There it is on the online application—the question no one can figure out how to answer. It is usually accompanied by: Do Not Leave Blank, and if you are online, this is a required field that will not allow the screen to progress unless you fill something in. You are stuck. And in your mind, screwed.
Why do they need to know this? For many reasons, most of them not helpful to your end of the negotiations that you imagine have begun. You think you have opened what will become a negotiation process: “You give me this job and I will give you something of value,” is the message I assume you want to convey. Answer this question wrong, in your mind, and the negotiation is over before you get to really offer the value.
It is not a trick question. At this stage, the employer is not in negotiations. The employer isn’t looking for a few words that suggest you are willing to take whatever the job pays because it is your only goal in life to get this amazing opportunity. The employer just wants to know the part of the value equation that is not on your resume.
Time, money, information, humans are all scarce resources in organizations, and spending time, money, information or humans on you has to be justified. If your salary requirement is out of the ballpark, it’s over. But “out of the ballpark” is an interesting issue. Recruiters are paid to spot value, and if your requirement is high, and your offering is exceptional, you might get a call asking you how firm that requirement is, and seeking at least a phone screening. Employers know that pay is not one number. They have the means to work with you, if you are chosen and if you choose them.
On the other hand, if you price yourself so far below the market that you look strangely out of sync, you will be assumed to be puffing up your resume, or desperate, or uninformed, or not worthy. In this case, you are less likely to get a confirming call. Applicants who undervalue the job by reporting that they have low expectations are not as desirable as those who overestimate the needs of the company.
The reasons for asking the question are:
- The employer (or recruiting firm) wants to validate that you are in the labor market that was targeted for this job, and the pay point is a good clue.
- Your expectations are material to the question of whether or not you are worth the time it will take to court you, meet you, evaluate you, present you, keep you interested, and get you hired. The farther above the employer’s highest number your own number resides, the less worth the effort you appear to be. If you turn down the job after a long process, it affects the morale of all involved, and that really is important to the organization.
- The employer wants to validate that you and your resume are legit. Organizations study compensation and they know what jobs pay and what industries are leaders or laggers. If you are off in a corner doing everyone else’s work for nowhere near what the job you say you have should pay, it’s going to look like something is wrong. Wrong looking things aren’t appealing to someone who is seeking to mitigate as much risk as possible (i.e., a first line recruiter).
- The employer wants to manage turnover. Sure you know you were overpaid. Sure you would be willing to accept less. Sure you know that job is three levels below where you last sat in the org chart. And you also know that your decision to pursue a lesser job is part of a deliberate decision to do things differently, right? Take less responsibility, work fewer hours, don’t bring the problems home, enjoy life more, give your spouse a turn at the wheel, live each day to its fullest. To some employers, that represents probably turnover.
How to handle the question:
- Research the industry, job, geography, the company, and any other special circumstances. Know how pay works, and target the number that makes sense to you based on all the things you know. Stay focused on the company, not on the cost of your commute, the pay you got on your last job, or what your roommate or spouse is making.
- Provide a real number, not an excuse for a number. Don’t insert the word “negotiable,” it just takes points off, and could get you relegated to a maybe pile instead of a follow up file. It only takes a few competitive apps to get you knocked out of the running for something silly.
- Pick a round number, one with zeroes in it. It looks more negotiable than the word negotiable.
- Do not establish a low-ball number because you think it will make you look competitive. It makes you look ineligible.
- Do not report that you are only working for benefits, whether you are young, older, or the member of your family that isn’t self-employed. This is not a good idea. I will do a whole blog on this subject, but not today.
- Tell the truth. You do not have a leg to stand on if your answer isn’t somewhere close to the actual truth. Eventually you won’t remember what you wrote down, and then you will be in an interview, and the issue will come up, and you will say something that isn’t what you wrote. On this subject, the truth probably is that most of us don’t really care about the hair splitting number, but we do have a big rounded-off number in mind. Use that one.
My last words of advice on this are what I usually say. You should not be blindly completing online applications unless someone who already has your resume and your back has directed you to, at which point you’ve been given the answer to the question already. When you see a posting or learn of a job, think of whom you might know in that organization. Your real challenge is to get into a conversation with a decision-maker who can and who wants to help you elevate your candidacy before you have to answer the questions in the boxes on the application.