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How to Answer the Dreaded ‘What’s Your Salary Range?’ Question in a Job Interview

“What’s your salary range?” It’s a question that can cause even the most seasoned interviewee to panic. Suddenly, you’re caught off guard, hemming and hawing and wondering how to respond professionally and not shortchange yourself the compensation you know you deserve. We checked in with three hiring managers to find out exactly how to approach this dreaded query and how to answer if (and when) it comes up.

1. First, Do Your Homework Ahead of Time About Your Salary Expectations

Whether it’s the first interview or the fifth, always assume that salary could be a talking point. Prepare yourself by having a clear (and research-backed) understanding of your expectations in regard to a range. “The number you give should encapsulate three things,” says Chandra Turner, CEO of Ed2010 and Talent Fairy, a career website and recruitment agency for media professionals. “You need to know what you want or need to get paid to keep or improve your lifestyle, but also the comparative rates in the industry you’re looking at (say, technology) and also for the role itself (say, product manager).” To figure out the first part, look at your current or most recent salary. Are you happy with it? Do you need to make more in order to afford your lifestyle? For the second part, check out online resources and calculators. “Salary.com lists salaries for all kinds of jobs and now allows you to search by industry, then the role. Glassdoor also provides pretty detailed information. Some companies now even fill in the range on their LinkedIn postings. Just be sure you check,” Turner adds. Last, she advises talking to your peers in the industry for final insight on the going rate. “It’s as simple as asking, ‘What’s the market rate for someone in X role?’ Perhaps they’ve hired someone in that position personally or have previously worked in that role. That way they can answer without getting too personal—although I’m also a big proponent of just flat out putting it out there since it helps others learn how to value their own work.”

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Flip the Script

Remember that you don’t always need to give a number. “If there is a box where you can type an answer, it’s completely acceptable to put the word negotiable,” says Maria Dunn, head of people and culture at Managed by Q, a company that builds tools for workplaces that help improve the office experience. If the conversation is taking place in person and you are in the beginning stages, it’s fine to answer the question with a question, like “What is budgeted for the role?” “At Q, we are typically very up front with what we are willing to offer since open roles have to be approved by our finance team in advance,” Dunn says.

3. Just Because You Commit to a Salary Range Doesn’t Mean It’s Set in Stone

The interview process is a learning opportunity for both sides, and just because you write down a certain number or range at the outset, that doesn’t mean you’re married to it, says Turner. “After you learn more about the role, you can always ask for a higher salary by saying, ‘Now that I have a better understanding of the responsibilities for this position, I feel that $X is more in line with what I would like to make in this role,’” she explains. One caveat: “Just be sure you don’t throw this out during the offer stage. You’ll want to update your ask with the hiring manager or recruiter after your first interview or whenever you realize that the role is worth more than your initial guess.”

4. Know the Law

Many states—including New York and California—prohibit companies from asking a candidate to share their current compensation, according to Jennifer Ruza, SVP of the people and experience team at VaynerMedia. She explains, “As a result, in many cases, organizations have done away with asking for salary requirements and have shifted the narrative to say, ‘The position is budgeted for a range of $X. Is that within what you’re looking for?’” This may not be the case across the board, but it’s worth keeping in mind as you go through the interview process.

5. Bottom Line: Don’t Overinflate Your Ask

According to Dunn, if you’re answering with a number, you are going to have to justify it. “For an in-person conversation, when the salary question comes up, say, ‘Based on my research on compensation for a role like this and a company at your stage and size, I would expect to be in the $75,000 to $80,000 range, considering I have X years of experience and I’m confident I’d be able to hit the ground running. That said, I’m very interested in this position and the total compensation package is what is most important to me. I look forward to hearing the details on that as well.’” Turner adds, “I think it can be dangerous to overinflate yourself. If you are currently making $60,000 but your research shows that the market rate for your role (or the one you want to move in to) is closer to $75,000, then go ahead and ask for $75,000. But if you were to ask for $90,000, which is 20 percent more, chances are they wouldn’t call you in because they have plenty of candidates in the $70,000 to 80,000 range already. Of course, you don’t want to leave money on the table, but you also need to be at the table to begin with. That’s why doing your research is so important.”

RELATED: Open Salary Policies at the Office Are Trending—But Is It a Good Idea?

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