Money. We all want it, but don’t like talking about it—especially when it comes to salary. There’s a lot at stake: If we don’t ask for enough, we miss out on money we deserve; if we ask for too much, we’re afraid we’ll lose the job before we even get the chance to interview.
Sometimes, though, we can’t avoid it. That’s particularly true when you’re facing the dreaded point-blank question on an online job application: What is your desired salary?
How to answer the question
While leaving it blank isn’t usually an option, you can avoid answering it directly. If the field allows alpha characters, simply type negotiable or to be discussed.
More often, however, the form only accepts numeric characters, so you’re left with either entering your actual desired salary or inputting nonsense figures like $0 or $1. You do take a risk with that latter approach. It’s not that the recruiter won’t take you seriously, it’s that an automated system may reject your otherwise perfect application so that you’re never even considered for the job. But still, that approach can work.
Whatever you do—whether you input a phrase, a place holder or a true salary or salary range, such as $55,000–$65,000—see if there’s also an option elsewhere on the application for comments. In that field, you can explain that once you find out more about the position in an interview, a meaningful discussion about salary can take place.
Too high or too low are equally risky
Generally, applicants don’t like to commit themselves to an actual desired salary because they might either immediately price themselves out of the job or go in too low, and be hired at an under-market (and unfair) wage.
There’s actually another concern about inputting a significantly low salary you should consider: The hiring manager might view you as inexperienced and unable to do the research required to find out the approximate going rate for that position. In other words, you can price yourself out of the job even if you input a salary well below the going market rate.
When you’re faced with a form that you absolutely must complete with a desired salary, Washington Post work advice columnist Karla L. Miller says: “Submit what you think is a fair wage and what you would happily accept for the position described. If that figure is so high it puts you out of the running, that still beats being underpaid and resentful.”
Research before you commit
By first checking resources like PayScale and LinkedIn Salary, you can make sure you’re at least within the acceptable range of what is likely to be offered. In fact, if you remember that you’ll never get more than you ask for and that this figure should be seen as just a starting place for negotiation, you might want to choose a number at the top end of your range. An impressive resume, exemplary skill set, and targeted experience beats an ask that’s a little high.
Career coach Roy Cohen says your research will make all the difference, whether you have to put a desired salary upfront or you’re asked during the interview process. He tells his own clients to enter the desired salary on the employment application form and to think of it as a “point of entry.” Negotiation comes later when the job offer is made, by which time the employer will have gotten to know you and realize your potential worth to the company.
“The point, always, is to avoid negotiating compensation before you negotiate the job,” Cohen warns. “When you make an issue out of compensation too early in the process, you risk being eliminated from consideration before this essential information has been communicated and they risk missing out on a great candidate.”
Read more: Going Rate: What’s a Good Salary for My Job?
Don’t forget to negotiate benefits too
Keep in mind the value of the benefits. While you shouldn't inflate your desired salary by adding the approximate value of a benefits package, you should remember it during the discussion stage or if you’re asked about flexibility with respect to your desired salary. A generous benefits package that includes comprehensive family medical and dental, plus life insurance and retirement plans, can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.