 at 13:34
  • 2
    @user1717828 In the situation described the interviewee was asked a question and evaded. They were then asked again directly. Interviewers who didn't really want an answer wouldn't have asked again. – Eric Nolan Jan 2 at 13:55
  • 1
    This answer is essentially 'It's physically possible to choose to not answer questions, but it might annoy people if you don't answer.' Which is like... duh? – Adonalsium Jan 2 at 14:17
35

In California and a few other places, employers are required to provide a salary range for a prospective job upon request. Even if you're not in one of those places, you might have luck responding to an inquiry for your desired salary by asking, "Can you share with me the salary range for this position?"

That gives you a very straightforward playbook. If they refuse to share the pay range, then you can say, "In that case, I'd rather not share my desired salary." If they do share the range, you can determine for yourself whether it seems reasonable. If so, you can proceed with more information. Be very careful as a recent grad about assuming that you would fall in the top half of their range—unless you have deep domain-specific knowledge, most employers will place more value on demonstrable experience in industry.

As some of the other answers suggested, you'll be well served by doing some salary research ahead of time. The Stack Overflow salary calculator is pretty helpful for tech jobs, and it gives you some idea how experience and location can affect fair salaries.

  • It all boils down to "do you damn research before the interview". It is not hard to get some estimates from the web in an hour of search. – Mindwin Jan 2 at 11:22
7

I've often heard the advice to not say what salary you're expecting, either until very late in the interview process, or to refuse to be the first to give a number.

The reasoning is usually given as, "If you quote a number less than what they were prepared to offer, they'll then agree to this lower number when you could have gotten more."

It's certainly possible that it could work that way. But there are many other possible scenarios.

Like, the maximum the company is prepared to pay for this job is less than your minimum requirement. Then you're just wasting your time talking to them, because when you finally get to talking numbers, it's going to be an impasse.

Or, the company considers your resume and performance in the first interview and says, "Hmm, someone with these qualifications will surely demand at least $X. We can't afford him, let's look for more realistic candidates." In fact you are willing to work for much less than that. By refusing to give a number, you just negotiated yourself out of a job.

A company once tried to sell me a service contract. I asked how much it cost. The salesman said, "Not much, when you consider what you're getting." At that point I said forget it, I'm not interested. I've seen plenty of advertisements that don't give a price. I immediately lose interest. If they're afraid to tell me the price, I work on the assumption that the price must be high and they're hoping to trick me into committing before I know how expensive it is. I'm not interested.

Frankly, I think the idea that your last job paid, say, $50,000 a year but now a company will offer you $200,000 is pure fantasy. Thinking that by refusing to give a number might result in some fabulous offer beyond your wildest dreams ... it's just not going to happen.

If you want to try to maneuver the company into giving a number first, fine, go ahead and try. But if they refuse, I don't think it's worth turning it into a stand-off. Just give a somewhat high number and let them make a counter-offer.

  • 2
    I gave a certain figure as my expectation, and received an offer for $10k more. Not all questions of this nature are traps. – EvilSnack Dec 31 '18 at 22:52
  • 11
    @EvilSnack and it's entirely possible that they would've been happy to pay more than (your offer + $10k), but you gave them a discount. The point is that you don't have enough information to know if you're getting a good deal or not. – Justin Lardinois Dec 31 '18 at 23:25
  • 5
    "Thinking that by refusing to give a number might result in some fabulous offer beyond your wildest dreams ... it's just not going to happen" you'd be surprised. – Justin Lardinois Dec 31 '18 at 23:28
  • 4
    @EvilSnack Once when I was involved in hiring someone, our company had a form where they asked, among many other things of course, what salary the person was looking for. We interviewed an excellent candidate who wrote in a salary well below what the company was prepared to pay. My boss gave him another copy of the form and told him what number to put there. – Jay Jan 2 at 3:03
  • 1
    I nearly doubled my income from one contract to the next. When asked about my current rates I instead answered what the other 3 jobs I had interviews for that week were offering. I had a clear view of what the market would support and what I was looking for though. (I'd accepted a previous job that I knew was low paid because it was extremely convenient in other ways and because it got me the experience to go for the high paying ones - it did mean I was very careful not to let the rates on that job become the baseline into the future though.) – Tim B Jan 2 at 14:14
7

Consider that you're entering into a negotiation and knowing what you want is simply a matter of being prepared.

I recommend digging deeper to find out what you're worth. Find as many data points as you can (ask people, similar job listings that list a salary range, sites to help you calculate your worth, data from similar positions, etc). The more data points you're able to collect, the more accurate your number will become.

Once you have a general idea, give a number that's slightly higher (assuming you're still unsure). You're better off coming in a bit high than low. By showing respect for yourself, you will gain the respect of others, and it's probably your best shot at getting what you deserve when throwing out the first number and not knowing exactly what you're worth.

Now, you could still choose to try and have them give a number first. You could ask them before they have a chance to ask you, for instance, though they may just turn the question back at you. It's a tricky game to play and I'm not sure I would advise simply refusing to answer the question.

  • 6
    This is the key. Giving a number first isn't a bad thing. In fact, I'd rather give a number first. The important point though is to be able to explain your reasoning. "I want $200,000 because that would be great" won't do it. "I want $200,000 because I have X years of experience in Y technology which is worth Z in this area, but also these other things so Z+25%" – Conor Mancone Jan 1 at 4:47
5

Is it okay to refuse entirely to answer “desired salary” question?

As you demonstrated yourself in your interview, it is entirely possible to put off salary discussions until later, a practice which most experts recommend. The interviewer, however, holds all the cards. If an interviewer insists that you name a salary, you don't have much choice. That's why experts recommend that you have a number in mind when going into an interview (your walkaway number), even if you never have to name it.

I don't want to inadvertently offend them with too high a desired salary

In my experience this never happens. In fact, you're more likely to offend an interviewer by not naming a salary at all, as opposed to naming a salary that's too high. If you put off salary discussions until later, and eventually get to a point where you are discussing salary, the employer likely wants to hire you, and is more likely to propose a lower counter-offer than to tell you to go home.

many of the positions I'm applying to are specialized or at specialized companies that don't have enough people working those positions/companies to give Glassdoor, etc., a handle on estimating salaries

In reality there are very few positions that are so specialized you can't glean anything from sites like Glassdoor or other job boards. You should at least be able to tell based on the overall industry, skill sets used, and years of experience a ballpark for a salary range. When in doubt, go high.

3

I find the best thing to do is ask for the salary range as early as possible, long before you get to interview. When first enquiring about the job just ask what the range is. You can pitch it as not wanting to waste their time if it's too low or too high.

Another useful tactic is to ask a question in response to their inquiry. For example, say something like "it depends what benefits you offer and what opportunities for increases and advancement are available."

Don't worry too much about picking a number. It's not an exact science. The main thing is to be able to justify it. When you state a number, back it up by stating that you have researched the market rate, the cost of living in the area and the value you would expect to bring to the company. As long as you come over as honest and straightforward it's usually fine, and if the number you picked really is too high for them then maybe you don't want to work there anyway. It also gives them an opportunity to make counter offers, including benefits.

  • 2
    This touches on my favourite tactic, which is to mention that the whole benefits package is what is really important. This means that even if you have mentioned a specific salary you can still negotiate based on the 'package' if you (as a prospective employee) feel you need to. – Eric Nolan Jan 2 at 14:05
1

You can certainly refuse to answer, nobody has a gun to your head or anything.

More importantly should you answer? In my view yes - particularly if they are giving you the specific caveats of "even if it's high", at that point refusing to answer just looks churlish and unnecessarily adversarial.

I don't really have any previous salaries I can point to as a baseline for expectations

But surely you have an idea of what salary you would like to be paid?

I don't want to inadvertently offend them with too high a desired salary

Erm.. when they have specifically said that it's okay to give a high, even "dream" salary I don't think you have to worry about this.

give myself a pay cut with too low a desired salary

Surely you know how much you've been earning before..so avoiding this is trivial. Ask for more than you are currently earning?

Are there any downsides to absolutely refusing (politely) to be the first party to throw out a number?

There can be.. see "churlish and unnecessarily adversarial" above and add in the potential for "unprepared" or "game player".

While there certainly are many interviewers/employers who will be looking to use every trick in the book to squeeze a candidate's wage offer as low as possible and I can understand the impulse to get a pre-preemptive strike in as it were for those that aren't looking to do that it's incredibly off-putting.

I have to confess this is something of a pet peeve - I've been on both sides of interviews many times and seeing the other "side" play games drives me up the wall. As a candidate I much prefer to make it clear what I'm after and if that's a hard minimum I'll say so, as an employer I'll offer what I think the candidate's worth and I can afford and likewise if that's a hard ceiling I'll say that as well. Really whether the employer would have paid more if I'd gone hard ball is immaterial as I won't accept a figure if I'm not happy with it and if the candidate would have accepted less..well that's also immaterial since I won't offer something I'm not happy to pay. Wage negotiations aren't a zero sum game where one side has to "lose", getting to a figure both sides are happy with is not only possible but beneficial to both parties.

1

I recently went through this. During the interview process, I avoided answering directly. When they were getting ready to offer, I said that I did not have a hard figure (I didn't) but they should know what is competitive in the market place. They made me an offer which was $2k less than what I thought it might be, and that was close enough for me.

The objective during the early interview is to make sure they have a good fix with their needs and expectations and the candidate's expectations. Letting them know we are in the ball pack helps the HR/recruiter know that they have a candidate who is likely to accept, should an offer be made.

One way I avoid an early salary figure is to say that I would like to better understand the role and responsibilities.

0

Asking salary range makes a lot of sense. If you want more than the company is willing to pay, you can stop the interviewing process right there. It would suck for you if you felt you're underpaid. You'd probably leave soon. That sucks for the company, as it has to go through hiring and training again.

You should do your homework and have a good idea of what someone with your experience in that position and place makes. Ask around and check salary websites like indeed.com.

Then give a range. Most people don't insist on a single number, and an answer like "65k to 70k per year" is fine. If you're still unsure, you can add that this would also depend on other benefits like work from home days, flexible hours, and so on.

Don't treat this as a you against the company game, where you try to trick the other player (i.e., the company). It sends the message that you only (or at least mostly) care about the salary, not about the company or the work. As a hiring manager, this would be a big red flag for me. Will you leave as soon as some other company offers 5 bucks more?

0

Why wouldn't you just answer the question? Do you not want a salary?

You were repeatedly asked a simple, normal thing that's in your best interests to answer, and repeatedly refused. If I were the interviewer my mind would have been made up there and then, at the same time I moved on to other things (as a courtesy to wrap up the interview).

As an interviewer and employer that makes me think you're a potentially awkward employee who can't or won't follow basic, inoffensive instructions. Any further reasoning about this situation is unnecessary in my opinion.

Good luck with your application. In the future I suggest playing ball with the conventions of the interview process.

I will add that if you have your doubts about the company and your salary goal is likely to be linked to further exploration of the company during the interview process, then it would be reasonable to reply saying "I'd like to learn a little more about the role before proposing a figure"; after all, an interview is a two-way street. But you would then be expected to follow-up on that. And, personally, I doubt this scenario is particularly common. Usually you should have a good idea of what you want to earn before you walk in the door, particularly if you've done your due research first.

  • I certainly want to give an answer at some point. I didn't want to give an answer too early on (or be the first to give an answer) lest I unintentionally weaken my negotiation position. – NeutronStar Jan 2 at 3:50
  • I think at a certain point you have to bite the bullet and give an answer (any answer) rather than being awkward, and I think you went over that point. Like in any discussion sometimes you have to give a bit of headway. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 2 at 10:09
  • 1
    @Joshua, this answer is by far the worst one here. There are lots of reasons why you could want to avoid the question or postpone it, and an interviewer who doesn't understand the possible depths, doubts or thoughts this question raises is plain ignorant or very inexperienced. I would seriously hesitate working for a company with such a lousy recruiter. – Lars Andren Jan 2 at 14:21
  • @Lars I'm sorry you feel that way. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 2 at 14:25
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit that's ok. – Lars Andren Jan 15 at 14:42
0

As others have said, not answering the question is a bad idea. There are many reasons for this. The most obvious one I can think of, from the perspective of the employee (so it's written negatively) it gives the employer an out to lowball you. Then you're stuck in a bad spot; if they lowball you and you accept, then you've been lowballed. If they lowball you and you attempt to negotiate, then they have leverage: "You didn't say anything when we asked you nicely, but now you're being difficult when we made the first move in good faith". That's just one of many reasons why not answering the question is a bad idea, I refer to other answers for additional reasons.

You mention your current situation as a reason why you don't want to answer the question. So here are some suggestions for how to answer it in your situation:

1) If you don't want to sound like you're overasking, do some research. Even a little research is better than nothing. Go on Glassdoor and find a number, any number at all is good enough. Then when you're asked, you can say something like "I don't know the field that well, but Glassdoor says I should be asking something like XXX". That gives you some leverage: It means you know what you're worth, but are willing to negotiate. They can come back and say something like "We understand you asked for XXX, but since you have no prior experience, we're only willing to pay you YYY" and it's likely YYY will be in line with XXX more than if you had just said nothing. Since you've shown you know at least a little about the field the company has forewarning not to screw with you.

2) If you can't do any research at all (highly unlikely but whatever), then think about your living expenses: "In order to afford rent on an apartment, gas in a car, a food budget, and entertainment, I will need at least XXX. So I'm going to ask for YYY because XXX is just the basic necessities", where YYY is more than, but not outrageously more than, XXX. Then you've given them your drop-dead line, and they know not to try to lowball you below that because they'll get themselves rejected. Make sure your number for XXX is the correct number though, because if YYY is what you ask for then YYY is probably what you'll get, so if you've underbudgeted your basic necessities for whatever reason you might wind up with less money than you want to have. If you choose this strategy, it's important to say that your number is net income, not gross income (net = after tax, gross = before tax). That way when you get the offer letter saying YYY and then you spit in their face, they understand why; the number you actually wanted was YYY + 30% or whatever because of income tax.

As for worrying about scaring off the company, don't. Give them a reasonable number that's in line with the industry and in line with living expenses in your locale. If they take offense to that, then do you want to work there anyway? If you can't make a salary that will pay the bills, you shouldn't be making that salary.

protected by Snow Jan 3 at 6:32

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.