You’ve been job hunting for a while, and you finally hear back about a job you really want. The recruiter reaches out and asks if you’re free to chat for a few minutes so they can ask you a few questions. “Sure!”

Everything seems pretty straightforward—you talk about your background, how you found this job listing, stuff like that. Then the recruiter asks you a question that stops you in your tracks:

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

Wait a minute. They want to know your salary expectations before you even start your job interviews?

You intuitively know that sharing your current salary or desired salary probably isn’t in your best interest. But you’re also really excited about this opportunity and you don’t want to miss out. Plus, you’re not sure how to not answer this question.

What should you say when asked for your current salary or expected salary in a job interview?

What if they insist?

What if they tell you the interview process simply can’t continue unless you share this info?

This will usually come up in the “pre-interview” or “pre-screen”, which is right at the beginning of the interview process. That’s why it’s such a sneaky question! It’s a salary negotiation tactic disguised as a gatekeeper-type interview question.

So when you hear the salary requirements question, you’ll be thinking “What do I need to say to get to my next interview? They asked for my current salary and expected salary, so I’ll tell them that to move on.”

How to respond when they ask for your salary requirements

It’s easier to understand this question if we answer another one first: What is the recruiter or hiring manager really asking for here?

What’s your current salary?

This question is pretty straightforward, but not nearly as innocuous as it may sound. Here’s a different way of looking at this question:

“What’s the minimum salary we need to offer to convince you to change companies?”

Let’s pause for a moment because this is important. I know you might be thinking about the last time this came up, and you told them your current salary, and they offered you more than that.

This is not a coincidence, and it’s not them paying you more than you’re worth. You told them your current salary was $48,000 and they offered you $50,000. Or you told them your current salary was $75,000 and they offered you $78,000. I realize this feels like “They paid me more than I asked for!” and it looks like a win.

But this is normal. They made you an offer that they hoped was just enough to entice you to leave your current job and go work for them. It was more, but it was not the best compensation they could offer you.

When you disclosed your current salary, you gave them an easy out: they just took your answer and added a couple thousand dollars.

The good news is the new offer was higher than your current salary was. The bad news is you probably could’ve gotten more if you hadn’t shared your current salary with the recruiter.

What’s your expected salary?

This question is a little trickier because it sounds like they’re giving you a chance to set the baseline for your new salary. It sounds like they’re asking you to contribute to the terms of the job offer you’ll hopefully get later.

But let’s re-frame this question to reflect what they’re really asking for:

“Can you take a wild guess what salary we might pay someone with your skillset and experience to do the job you applied for?”

The truth is you probably have no idea what they pay people because that decision—what a company pays someone to do a job—is dependent on lots of factors that have nothing to do with your particular qualifications to do the job.

For example, what’s their hiring budget? How many positions do they need to fill for this job? How badly do they need to fill those positions? How’s the company doing in terms of revenue, profits, and growth?

When you answer the salary expectations question, you’re literally guessing a number that depends on tons factors you can’t assess.

But it gets worse.

What are the odds that you’ll actually guess the salary they’re willing to pay someone with your skillset and experience to do the job you’re interviewing for? Practically nil, right? You’re almost certainly going to over- or under-estimate what they’re willing to pay.

I know what you’re thinking, and it’s still a bad idea.

“What if I just state a really big expected salary and overshoot their range?”

To which I say, “How confident are you that you know where the top of their pay range is?” I guess you could just say, “I would like to make one million dollars!” but what good would that do?

You can’t win if you guess at their salaries.

If you underestimate what they’re willing to pay, you’re leaving money on the table. If the real answer is that they would compensate someone like you up to $75,000 dollars, and you guess they would pay a salary of only $65,000, you very literally may have just cost yourself $10,000.

The one thing that might save you is when you guess so badly that you under-shoot the minimum salary they can pay you to do the job. For example, you might tell them your expected salary is $65,000, but the minimum they pay for that job is $70,000. Then they would pay you $70,000 even though you “only” asked for $65,000—a huge win! Except they’re paying you the absolute minimum salary they possibly can, and you could’ve gotten a lot more.

If you overestimate and tell them your salary expectation is $85,000, you may set off red flags that cause them to rethink the interview process altogether. This is pretty rare, but you could disqualify yourself by being “too expensive” for them. If your expected salary is well above their budgeted pay range, they may just move on to other similar candidates with lower salary expectations.

The bottom line is you probably aren’t going to guess what their salary structure looks like, and if you try to guess you’ll cost yourself a lot of money.

This sounds pretty bad, right?

But wait! It gets even worse!

Prepare for every interview with The Interview Cheat Sheet, a printable, 2-page PDF! Includes the answer to current and desired salary questions and much more: Get the free Interview Cheat Sheet

The “real” salary they’re willing to pay could increase throughout your interview

So they’ve asked you to guess what they’re willing to pay someone with your skillset and experience to do the job you applied for. And you’ll almost certainly guess wrong and cost yourself money or even an opportunity to continue interviewing.

What most people don’t know is that their own answer to the question could change as you move through the interview process.

Sounds crazy, right? But it’s true. Here’s how.

Your job in the interview process is to tell a story about how their company or team will be better if they hire you. Each interview is another opportunity for you to tell this story in a more convincing way to another person at the company.

The better you are at telling this story, the more they’ll want to hire you. The more they want to hire you, the more they’ll be willing to pay, and they could literally change the budgeted salary specifically to give them a better shot at bringing you on board.

Let’s go back to our example earlier. Let’s say they’re hiring you for a role whose budget is $75,000. They ask you to guess what that budget is by sharing your expected salary, and you decline to guess because you read this article 😉

So you move on to the next stage of the interview process and do well. Then you talk to another person and you do well. Then you talk to the hiring manager and you do really well.

Now it’s time for them to decide whether to extend a job offer. They definitely want to make you an offer because you’ve done such a great job of convincing them that their company will be better if you’re a part of it. They really want to bring you on board.

You’ve flipped their thinking.

When they first started talking to you, they were thinking:

“What’s the minimum salary we would need to offer to bring this person on board?”

Now they’re thinking:

“How much compensation do we need to offer to convince this person to join our team?”

See the difference? Before, they were looking for a minimum compensation number. Now, they’re looking for a compelling compensation number.

Before they make you an offer, they’re going to huddle up internally, and the conversation might go something like this:

Hiring Manager: “This is the perfect candidate for the job. We’ve been trying to fill this position for two months, and we haven’t seen any other candidates this strong. What did they say their expected salary is? What do they want?”

Recruiter: “They didn’t share their salary expectations. Just said they would prefer to focus on the value they can add and that they want this to be a big step forward for them.”

Hiring Manager: “Huh. Ok. So what’s our budget for this role?”

Recruiter: “Well, we budgeted $75,000, but I’m not sure if that’s going to be enough. How badly do you want this person to join your team?”

Hiring Manager: “I mean, this is the perfect candidate. I don’t want anyone else. This is it. How much wiggle room do we have on that $75,000 budget?”

Recruiter: “The paygrade for this job caps out at $80,000.”

Hiring Manager: “Gosh. I’m not sure that will be enough. I don’t want to lose this candidate. What else can we do?”

Recruiter: “Well, we’re interviewing them for a Grade 2 position, so that’s why it caps out at $80,000. But the Grade 3 ‘Senior’ position for this role goes up to $95,000. The requisition is a Grade 2, but we could look at slotting them into the Grade 3 position and that would give us more room to work.”

Hiring Manager: “Ok, let’s do that. And we’ll offer… $80,000? And that gives us room to maneuver if they want to negotiate.”

Recruiter: “Sounds good. Let me get the other compensation numbers for the offer and then you can give them a call and offer them $80k and clarify that we’re considering them for the Grade 3 position.”

To recap:

  • They had a salary range in mind.
  • You convinced them that you are the candidate they need.
  • They redefined the role to give them more room to pay you.
  • They made a strong offer with room to counter offer and negotiate.

If you had told them your expected salary, you may not have even gotten this far. True, maybe your guess would’ve been good. But what if you guessed lower? You would’ve cost yourself money. What if you guess higher? They may not have continued interviewing you if you were “too expensive”, and you never would have had the opportunity to show them that you’re the ideal candidate for the position they’re trying to fill.

And all of this is just to get a strong initial job offer. You can continue telling your story when you counter offer (see this salary negotiation email sample for an example of how you continue telling your story even as you counter offer), and that may drive their budget even higher.

Now that we’ve talked about why sharing your current salary or expected salary is such a bad idea, let’s loop back to the question at the beginning of this article:

What should you say when asked for your current salary or expected salary in an interview?

Here’s a short video with the basics of how to respond when asked for your salary expectations. Then I’ll tell you more about the nuances of this question and what to do when they don’t give up so easily:

Let’s break this down into two parts: “What’s your current salary?” and “What’s your expected salary?”

“What’s your current salary?”

For the “current salary” part of the question, I recommend answering something like this:

“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 your current salary.

“What’s your expected salary?”

My pat answer to the “what are you looking for” part of the salary expectations question is this:

“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 well compensated for those contributions.

The answer to the salary expectations question

Here is my recommendation for a good answer to the salary expectations:

“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.”

The current and expected salary question

Prepare for every interview with The Interview Cheat Sheet, a printable, 2-page PDF! Includes the answer to current and expected salary questions and much more: Get the free Interview Cheat Sheet

So let’s say that you’re playing a game, and your goal is to get past the salary expectations without sharing your salary requirements. This is Level 1, and the script I just gave you will usually win the game.

What if that’s not good enough?

So you got to the end of Level 1, and you’re feeling pretty good that you didn’t disclose your salary expectations. Excellent!

Most of the time, that’s all it takes. Most recruiters won’t put up too much of a fight because asking those questions just slows them down. They want to fill the position just as badly as you want the job. But they often have to ask you about your salary requirements, so they do. Once your refuse to share, they can check that item off the list and move on.

But! Sometimes you complete Level 1 and the game doesn’t end. Instead, you move on to Level 2, where the pressure ramps up. Here’s what that sounds like:

“I really need something to share with HR.”

…or…

“We can’t move forward without this information.”

The first thing to try is just repeating that you’re not comfortable answering these questions:

“I’m just not comfortable discussing my current or expected salary. I prefer to focus on the value I can add in this position, and I look forward to hearing what you think is appropriate.”

Sometimes that will work because they were willing to take one more pass at getting you to share your salary requirements. But what if that doesn’t work and they insist on getting this information?

Yes, this is uncomfortable. The discomfort is worth it.

You may have gotten this far just because you believe I know what I’m talking about. I made a good case that you shouldn’t share your salary expectations, you bought in, and you survived one or two volleys with the recruiter just based on the script above.

But they didn’t give up! And now things feel awkward, and there’s a lot of pressure, and what if they just stop talking to you and go find an easier, more agreeable candidate for this job?

I take off my “author” hat and put on my “coach” hat

Let me emphasize that sharing your current salary or your expected salary is not in your best interest. Those two pieces of information—your salary expectations—are two of three unique pieces of information you have:

  1. Your current salary
  2. Your expected salary
  3. How badly you need or want the job

That’s basically all of the unique information you have.

Let’s compare that to the unique pieces of information the company has:

  1. The salary range for the position
  2. The overall compensation budget available
  3. How many of these positions they’re trying to fill
  4. How long they’ve been trying to fill the position
  5. How badly they need to fill the position
  6. How many other candidates they have to consider for the job
  7. How much they like you for the position relative to those candidates

I’m going to stop because you’re bored, but you get the point. If you give them two of the three unique pieces of information you have, you’re down to 1. And they’re up from a lot of information that you don’t have to all but one piece of information.

But what if they stop interviewing me?

My coaching clients ask me this a lot. I have two answers:

1. They won’t.

They’re interviewing you because you’re a qualified candidate, and they need a qualified candidate. That’s their primary objective. They would also like to get a good deal on which ever candidate they choose, but first they have to find the right candidate.

They’re not going to stop interviewing you just because you don’t make it easier for them to get a good deal on you.

2. So what if they do?

If they discontinue the interview process because you won’t share two of the three unique pieces of information you have, then they’re extremely motivated to get a bargain on your skillset and experience, and they’re not focused on finding the right candidate for the role itself.

That’s bad news for you even if you get the job. Do you really want to work somewhere that is so myopic that they ignore perfectly qualified candidates simply because the candidate won’t make the negotiation easier by sharing their compensation requirements?

I can’t answer that question for you, but I can tell you my answer: “Nope.”

Prepare for every interview with The Interview Cheat Sheet, a printable, 2-page PDF! Includes the answer to the current and expected salary questions and much more: Get the free Interview Cheat Sheet

What if they keep pushing?

So you gave my pat answer and completed Level 1. But the game kept going and now you’re at Level 2 and they’re asking again. What do you say to complete Level 2 and end this awkward conversation?

By now they’ve probably either implied or straight-out said something like this:

“I just need to be sure the salary range works for your requirements so we don’t waste each other’s time.”

Nobody likes wasting time, and you especially don’t want to waste someone’s time when they might be the gatekeeper for a great job opportunity, right? So you’re inclined to just give them what they need and get on with the interviews.

Instead, I recommend a little conversational Judo—use the reason they gave for asking again as your own leverage. Here’s how:

“It sounds like you’re trying to qualify me for a salary range. If you want to tell me what that range is, I’m happy to tell you if it’s in the ballpark.”

They claim they need to qualify you for a salary range, but they are also asking you to give up one of your precious pieces of information to do that. Instead of sharing your salary expectations, just ask them for the range.

The nice thing about the way I’ve worded this script is that you’re not actually committing to accepting a job offer in that salary range. You’re saying it’s “in the ballpark”. This matters because you still have full latitude to negotiate your compensation later on once they finally make you an offer.

(Yes, this is a semantic argument. This is about the the diciest semantic argument you’ll hear me make.)

So this is how you complete Level 2, and then it’s over right? Usually, but there are some recruiters who are very persistent and they will continue pushing. They may even claim the interview process cannot continue if you don’t share your salary expectations.

I already covered why I think this is silly, so let’s just cut to the chase: How do you end this conversation without sharing your current salary or expected salary?

Here’s your trump card for the salary expectations question

This is Level 3. It’s the last level in the game. You’ve told them you’re uncomfortable sharing your salary expectations, and they persisted. You’ve told them you’re happy to confirm if the range they’ve budgeted is in the ballpark of what compensation you’ll consider, and they persisted.

There aren’t many options left, but this one is very effective. Here we go:

“I’m not comfortable sharing my current employer’s proprietary compensation information, and I know they wouldn’t appreciate it if I did. I still work for them, and I’m just not comfortable sharing their proprietary information about how they pay people like me. I really don’t have a specific number in mind for an expected salary, and I look forward to hearing what you suggest.”

This is a heavy-handed answer, but it’s necessary because of the situation. You’re basically saying, “I have ethical qualms with giving you the compensation information you’re demanding.” This has the advantage of putting the pressure back on the recruiter, who now has a clear Catch-22 if they continue to press: They’re asking you do something you see as unethical to move forward, but they probably don’t want to hire someone unethical.

If they still press after this answer, I’m all out of ideas because I’ve never seen anyone fail to complete the game with this script.

What about salary expectations questions on job applications?

It’s more and more common to see salary questions on job applications—both paper and online. So let’s talk about how to use this strategy when confronted with the salary expectations questions on an application.

Salary questions on paper job applications

If you’re filling out a paper job application with questions about your current, previous, or expected salary, just leave those questions blank. Either the recruiter will just let it go, or they’ll verbally ask you for those numbers, and you can fall back on the scripts we covered earlier.

Salary questions on online job applications

Online job applications can be trickier because they might require you to enter an answer in order to submit them. So there are two things to try:

1. Submit the application with the salary fields left blank

Sometimes, the online application won’t actually verify that you entered an answer to the salary questions, and you can submit it with blank answers. Give this a shot first.

2. Submit the application with fake numbers

This feels weird, but sometimes it’s the only way. Try entering “0” or “1” or “999999999” and submitting the form.

Again, the recruiter or hiring manager may follow up to ask for your current salary or expected salary, and you can just fall back on the scripts we covered earlier.

What if they ask for W-2s or pay stubs from your previous jobs?

Don’t share them. It’s none of their business.

It’s one thing to ask for proof of employment like a reference, but asking for your personal tax information is out of bounds.

Every time I’ve seen this, it’s usually a rogue recruiter who has created their own policy to ask for this sort of documentation to give them a better shot at getting your current salary or desired salary. The company itself may not make it a habit of asking for this information, but some recruiters take the idea of getting salary information further than others.

Regardless, you shouldn’t share this information because it has nothing to do with how qualified you are for the job they’re trying to fill, and your previous salary has no bearing on how valuable you will be in this role for their company.

What if they stop the interview process because you won’t share your current salary or expected salary?

It’s extremely unlikely that they will halt the interview process if you refuse to share this information. The reason they’re talking to you at all is that they need to fill a role at their company, and they need to fill that role even if you won’t make the salary negotiation easy for them by sharing your salary expectations.

But let’s say they do stop talking to you because you won’t share your current salary or expected salary. What then?

You’re probably dodging a bullet. Let’s take a step back and look at the situation: They need to fill a role with the right candidate. You’ve applied for the job, indicating that you could be the right candidate. But instead of exploring that further, they stop talking to you because you won’t share personal information about your salary history, or take a guess at what they’re willing to pay you to do the job.

Do you really want to work for that company? If they’re that petty before they hire someone, how petty will they be once you’re their employee? Chances are, things will only get more difficult after they hire you.

Common pushback from recruiters

I’ve been talking about the salary expectations question for years now. My coaching clients have used this advice to get much better job offers and negotiate better compensation than they ever had before. These tactics work.

But I still get some pushback, and it’s almost always from recruiters. My advice is very unpopular with recruiters.

So let’s take a minute to talk about their primary objection and why you should ignore it.

“We don’t want to waste each other’s time”

This is the most common objection I hear from recruiters who disagree with my advice on how to respond when asked for your current salary or expected salary. Their concern is that they’ll invest lots of time—their time, hiring managers’ time, HR’s time—interviewing a candidate whose salary requirements exceed their hiring budget.

Here’s a typical comment on interview I did for Glassdoor.com about 9 Things to Never Say in a Salary Negotiation:

I don't deal with candidates who don't disclose salaries. It's a waste of my time.

I understand how this could be a problem for them.

Recruiters spend most of their time finding candidates, and scheduling interviews. So if they continuously interview candidates, make them offers, then have their deals fall apart because they can’t agree on salary requirements, they could invest a lot of time interviewing candidates without filling jobs.

But your experience is different—you’re probably interviewing for just one or two jobs. It might be a little inconvenient if you sit through four or five interviews and get an offer that doesn’t meet your minimum acceptable salary, but that’s a pretty small investment to find a good job. And since you only change jobs every couple of years or so, this is an investment you’ll make only occasionally.

So this is their problem, not yours, and they can solve it easily enough. Here’s my recommendation if a recruiter tells you they don’t want to waste your time on interviews if your expected salary doesn’t fit their hiring budget:

“It sounds like you’re trying to qualify me for a salary range. If you want to tell me what that range is, I’m happy to tell you if it’s in the ballpark.”

As I mentioned earlier, this answer doesn’t box you in to accepting a job offer in that salary range. You’re just saying it’s “in the ballpark”, so you still have full latitude to negotiate your compensation when they finally make you an offer.

If they’re serious about respecting everyone’s time, then they’ll tell you the range so you can confirm it’s in the ballpark. And if they won’t share a range, then it’s clear they’re simply trying to gain information to benefit them during your salary negotiation later on.

Summarizing your options for answering the salary expectations question

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, so let me give you a short-and-sweet summary of the scripts you can use to avoid sharing your current salary and expected salary when asked for your salary expectations in a job interview.

Here’s salary expectations question again:

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

Level 1 answer

“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.”

If they keep pushing after that longer answer, you can shorten it up and try again:

“I’m just not comfortable discussing my current or expected salary. I prefer to focus on the value I can add in this position, and I look forward to hearing what you think is appropriate.”

Level 2 answer

If the Level 1 answer doesn’t quite work, it’s time to move on to Level 2, which requires a slightly more sophisticated answer:

“It sounds like you’re trying to qualify me for a salary range. If you want to tell me what that range is, I’m happy to tell you if it’s in the ballpark.”

And if that doesn’t work, you can reach for the trump card—the Level 3 answer…

Level 3 answer

“I’m not comfortable sharing my current employer’s proprietary compensation information, and I know they wouldn’t appreciate it if I did. I still work for them, and I’m just not comfortable sharing their proprietary information about how they pay people like me. I really don’t have a specific number in mind for an expected salary, and I look forward to hearing what you suggest.”

That should enable you to move on to the actual job interviews.

How to handle paper and online job applications

Leave salary questions blank if possible. This will work for paper applications, and even for some online applications that don’t check your entries before saving the form.

But if you must fill in the fields that ask for current salary or expected salary, use fake numbers like “0” or “1” or “999999999”. This will either move you along in the process, or prompt the recruiter to ask you for your salary expectations verbally (which you’re prepared for).

What to do when they ask for W-2s or pay stubs from previous jobs

Don’t share them. This isn’t any of their business.

What to say when recruiters ask for your salary expectations to save time

They’re either trying to save time, or they’re trying to gather information to give them an advantage later on when you negotiate. If they’re genuinely trying to save time, then this answer should get you through:

“It sounds like you’re trying to qualify me for a salary range. If you want to tell me what that range is, I’m happy to tell you if it’s in the ballpark.”

Next time you’re asked for your current salary or desired in a job interview, use these word-for-word scripts to avoid disclosing that information and get back to the interview process. This strategy will leave the salary expectations question open longer, allowing you to impress them more so you have more leverage during your salary negotiation.

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  • How to research a company
  • What to say when they ask for your salary requirements
  • How to answer almost any interview question
  • Common types of questions to expect
  • Questions you should ask
  • Checklists for in-person, phone, and virtual interviews