The Money Talk: The One With the Salary Expectations

By Ellevest Team

Not-so-fun fact: 61% of women say they’d rather talk about their own death than have a conversation about money. That’s some societal money taboo BS, and we’re ready to change that. So this is The Money Talk, a series in which we’ll be answering example* questions about how to kick-start important money convos.

Dear Ellevest,

Not to brag, but I’m pretty great at job interviews. I do all my research on the company in advance. I’ve honed my about-me spiel to perfection. I come to the table with a list of questions to ask. And hiring managers seem to love me! But I have one weakness: the salary expectations question.

I know I’m underpaid at my current job (hence: interviewing for a new one), but if the recruiter asks about my current salary, I feel awkward avoiding the question — maybe I should be using the opportunity to tell them what I think I deserve instead? Of course, if they ask about my “desired” salary instead, I end up underquoting anyway — I don’t want to seem greedy! Also? If the salary topic is avoided altogether, I invest a ton of time interviewing, only to get a job offer with an offer that’s even lower than what I make now.

There’s got to be a better way to handle this question — any advice is greatly appreciated!

The Underpaid Wonder

A woman sitting at a desk, video chatting with another woman on the computer. The second woman’s speech bubble says “$?” Illustration.

Dear Wonder,

First of all, good for you — job interviews are a seriously tough puzzle to solve, so the fact that you have the rest of it on lock is no small feat. Salary conversations can be awkward, especially when they’re with a recruiter who doesn’t really know you. Those recruiters have the advantage for sure; they’ve had this conversation ten times today and have memorized that part of their script just about as well as you did your about-me spiel. But don’t worry: They’re probably expecting a little back-and-forth about it. (Just imagine how it’s going with all the men they’re talking to.)

So what should you actually say? The job-interview dance can sometimes feel one-sided, like you’re going through the process just to prove yourself to a bunch of strangers. Think of it like dating: Both parties are figuring out together whether they’re a good fit for each other. (Those low-paying job offers you mentioned? Those companies might have said you’d be sooo good together, but then they waited until the check came to tell you they “forgot their wallet.” Much like TLC, you don’t want no scrubs.)

Keep in mind that while our advice here will focus mostly on questions about salary expectations, some employers are still going to try to ask you what you make now. You should not feel guilty, in any way, for not disclosing your current salary with potential employers. This practice — which has historically only served to perpetuate pay inequality — is so toxic that it’s currently illegal in 14 states. Just because one employer has gotten away with underpaying you doesn’t mean your next one should be able to use that information to get a discount, too. But if they really insist, it’s OK to answer with what you expect to make in your next role, instead.

With that in mind, here are a few strategies for how to answer that salary expectation question.

Let the recruiter bring up the topic first

Nobody wants to come across as caring only about salary (even if it’s true). But it can be nerve-wracking trying to figure out if you and the recruiter you’re interviewing with are even in the same ballpark, much less on the same page. Your best bet is to let the conversation come to you. (You want the opportunity to highlight your skills and qualifications first, showcasing your value first, if at all possible.)

Before you get on the phone with the recruiter for the initial call — heck, before you even apply — do your due diligence first. Get an idea of the salary range in advance, both for the job title overall and for that specific role at that company (if you can find it), so you can gauge whether the opportunity is going to align with, if not match, your expectations. That way, you can rest more easily knowing you and the person you’re interviewing with are on the same page, and won’t feel the need to ask right away.

During the screening and / or before you fully understand the role…

If you, Underpaid Wonder, are a master of the job interview, then you probably know that not all job titles are created equal. (A “project manager” at one advertising firm might be just a project manager, but at another, that person may be doing the job of an account manager, a producer, and an admin, all in one!) If the recruiter asks you for your salary expectations before you’ve had a chance to discuss the role, this would be a good time to counter with a cool:

“Compensation is important to me, but before we talk numbers, I’d love to learn more about the role and responsibilities and how they relate to the value I’ll be able to bring to your team.”

If they press for more information …

Some recruiters are going to push back a little — that’s just how this little dance goes sometimes. So if they try to get a number out of you after you’ve given the reply above, try turning it back on them again:

“What’s the salary range you’ve designated for this role?”

That’s a number (or numbers) most recruiters will have in front of them as they screen potential candidates — it’s what they’re comparing your number to. If they can’t give you that, that might be a red flag about the company overall, so be wary! 🚩

Get the full picture — compensation is more than base salary

As important as base pay is, your biweekly paycheck isn’t everything. There’s also benefits, 401(k) matching, bonuses, professional development funds, flexible work schedules, annual raises, and plenty more to consider. (If you’re interviewing at a private company, your compensation could even include some equity!) What you’re trying to assess in this conversation is the overall value of the potential offer. Say:

“Thanks! I’d also like to hear what’s included in your total compensation package, beyond salary.”

With this information, you’ll be able to assess whether a different salary might be worth, say, a fully covered health insurance plan or a travel stipend.

Identify what’s important to you

Underpaid Wonder, you said you were looking for a new job because your current employer doesn’t pay you well enough. So clearly, salary is pretty important! (As it should be.) But there are a lot of other factors to consider when deciding whether to make the jump to a brand-new job, too. Sure, you could be rolling in cash and stock, but maybe your new team won’t jive as well as your current one, and it’ll be more frustrating to get things done. Or the benefits are wildly good, but you have a sneaking feeling that that “unlimited PTO” policy would start to look more like an “everyone is too stressed to take vacations” policy once you start.

The bottom line is, you’re going to have to objectively outline what’s most important to you in your next role beyond salary and compensation so you can go into the negotiation process prepared. Develop a career decision matrix for yourself — you can try on your own, or, if you’re an Ellevest member, you can check out the one in the workbook designed by Ellevest’s seasoned career coaches as part of our 4 Weeks to an Intentional Career Plan email course.

However you do it, this will help you decide where to draw the line — your deal-breakers, your minimum offers, and so forth. You know your worth — an Underpaid Wonder is still a wonder! — so be sure to let them know it, too.

Go get ‘em,
The Ellevest Team


Note: The person asking the question in this article isn't real. We made her up so we can show you the kind of tough money talks people sometimes struggle with. In other words, this is a hypothetical scenario that doesn’t represent any Ellevest client, and it’s by no means individually tailored advice.

© 2021 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Ellevest Membership fees are as follows: Ellevest Essential is $1 per month, Ellevest Plus is $5 per month, and Ellevest Executive is $9. Other fees as described in Ellevest’s Wrap Fee Program Brochure and the Ellevest Membership Terms and Conditions Agreement will continue to apply.

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