The Worst Question You Get Asked When Applying For A Job (And What To Do Instead Of Answering)

Lately, I’ve seen a lot of talk online about a specific, really dumb question employers ask.

In fact, friends of mine who have been applying for jobs recently tell me that employers are *requiring* them to answer this question on online applications.

It’s also one of the questions that you’ll be asked in a first call with HR.

The question drives me crazy. It’s unanswerable by the applicant in any meaningful way. And it serves to allow people to knock themselves out of the process early on, since there’s no room for meaningful conversation.

That dumb question, ladies and gentlemen, is “what is your desired salary”?

Le’ts talk about why it’s dumb – and what you can do when faced with this question.

Because the last thing I want to see is one of my readers knocked out of the interview process because they make the mistake of giving an answer.

Why “What Is Your Desired Salary” Is A Dumb Question

There are two main reasons why this question is inherently dumb:

Number one: Because compensation is so much more than salary. So many of these companies want to hear a single number from you – or only allow you to type a number into their online application system.

Number two: Because your compensation should be based on the market rate for the work you’re going to perform for the employer. Not based on your request.

We’ll look closer at the reasons I feel this way below.

The Worst Restaurant In The World

Picture this.

Say you go into a restaurant for what you hope will be a lovely meal. You’ve been looking forward to this for weeks because you’ve heard this is *the place* to eat.

The reservation process for this restaurant was…interesting. You had to fill out a form online telling them all about why you deserved to eat there. You kept your fingers crossed that your application would be accepted, since you frankly weren’t really sure what a successful application would look like. But you got word you were accepted to come in and attempt to eat there, and excitedly penciled in the date on your calendar.

Interestingly, you can’t find anything about the menu online. Their website talks all about how well they treat their staff, the quality of their ingredients, and the training of their chefs. But no menu. And no costs.

Your friends who have recommended this restaurant to you can’t tell you the menu. They’ve all been sworn to secrecy, and won’t discuss the details of anything with you. They’ll just tell you vaguely that this is “a great place to eat” and has “amazing ambiance.”

You get to the restaurant and walk in the door, only to be whisked into a windowless room and confronted by the maitre’d. He demands to know how much you plan to pay for the meal.

Now, you don’t know anything about the meal. You ask what’s included – does this price include drinks? An appetizer, entree, and dessert? What kinds of entrees do they have? Will you leave hungry? Heck, you haven’t even seen the inside of the restaurant at this point.

You get no answers, only promises you’ll learn more later on in the process. And you can walk away after your meal is served, if you don’t think the price is worth it. Also, he tells you the price you give might not be the price you end up paying. It’s simply an “opening bid”.

You throw out a price, and the maitre’d disappointedly shakes his head. That’s too low, he says, and shows you the door.

“But wait!”, you say. “The meal might have been worth it to me to pay more! Don’t I have an opportunity to talk about it?”

Too bad, so sad, you can’t eat there.

If you hadn’t bid too low, you might have bid too high. Maybe instead of bidding too low, you would have thrown out a price of a hundred dollars a meal. Only to find that the “meal” is a single lettuce leaf with a dewdrop on it.

You can walk away after you’ve been served this meal, of course, but you’ve already invested a lot of time into this process. You made the reservation, drove to the restaurant, talked to the maitre’d, sat down, and waited an hour for the food to arrive.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s like to throw out a salary number into the employment void.

Compensation- It’s So Much More Than Salary

Your overall compensation at a company may consist of some, or all, of the following:

  • Salary
  • 401k match
  • Bonuses
  • Stocks
  • Long term incentives
  • Educational reimbursement
  • Student loan reimbursement
  • Insurance
    • Whether it’s offered
    • What kinds are offered
    • How much you pay out of pocket
    • What kind of deductible/copays you have
  • PTO days, or vacation/sick time
  • Work from home flexibility
  • General working flexibility
  • Other potential perks: like free meals, discounted travel deals, discounts on new cars, and tons of other things

As an applicant, you don’t have insight into many of these things. Sure, you can get some idea of them through sites like Glassdoor. But that information is often unreliable at best.

The companies know all of this right off the bat. They know what benefits and perks they offer, and what those benefits cost employees. They also know how much they pay the people currently performing the job you’re applying for.

But instead of simply sharing all that multi-dimensional information with you, they try to get you to boil down your request into a single number.

Let me show you just how much of a difference these things can make.

Jane Applies For Two Jobs

Jane is a software engineer looking for new challenges. She applies to two companies, both of whom ask for her desired salary. She gives it as $100k to both. They both interview Jane and love her, extending offers for her desired salary.

Company A offers a 6% 401k dollar for dollar match, educational reimbursement up to $5,000 per year, 25 PTO days, an annual bonus target of 15% of salary, and health insurance for $200 per month with a $20 per visit copay.

Company B offers a 3% 401k match, no educational reimbursement, 15 PTO days, no annual bonus target, and health insurance costing $400 per month with a $5,000 annual deductible.

Even though both companies are offering Jane exactly what she asked for, there is a huge difference between these offers!

Let’s take a closer look at how much more Jane will “make” at Company A.

  • She gets an extra $3,000 in 401k match
  • $5,000 extra in educational reimbursement towards her Masters degree
  • $15,000 bonus target
  • 10 extra PTO days, valued at $384 per day = $3,840
  • She’ll pay $2,400 less in health insurance premium
  • Assuming she visits the doctor 3 times during the year, at a total cost of $150 per visit, she’ll save $390

This means she will make almost THIRTY THOUSAND more dollars at Company A than Company B. Thirty percent more.

Had Jane known all this up front, she could have adjusted her initial salary request going into the discussion. But she didn’t know, of course, and only found out once presented with an offer.

Jane can now go back to Company B and ask them to up their offer to make up for the lack of benefits, but it will be an uphill battle from here.

Employers: They Know What They Want To Pay

Employers know what they want to pay people to perform certain roles at their company.

They know what the benefits package is. They know how much different people who currently hold the role get paid. And they know how they determine differences in pay – based on the employee’s past experience, education level, and other factors.

Instead of simply telling applicants this information, up front in the job posting. some companies put up a series of smoke and mirrors in hopes of snagging a well-qualified applicant at a bargain basement price.

Some are likely hoping a great applicant – who wasn’t making a lot in their last job – decides to use their current salary plus a bit of a raise as their request. Plenty of applicants don’t use websites to research salaries, or can’t find their specific role/location on the sites.

And guess who would be more likely to be underpaid in their last job?

If you said “women”, ding ding ding, you win one internet star.

What Can You Do About This?

There are a few different approaches you can take to this dumb question.

You can refuse to play the game.

Don’t give a number.

Companies will do a lot to try and get you to be the first one to give a number. Many can no longer ask your prior salary. in some states, so they’ve switched to insisting you provide your target salary up front instead.

You don’t have to play, though. You can let the person know that compensation is so much more than salary, and that you need to evaluate salary in the context of their entire benefit package.

In case that doesn’t work for you, you can…

Do your research

Research the role, location, and typical salaries. If the companies are on Glassdoor, people will often comment with benefits and provide salary ranges.

You can also ask friends and former co-workers if they know someone at the company. A contact may or may not be able to tell you typical salaries for the role, but they likely can give you insight into typical benefits.

Take everything into account when evaluating offers

Remember to not just look at the salary. Look at the entire offer package, from the 401k match to the insurance costs. If they company doesn’t provide this information to you, ask for it!

I Want To Hear From You!

Do you have a story about a time when you were asked for salary – and what did you say in response? Any other tips for your fellow readers? Leave a comment below!

1 thought on “The Worst Question You Get Asked When Applying For A Job (And What To Do Instead Of Answering)”

  1. I hear you – all companies ask this, and while you don’t want to come across as greedy you also don’t want to sell yourself short.

    My experience is that this is less of an issue when dealing with headhunters. They usually receive a percentage of your first-year salary as a commission (paid by the hiring company), so they generally are good about working with you to get the highest salary possible. The headhunter that helped me get my current job was really good at this – he had them direct all salary questions to him, and advised me to put “$1” in to any on-line forms from the hiring company in which a salary was requested. In return, I shared my current salary with him along with expectations on what I was looking for prior to changing jobs. He ended up helping me negotiate a comp package worth 30%+ more than I had at the time! Other headhunters I’ve worked with have been similarly good.

    On the other hand, I’ve had some terrible experiences working directly with talent staff at the hiring company directly. Maybe it’s just my own bad luck, but my experience is that they prioritize cost over everything else, including experience and fit for the role. In those cases, I usually like to set comp expectations early (ie during the initial phone screen) in order to avoid wasting people’s time. Like you said, GlassDoor is a great resource for this, as are headhunters – I’ve had some luck asking them feedback on my own salary to gauge whether my current comp is atypically high or low. I would try to avoid direct-hire companies like this if possible, and when you can;t avoid them – do your homework first and don’t sell yourself short (as they will absolutely push you to do just that.)

    Another interesting story – I worked for a Fortune 500 company once that periodically reviewed salaries based on market conditions, and would **retroactively** grant out-of-cycle increases for people who had below-average salaries. They seemed to limit this to high-performers, but still – was very surprised to get those communications from HR on my own staff. Kinda cool 🙂

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