Prepare for the dreaded salary question

You need to be prepared to answer the following two­-part question:

“So where are you right now in terms of salary, and what are you looking for if you make this move?”

Just so I don’t bury the lead: It’s best if you do not disclose either your current salary or your desired salary during the interview process.

Why you shouldn’t reveal your current or desired salary

Once you’ve completed the interview process, the company will assess your skillset and experience, and determine a range of salaries they’re willing to pay you. The range of salaries goes from “If we could get him on board for this salary, that would be a great deal for us!” up to “This is the absolute most we can pay him to do this job.”

Your objective with your salary negotiation is to get them as close as possible to the maximum they’re willing to pay. You will do this by giving them as many reasons as possible to pay you more and by avoiding giving them any reasons to pay you less.

Sharing either your current salary or your desired salary could possibly give them a reason to pay you less (if either or both of those numbers is below the maximum they’re willing to pay) and is very unlikely to give them reason to pay you more. So, disclosing either your current or desired salary is risky because it will most likely work against you and could cost you money.

How to respond to the dreaded salary question

If you shouldn’t disclose your current or desired salary, then how should you respond to the dreaded salary question?

For the “current salary” part of the question, I recommend something like, “I’m not really comfortable sharing that information. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company and not what I’m paid at my current job.”

It’s true that they may do some digging and put together a good educated guess as to what you’re making anyway, but maybe they won’t. If they don’t know what you’re currently making, that makes it more difficult for them to base an offer on your current salary, and that’s probably going to mean a higher initial offer for you. It also means that their eventual offer will need to reflect both your market value and the value you’ll add to the company without being biased by what you currently make.

The exception is if your current salary is high relative to the market value for your skillset and experience in your industry. In that case, it may help you to tell them what you’re currently making to send a signal that you are highly valued at your current company, and that means they will need to work hard to persuade you to join their team by making a very strong offer. But when in doubt, don’t share your current salary.

My pat answer to the “what are you looking for” part of the dreaded salary question is, “I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation.” This answer demonstrates that you want to contribute to the company by taking on additional responsibilities and that you want to be paid well for those contributions.

If they continue to press, even after you give them the answer above, you can say something like, “I don’t have a specific number in mind, and you know better than I do what value my skillset and experience could bring to your company.”

Here is my recommendation for a good answer to the full dreaded salary question:

“I’m not comfortable sharing my current salary. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company rather than what I’m paid at my current job. I don’t have a specific number in mind for a desired salary, and you know better than I do what value my skillset and experience could bring to your company. I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation.”

Now you’re prepared to ace the pre­-interview.

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