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The “Desired Salary” interview question, a recruiters perspective

Desired Salary

“What is your Desired Salary” is the Halle Berry of interview questions.

What is your desired salary?

Most candidates dread the “desired salary” question. I know because I hear the evasive answers on a regular basis when I ask this question. Here is the thing, we all know this question is coming so why is it such a show stopper with candidates “What” you say and “how” you say it will set the tone and my attitude towards you for the rest of the interview. Try to be coy or evasive and the show is over. Be transparent and gracious, and I literally get excited.  How this question is answered is a differentiator.

First, don’t hate. You should be excited you are asked this question. As a recruiter, I don’t ask this question unless I am interested in a candidate. If I am not interested or don’t think there is a fit, there is no reason to ask a question that has even the slightest chance of going “awkwarrrrdd”. As a recruiter, if I see potential, I want to determine from the very first phone call if the candidate and the company are on the same page. For this reason, I come right out and ask, “What would it take for you to leave your current position and join our company”?

If you as a candidate are NOT asked about your desired salary in the first interview, buyer beware. The last thing I want to do as a recruiter is put a candidate through an interview loop of 5 interviewers and not have any insight into the candidates desired salary. If we get to the goal line and find that the candidate wants $10K more than the company is thinking, this is not good. The FIRST question the VP is going to ask me is “Did you find out what they wanted to make before you wasted everyone’s time”? This isn’t just a rookie mistake, it is inconsiderate. Even if the salary is posted in the job ad, I am going to confirm the desired salary so I can look the VP in the eye, look at my notes, and then look the VP in the eye and report that expectations are in line.

Cute answers that aren’t so cute to the infamous interview question: “What is your desired salary”?

  • “1 million dollars a year.”
  • “As much as you will give me.”
  • “How much does the job pay?”
  • “I would rather not discuss that until I find out more about the job.”
  • “I am negotiable on salary.”
  • “Between $45K and $55K.”

These answers say “I am an insecure candidate and don’t know how to answer this question”. And these are not original answers or original jokes. 

If you are filling out a job application, especially an online job application through a company website, the worst thing you can do is to leave this box blank. Recruiters do not want to see any blank field in an application. When I have a lot of resumes, everything is about moving as fast as and efficiently as possible and a blank field means I have to chase down information. Putting me in a position where I need to think or guess is all the justification I need to move on to someone who lists a show of confidence in this box.

When I ask the specific question around the desired salary, if I get a cagey or smart ass answer, it is an immediate flag that the candidate isn’t comfortable with the interview, isn’t confident in their skills, or thinks they are going to pull a fast on me. Guess what I am thinking? Unfortunately, this isn’t your lucky day.

In my bag of tricks, there is no question MORE serious than the desired salary question. It’s ok to joke around during the rest of the interview, but treat this one with the respect and seriousness that it deserves.

The desired salary question is the Halle Berry of interview questions.  Halle has that gracious smile and elegant manner that fools the greedy side of you into thinking you actually got game.  Don’t play out of your league here boy.  Stick with what you know because this one demands respect.

And you thought HR couldn’t be sexy.

Put another way, if you are not able to talk salary with me, you are not going to be able to negotiate timelines or fees with our customers.

The following is what goes through my mind when I hear the following answers. Yes, this is a grin fucking.

Candidates answer: “1 million dollars a year”:

  • Unless you are a professional athlete, this really isn’t funny and it definitely is not original.

Candidates answer: “As much as you will give me”:

  • It’s your lucky day!  We have an extra million dollars a year in the budget.  Will that do?

Candidates answer: “How much does the job pay”:

  • Dumbass! Don’t answer my question with a question.  Who is conducting this interview?

Candidates answer: “I would rather not discuss this until I find out more about the job”:

  • This is a flag. Actually, this is a rescue flare going up and I am the one that wants to be rescued. You know you are worth X, and maybe a few percentage points more so let’s not haggle over perceived value or hype. If you are looking for $30K, and you don’t want to show your cards in the case this job pays $50K, it’s not going to happen. I am a professional. If your experience is worth $30K and the job pays $50K, It is because I need $50K worth of experience. We can work with being $5K apart, but a $20K difference on a $30K salary isn’t going to happen.  There is a big difference between someone who makes $30K and $50K and recruiters saw this within 5 seconds of looking at your resume. Tell us how you really feel about this one HRNasty!

Candidates answer: “I am negotiable”:

  • Everything is negotiable so this doesn’t tell me anything and no one wants to start a long-term relationship with a negotiation. Put another way, if the company said to you “Your salary is negotiable” you would probably feel a little slighted and worry that you are going to leave something on the table. Saying the word “negotiable” gives you an express ticket to the little kiddy’s table at the family holiday dinner.

Candidates answer: “Between $45K to $55K”:

  • Ohhh, I get it. . .you want me to deduce you really mean $50K. You would accept $45K, you are hoping you get lucky and get $55K, but $50K is your number.   

Post Script: The answer where a range is provided is the answer I hear the most. In all honestly, I may write down your range but I only heard the lower number. The candidate probably doesn’t have the guts to say “$50K” so they disguise it in the veil of “$45K to $55K” and is secretly hoping they may get lucky and receive an offer for $53K or even $55K.  We don’t sell Lottery tickets here, so if you are looking to get lucky, the mini-mart is 2 blocks that-a-way. 

This is a serious interview question and it deserves a serious interview answer. Don’t let my nonchalance and cool demeanor fool you. You know this question is coming so be prepared. Don’t worry, if you are currently working, I am not going to offer the same or less than what you are currently making because you are not going to leave one gig for a lesser job.  If you are, we don’t want you.

Stay tuned for future posts where I dig deeper into the question and provide what I DO want to hear. 

See you at the after party,


nasty: an unreal maneuver of incredible technique, something that is ridiculously good, tricky and manipulative but with a result that can’t help but be admired, a phrase used to describe someone who is good at something. “He has a nasty forkball”.

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