April 10, 2024


6 Minutes

The Scariest Interview Question: "What salary range are you targeting?"

Kareem Abukhadra

Author, Founder Relentless

On one hand, you're afraid you'll state a number that's too high and get kicked out of the interview process.

On the other hand, you're afraid you'll state a number that's too low and then end up with less money or even worse, get kicked out of the process for appearing too junior.

Our Method

Here's our preferred method for responding to this question:

Company: What's your target salary?

Candidate: “I haven’t done enough research to figure out the right number. Could you share the range you’re thinking about?”

Company will then reply with one of the following:

  • Company reply possibility A:  “Sure. We’re looking at $X to $Y.”
    • Candidate: “Great. Thanks for sharing. I’ll keep that in mind as I interview for the role.”
  • Company reply possibility B:  “No. We’d prefer that you share a number.”
    • Candidate: “As mentioned, I haven’t done enough research to figure out the right number, but I’m currently interviewing for roles that pay $XXXK plus or minus $100K. The reason for the large range is because I’m looking at more than just compensation when evaluating the next company for my career.”

Why we like this script / approach

In order to pick an optimal compensation number, you need to first:

  1. Establish how much value you can drive at the company and make sure a decision-maker at the company understands this.
  2. Establish that the likelihood you can drive that value is high and make sure a decision-maker at the company understands this.
  3. Build a trusting, meaningful relationship with a decision-maker at the company.

Only after doing 1 through 3 can you speak about compensation in a meaningful way and actually get the highest possible compensation.

For example, if you meet a company and establish that your role:

Will drive $10MN a year in revenue, is probably something that you can do, and you've also established a trusting relationship with a decision maker..

You can then make an argument for why paying you $500,000 a year in total compensation (a margin of the value you create) is fair.

Until you’ve done 1 through 3, you’re not well-positioned to come up with an appropriate number or to negotiate for it.

You’ll either price yourself too highly and the company will get resentful or price yourself too low and you’ll get resentful.

The way these ideas apply in action usually means that you:

1. Don’t talk about compensation early in the process unless they press you.

If they do, ask them to tell you what the range is.

If they make you say what you want, tell them a broad range and that a lot of factors matter.

If they press you to agree to a number, agree to one (regardless of whatever number they state), but recognize you'll negotiate it at the end of the process. The polite way to do this is to say something like the following near the end of the process: “While I initially was ok with $X, I’ve since started interviewing for companies that are paying X+$50K for the role, so that’s the number I’m looking for now.”

Hint: This is a perfectly reasonable strategy, especially because there's a multitude of honest and reasonable reasons to go back on a compensation number you agreed to like:

  • Seeing more opportunities or interviewing with more opportunities that pay more.
  • Realizing that the cost of living is higher than you initially realized after doing more maths. I’ve personally done this. See negotiation email from 5 years ago.
  • Learning that the responsibilities needed for the role and time commitment is larger than anticipated. This means it’s harder for the company to find a candidate to fill the role, and therefore needs to be at a higher rate to accommodate the expanded scope

2. Avoid talking about compensation with non-decision makers. Recruiters don’t have decision-making power for example and may exclude you from a process if you don’t fit within the bounds of the target compensation, while a hiring manager / CEO may be open to negotiation.

The main objection candidates have with this approach is they don’t want to waste time with a company that isn’t a good fit.

This makes sense, but the only two things that matter upfront is:

1. Does this company have budget? You can usually tell by the revenue they have or the funding they’ve raised.

2. Does this company seem to have a role in which you can create outsized value?

If the answer to 1 or 2 is high, it’s worth spending the time on the opportunity.

Final tip

The final idea to take note of is that all video, phone, or in-person communication heavily is influenced by your tone, non-verbal communication, and most importantly mindset.

If you’re in a negative mindset during an interview because you’re scared and because you’re letting self esteem issues prevent you from asking for your target compensation, you have a lower shot of getting your target.

If, on the other hand, you're in a positive mindset during an interview because you’re calm and because you believe you’re worth the compensation you’re asking for, you're more likely to get your target compensation.

Think you have mindset issues?

… don’t worry …

100% of the candidates we’ve supported do too ..

This includes everyone from new graduates to partners to the CEOs of FAANG companies.

Everyone has mindset issues because everyone varies in emotional state.

The key to increasing the likelihood that you're in the right emotional state during interviews is to:

  1. Outside of interviews: Practice negotiation with a friend or interview coach. Specifically practice going over the exact words you’re going to state. I suggest you read the script in this article and actually have them act as the company while you act as the candidate.
  2. During interviews: Slow down your tonality and voice during interviews by 50%. For example, compare this and this voice. Which one are you more likely to be influenced by? Who are you more likely to respect? Likely the former, and that’s because the emotional state I primed myself into was positive and my voice carried through slowly. You’ll also notice I didn’t use increase my pitch when I asked the question. I simply asked it. This is called avoiding intonations.

Next steps

If you want to learn more about how to implement negotiation practices, check this and this article out.

If you’re ready to run a search with the Relentless team, head to our site to apply now so we can fill your calendar with interviews.

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