Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues--everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
A reader writes:
I'm interested in applying for a job that asks for my salary requirements to be stated in my cover letter. This feels like a loaded question: If I shoot too high, am I pricing myself out of a job? If I shoot too low, am I condemning myself to be underpaid?
If you can avoid listing a specific number in the letter, do. You don't want to ignore the request entirely, because you don't want to look like someone who ignores instructions, but you can answer it in your own way. For instance, you could say something like, "My salary requirements are negotiable and depend on the total compensation package, including benefits." That's a reasonable response to a question that isn't entirely reasonable at this stage.
I get why companies are asking this--they don't want to waste their time if you're wildly out of their price range. That's perfectly legitimate, especially if what they're able to pay is on the lower side of the normal range for the position (since then they have reason to worry about that issue). But if that's the case, they should post their range and let applicants decide if they're interested or not. Of course, most places don't do that.
Which doesn't help you any. So back to your question: Give a vague answer like the one I suggested above in the cover letter. But know that once you get to the phone screen, you're likely to be asked again. You can try the same tactic then, but at that point the company is likely to push you to give a number, and if you refuse, you risk coming across as obnoxious or simply getting cut from the running. I'm not saying that's right, just that it's the reality.
So you have a couple of choices: You can try to turn the question around and ask the company, "What range did you have in mind for the position?" Some interviewers will tell you and some won't. (Again, silly, but the reality.) If the person presses you for a number, one option is that rather than talking about the salary you're looking for, you can say what you're currently making: "I'm currently making $X, with an excellent benefits package, and like anyone, I'm looking to increase that if I move to a new position." Or, you can just answer the question--tell the interviewer what you're looking for. Do some research, know what comparable positions in your geographic area pay, and throw out a range based on that.
Some people will tell you that you should never, ever throw out a number first, because it puts you in a weaker negotiating position. There's truth to that, but there are also situations where you simply have to name a range if you want to move forward. I'm sure there are some people who are such master negotiators that they're able to refuse to answer the question without irritating the interviewer, but I've never encountered one. In fact, the (very small) handful of people I've seen try that have ended up coming across as overly aggressive game-players. Ultimately, it probably comes down to how confident you are about your skills in this area and the vibe you're getting from the interviewer about her tolerance level for that sort of thing.
But if we can stop talking about what works and instead talk about what would be fair: Companies who want to talk salary before they're ready to make an offer should be ready to talk about their own range. They don't do so because if you're willing to accept a lower offer, they want to get you for that lower price. But that's bad management: If they lowball you now and you figure out later that you're underpriced for the market, they risk losing you over it. They should tell you the range they plan to pay, deal with the consequences, and put an end to all this drama.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to email@example.com.