Answering questions about salary

Working Life

March 24, 1996|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Most job-hunters know not to ask questions about money or benefits until they're on the verge of getting an offer. But employers don't usually follow the same protocol. Early on they want to know your most recent salary and what you want to make at the next job.

Companies don't want to waste time with candidates who're looking for a lot more money than the job pays. Nor are they eager to recruit someone who'll be taking a substantial pay cut and may soon jump ship for a better deal.

But if you reveal what you now earn, you may limit what the next place is willing to pay. If you're too cagey, you may knock yourself out of the running. Here's how to respond to salary queries without weakening your position.

"State salary history." When a classified listing calls for this information, it's best to give it in your cover letter, says Jon Holman, president of an executive recruiting firm in San Francisco.

People who feel a need to explain can save the details for later. Let's say you've been making more than the new company is willing to pay, but would accept less. Mr. Holman recommends that you acknowledge the question in your letter and indicate your willingness to answer it eventually: "I'm not including salary information because my situation is unusual, and I'll be glad to talk with you about it when we meet." At an interview, you can tell the story more completely.

"What are you making?" Never lie. If a company hires you and later finds out you fibbed, it might give you the boot. At an interview, you can try to delay answering. ("Right now, I'm more focused on the quality of the opportunity than I am on dollars and cents.") To get the job, though, you'll probably have to spill the beans.

"What are you looking to earn?" Here you can hedge a little, says Mr. Holman. An answer that would appeal to him might be: "Salary isn't my first concern. When I inquired about the position with your company, I was mainly interested in the type of work, the people I would be working with, and what I could offer the company. Could we talk about those things first?"

If the interviewer still presses, it's time to answer. Keep the company's perspective in mind: Management wants to make the offer sweet enough for you to accept without paying you a lot more than it pays employees who have similar backgrounds (otherwise, they might complain).

Typically, companies will offer you about 10 percent more than you're now making, says Paul Falcone, author of "The Complete Job-Finding Guide for Secretaries and Administrative Support Staff" (published by AMACOM, 1995). They figure that cost-of-living adjustments and merit increases average about 5 percent a year. Therefore, the reasoning goes, it would probably take a pay raise of twice that, or 10 percent, to get you to move.

For people earning more than $50,000, a job switch might yield a bigger pay increase, Mr. Falcone says, especially if your skills are in high demand. However, an executive secretary earning $30,000 a year is probably being unrealistic by applying for a job that pays $50,000.

Whatever number you come up with, try to stand your ground. With so many people out of work, companies can drive a hard bargain. But they don't want to hire someone who's a pushover either.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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