The salary conversation—awkward, uncomfortable, maybe the hardest part of an interview? It shouldn’t be this way—and hopefully it’s changing—but it still feels awful for many job hunters. They struggle to ask for the salary they deserve (or have trouble believing they deserve it).
If you’re among them, repeat after me: There is nothing wrong with asking for the salary I want. Even if you’re feeling desperate for the job, you’re not there to work for free.
Still, that moment when you’re put on the spot to say out loud what you want to get paid can feel crushing if you’re not properly prepared to answer. To make sure you’re ready to tell your next interviewer exactly what your desired salary is, we reached out to career coach LaTrice Huff. Huff has helped her clients get six-figure offers. Here are her expert tips for answering those dreaded salary interview questions.
The key pre-interview steps to answer “what is your desired salary”
Huff says step one, like with most interview prep, is research.
“Don’t pull a number out of the air!” Huff says. “Look online, it can take seconds. LinkedIn has a salary research tool, Indeed has a search tool, Glassdoor has one. You can go to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov). Also, look at other job ads. I’m seeing companies now actually post their salary in the ad. The best way, though, I tell people, is to do two things: 1) look at what you actually need and want for your life, and 2) actually ask real people who are in the job. That’s the best way to get your salary range.”
When it comes to what you “actually need and want in your life,” don’t short change yourself. This is where it’s common for women to undervalue themselves before they even get to the job interview. But it’ll be hard to earn the salary you want if you never ask for it. Making less than you deserve can hold you back from outside-of-work experiences, like buying a house, or traveling, or investing in a hobby.
“Don’t base your number on your current salary,” Huff says. “I get that a lot—‘I’m just going to go up $10,000 more,’ or ‘I’m just going to go up 10% more’... no! Especially for women because most of the time we’re already being underpaid. And we don’t need to take the minimum. If your research tells you this job pays between $75,000 and $95,000, you don’t need to say 'Oh my desired salary is $75,000,' because that’s what we do, and then you will get the minimum. You can say your desired salary is $97,000, or you can say it’s $100,000, because it’s going to come down to your lifestyle. So even if you’re like ‘well I’m new to the job market, I don’t have that much experience,’ I still never recommend that lower number. Never, never, never, never even mention the minimum. Maybe $5,000 over. Maybe $6,000. But you want to look at what you’re making for your lifestyle.”
Also, think about what else matters to you beyond salary.
“I recommend knowing your three to four values or priorities—do you want remote, what title do you want, do you want professional development? It’s going to help you anchor some things,” Huff says.
Once you know what your range is, you need to be ready to actually ask for it. Having a number in your head doesn’t mean you can successfully get it out of your mouth.
“I recommend having that number written down on a Post-it on your computer so you won’t back out,” Huff says. “Also, and I know it’s going to sound strange, but practice saying it outloud—‘My salary range is between $80,000 and $90,000,’ or ‘My salary range is between $45,000 and $65,000.’ The more you say it, the more comfortable you’ll get. You don’t want to be in the interview and say, ‘well what are you willing to pay me?’ The more clear you can be, the more you practice articulating what you want and your value, the smoother and easier the whole process will be. Maybe that means saying it in the mirror, saying it on Zoom, practicing with your friends, having someone ask you, etc. It’s okay to practice with a friend and just get that muscle memory of getting it out of your mouth.
“And it’s okay to say ‘that’s negotiable’ after you say the number, or say it’s negotiable based on benefits and duties, because that’s true. Whatever you need to get that number out, because you’re setting the foundation. If it’s a hybrid job, or a flexible schedule, or has unlimited PTO (which I’m seeing more of), and has all these great things, you may be willing to be on the lower end of your range, and that’s okay. That’s why having 3–4 priorities in the beginning will help as well, because then you’ll know how you need to move your range.”
Huff recommends a $20,000 range when stating your desired salary. “When you don’t know all that’s involved in the job, it’s hard to give a solid number. You don’t want them to give you the number you asked for and then you lost a benefit—maybe you lost tuition reimbursement, maybe you’re not getting as much PTO, so it’s hard to say one particular number. That’s why I recommend a range, specifically around $20,000.”
Read more: What Is Considered a Good Salary?
Ask them to show their hand
Now that you’ve answered their question, it’s your turn to ask. Specifically, ask them what their budget is for the position. Huff says even though the salary isn’t often listed in the job ad, companies know what they can pay.
“100% of the time, they have a budget,” Huff says. “You can’t have a job approved without a budget. So when recruiters say ‘I don’t know the budget,’ they do know, they just may not want to tell you. So I recommend being a little more persistent. Just ‘Can you tell me what’s in the budget for this position?’ and they’ll tell you a range. I sometimes like to try to get it first, then you can adjust yours. It’s not always possible, but I like to get the range because I see women undercut themselves.”
Read more: 30 Fun Jobs That Pay Well
When to talk salary
It’s not just what to say but when to say it that stresses out job seekers. The fear is that bringing it up too soon could make the company dislike you as a candidate, but don’t bring it up soon enough and you’re putting time and energy into interviewing for a job that pays thousands less than you already make. So when’s the right moment?
“I recommend as soon as possible, because why spend time if it’s not going to be a match?” Huff says. “The sooner the better. What I teach my clients is the recruiter is almost the safest person to ask. They’re less judgemental; they want to make sure it’s a good match. So I recommend right then and there, even if you do see it on the job ad. Because what I’m seeing is sometimes a bait-and-switch. You can say ‘I noticed in the job ad the salary is $X, I just want to confirm that is the salary/that is the budget for this position.’ And that way it’s clear upfront. If they don’t bring it up, I do recommend at some point during the pre-screen that it comes up; remember, you’re pre-screening them, too.”
Of course, this might go against a lot of ideas of what’s “appropriate” when job hunting, and Huff says that’s okay.
“I would say this breaks the rules. It used to be taught to not even bring up salary until you get the offer. But what if you get this offer and it’s only $5,000 more than you’re making, or it’s less than what you’re making, and now these interviews are 12 rounds, and you just wasted everybody’s time.”
Even if you’ve done your research into what a typical salary is for that position in that city, it could vary from company to company, so you don’t want to be surprised by a smaller company with a smaller budget when you finally discuss your desired salary on your third or fourth interview.
Read more: Here's When to Ask for a Raise
Getting your desired salary comes down to confidence
You can research for hours and have plenty of evidence that you’re asking for a fair salary and still not ask for it. None of this will work if you don’t believe in what you’re asking for.
“It is mostly mindset, and having the confidence to believe it’s possible: 'I know what I’m bringing to the table, I love your company, this is my amount,' Huff says. “Nine times out of 10, these companies will say ‘we can work with that.’”
And do not worry about turning them off from hiring you. Do you want to work somewhere that doesn’t value your work, or the role you want, as much as you know it should be valued?
“You see these stories on Twitter, like someone got the job rescinded because they asked about salary. Well, that company probably lost out on a great candidate,” Huff says. Plus, being honest about what you want and what you need could land you an even better situation than you planned on. Huff has seen clients who didn’t get their desired salary for a full-time role able to work out deals where they work on a contract basis for a good hourly rate, and then they end up starting their own business.
“It may be that you can work with them in a different capacity; ‘I can’t work 40 hours a week for $42,000 a year, but what I can do because I know my craft is work 10 hours a week for a particular rate…’ So that’s an option.”
Read more: Positive Daily Affirmations for Women
It’s okay to desire the salary you desire!
Finally, Huff says to remember above all, it’s okay!
“It’s okay to want more, for women. It’s just okay! I remember what it’s like, I negotiated my first job out of college, and I didn’t even know you could do that until someone told me. So even right out of college, it’s okay to negotiate. We think we have all these reasons to take less, like ‘what about the recession?’ or ‘I’m already making this much,’ or ‘what if they say this…’ but it’s okay!”
Read more: 37 Quotes from Badass Women
About our sources
LaTrice Huff is a career coach to ambitious women of color. She specializes in personal branding and helps her clients earn more money by using their gifts. Her proven approach to personal branding has helped my clients boost their confidence, fulfillment, and their bank account. Her clients have increased their salary by $20K–$50K, but the real success is their increase in self-worth. LaTrice has over 10 years in human resources, recruiting, and marketing. LaTrice is known for providing fun, practical, real-world advice.