Job Interview Question: Answering the Dreaded Salary Question

WorkCoachCafe“What salary are you looking for?” or “How much do you want?” are among the most common variations of this question.  It can be a very scary question for most job seekers.

You don’t want to give too high a number, in case that disqualifies you or makes you look greedy, and you don’t want to give too low a number because you work for a living and need the best pay check you can get.

Obviously, this is a question which requires a very careful response.  Let’s understand some basic concepts and do some preparation before we answer this question.

Salary Is One Part of “Total Compensation”

You need to evaluate the total compensation package offered by any employer.  Assuming that the employer contributes to employee benefits, the total compensation includes the paycheck  plus the benefits  – health insurance, sick days, vacation and personal days, dental insurance, 401K or pension, life insurance, tuition reimbursement, etc.

All of those benefits (to you) plus things like payroll taxes, unemployment insurance (which funds unemployment compensation if you are laid off), FICA (in the USA, contributes to Social Security and Medicare), and more are added costs to the employer for having you work for them.  Your salary is typically 66% to 75% of your total cost.

For some people, a relatively low-paying job is acceptable if all medical insurance costs are paid, if there is generous tuition reimbursement, or a short (and cheap) commute – so less money out-of-pocket every month.

For others, all that matters is what is in the paycheck because their partner’s employer covers the major health care costs, or they would rather choose and cover the other expenses themselves.

You need to decide where you are on that spectrum before you go into the salary negotiation process.

[MORE: Negotiate Your Total Compensation – More Than Just Your Salary.]

Salaries Usually Have “Ranges”

Most jobs have salary ranges which differ depending on the level of experience of the person doing the job.  Someone with a lot of experience is assumed to be more effective and efficient at their job, so they are “worth” more to the employer than someone who is new and needs close supervision.  As you gain in experience and expertise with a job, your salary usually increases.

Employers Have Different Goals in Employee Compensation

Different employers have different goals with their compensation plans (and some have no plans at all).  Some employers want to be known as “best paying” because they want to attract the best talent in the job market.  Others are more concerned with “protecting” their bottom lines (profitability), and want to pay the least they can pay, recognizing that they probably won’t attract top employees but accepting that trade-off.

How to Pick a Number When Answering This Question

Do research in advance so you understand what the probable salary will be.  Check sites like and for insights into what the “going rate” (salary) for a given job is, particularly for your target employers and your location.  Do understand that the numbers you find in your research may or may not include things like bonuses, commissions, benefits, tuition reimbursement, and all the other possible components of a total compensation package.

Do NOT use only one source when you are researching salaries.  Check multiple sources and average what you find, assuming you are making an apples-to-apples comparison.  If you have colleagues or friends in this field, maybe even working for this employer, ask them generally the salary range you may expect.

When you do name a number, use the data you found in your research.  Offer a range that covers the middle to top salary you expect for the job, bearing in mind that if you receive an offer, the offer you receive will most likely be at the bottom of the range you mention.  Tell them that you are flexible, given the current economic conditions, and the number ultimately acceptable to you depends on many things.

How to Answer “What Salary Do You Want?”

When you are starting a new job with a new employer, the employer will try to estimate where you fit into their salary range for that job based on your resume and how you impressed them during the interview process.

So, when you are asked the salary question, include in your answer any or all of these that you are comfortable with:

  • You need to understand and evaluate the total compensation package being offered, which includes benefits (etc. as described above) in addition to the salary.
  • You want to postpone discussions of the salary until after you have had the opportunity to understand more about the requirements of the job and the other important considerations for you (opportunity for growth, etc.).
  • You are certain that the compensation will be appropriate for the position.
  • Since you are sure that “internal equity” is a goal for this employer, you expect to be paid in line with what other employees who have similar experience, skills, and education earn.

If pressed for a number, ask them what is the total compensation package, including benefits, as well as the salary range for this job.

[MORE: How to Negotiate the Best Starting Salary for Your New Job.]
[MORE: Great, They Want to Hire You! Now What?]

When it is time to state your number, give a range that you think is reasonable for them and for you.  If you really want the job, you may state that you  are willing to negotiate if they feel that your range is too high.  But, know that some employers will see this as an opportunity to offer less.  The final choice is up to you, of course.

For More Information About Answering Job Interview Questions:

Job Interview Question: Do You Have Any Questions

Why Do You Want to Work Here?

Why Should We Hire You?

Where Do You See Yourself Five Years From Now?

Tell Me A Little About Yourself

What’s Your Greatest Strength?

What’s Your Greatest Weakness?

How to Answer Why You Left Your Last Job When You Actually Quit

Why Do You Want to Change Jobs?

Successful Job Interview Do’s and Don’ts

Winning Negotiation Strategies for Your New Job (


© Copyright, 2013, Susan P. Joyce. All rights reserved.


About the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been  observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. In 2011, NETability purchased, which Susan has been editor and publisher of WorkCoach since then.  Susan also edits and publishes  Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on .


  1. Great article!

    A good way to position your salary goal without giving away what you have made previously is to say:

    “Although the job and the challenge are most important to me, you should know that I am considering positions in the XX to YY range.”

    Also you should know that one of the easiest things to negotiate is added vacation days.

  2. Dear Susa,

    Thank you very much for your blog.
    I have the following problem. I am contacting you because I really need an advice from a knowledgeable person.

    I am being offered a very good work opportunity in Frankfurt to which I have already negotiated the salary.
    However the new CIO has decided to move this position from Frankfurt to London.

    The hiring manager asked me if I was still interested in the position although it is in London. To which I said yes.

    Now my question is. Knowing that London id 45% more expensive than Frankfurt. What should I do to not lose living standard and without looking greedy?

    Best regards,


    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Maffy,

      Simply ask the hiring manager your question. It’s a perfectly reasonable question.

      Since London is much more expensive place to live than Frankfurt, how is the compensation adjusted? Employers know they need to pay employees more in high-cost areas than in low-cost ones, so their salary structure should be adjusted accordingly.

      You are NOT being greedy. You are being practical.

      Good luck!

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