“What Salary Do You Seek?” The Four Smartest Responses

“Money isn’t everything,
but it sure keeps you in touch with your children.”

-  J. Paul  Getty

ACTUAL “CASE HISTORIES”: About 15 years ago, I interviewed a candidate for a position with my firm who simply refused to tell me the salary – or even the salary range – he was seeking. When he said “I am not prepared to discuss that,” I was quite taken aback. When he said “I would rather not negotiate against myself,” I was puzzled. When I asked “Can you at least tell me what your ballpark is?” he said “I heard you are a great negotiator,” and still declined to answer my question. When I finally did offer him the job, it was at a salary lower than I would otherwise have offered him, because, it seemed to me, he just didn’t care. Simply put, he did not serve himself well in this discussion.

In my practice, I can’t count the number of times I have been asked by clients for a good response to the inevitable interview question: “What salary level do you seek?” 

“Should I ask for more than I want, knowing they will negotiate me down?”

“Should I refuse to answer the question, but instead ask them ‘What is the most you will pay?’”

“Should I say that ‘Money is not that important; opportunity is?’”

“Should I say that the job is more important than the salary?”

“Should I say that I would rather not discuss this until we decide there is a good ‘fit’ here?”   

The simple truth is that there is no one absolute best response that fits all job candidates and all interviewers. If there was, we would all have read about it by now. Rather, there are a few “smartest” responses to that question, responses that are likely to be viewed as responsive, positive, realistic and engaging, rather than unrealistic, passive, demanding or inflexible.   

LESSON TO LEARN: By definition, the best response to any question – including the “What salary level do you seek?” is the response that is most likely to get you what you want.

And, of equal importance is that you should respond in a way that makes you appear to be working “with” your interviewer, not making it hard for him or her to get through the interview.   

So, as examples, by responding with “I don’t know,” “That depends,” or “The job is more important than the salary,” you are neither being (i) responsive to the interviewer, nor (ii) moving “the ball forward” to your own “goal line.”

Instead, be prepared with a smarter response to the question, “What salary do you seek?” that is, one that will more likely than not appear to be (i) actively “working with” your interviewer, and (ii) “being smart” for yourself at the same time.  

WHAT YOU CAN DO: We refer to the four smartest responses to the “salary sought” question as: “(1) Flexible, (2) Current, (3) Internal, and (4) Market.” Consider these four responses when preparing for any upcoming interview, in which “What salary do you seek” is quite likely to be asked:          

1.  Start with “Flexible”: “I am flexible as to salary, depending on overall compensation . . . ” It is a given that base salary is but one part of an overall compensation package, and that in many companies it is a rather small part of overall compensation. The last 20 years has seen a significant shift toward variable, contingent compensation – that is, dependent on the employee’s and the employer’s achievement of goals – but in certain industries, such as finance, that trend has begun shifting a bit back the other way, toward larger salaries, lower bonuses, especially where there is a history of out-sized bonuses, such as on Wall Street and large corporate employers.   

Bear in mind, too, that compensation packages are often difficult to understand, because they may include items such as stock options and deferred compensation, the “present value” of which may be difficult to gauge for the job candidate, although surely known to HR, Benefits, and your interviewer. 

This first response is especially smart, as it establishes your reasonable need for more information on compensation before you can firmly commit to the “base salary.” It also invites your interviewer to provide more information – before you set a firm number on salary – and yet shows flexibility and engagement in the process. 

2. Continue with “Current”: “That said, my current salary is $[number], and in light of rather fixed family expenses, I would prefer not to go lower than that amount.” When interviewing, very few people seek a base salary lower than their present base salary. The underlying reason for any base salary is to provide the employee with a known amount being deposited into his or her bank account each pay period, thus providing the dependability of income that fixed family or personal expenses require. You simply can’t pay half a mortgage payment this month, and two mortgage payments next month.  

By this second response, you are setting something of a “floor” for your next base salary, yet at the same time, using the word “prefer” to show some flexibility if necessary. 

Some people ask, “Should I be honest about my present salary if it is embarrassingly low or seemingly below market?” I say “Be honest, for honesty’s sake, and because your former salary might be ascertainable by your prospective employer, and you surely don’t want to be later caught in a lie.” There is nothing wrong with admitting you have been underpaid in the past; that is probably one of the primary reasons people tend to seek new jobs.

Some people ask, “Should I share my current base salary if I think it is far higher than the base salary that is being offered?” Again, I say, “Be honest, for honesty’s sake, and because you might be later caught in a lie.” If you fear your interviewer will think to himself or herself “We surely can’t match that,” you can acknowledge that possibility by letting your interviewer know you are aware of that possibility, but that there are other aspects of the position – or changes in your life, such as kids having graduated from college or “downsizing” of expenditures – that would make a somewhat lower salary acceptable, indeed, even expected in this current employment climate.

3. Go further with “Internal”: “I recognize that you may have an internal salary structure; if so, I would expect to be paid at its higher end in light of the significant value I represent.” This response starts off with a showing of realism: if your position is a certain pay grade, or within a specified pay scale, chances are that the employer will not “violate” those pay limits for you. You might, however, seek to be paid a salary at the upper end of that pay scale.   

At the same time, this response is a great opportunity to bring out into the open your “special value,” which is the best rationale for highest-permissible base salary. Be prepared to discuss why it is that you are so valuable, including (a) Revenues: what  revenues you can bring to the table, or cost-reductions you can help achieve, (b) Relations: what contacts you have in your industry and beyond that may be perceived as attractive to your employer, and (c) Reputation: the fact that your presence in the company will be viewed by others – including clients, customers, trade associations, the media, the larger market and even perhaps political figures – as an exciting “asset acquisition” by your would-be employer.   

If you have arrived at your interview by means of a recruiter, you should have been given a good idea of what the employer’s salary structure is. If so, use your “Three R’s” to justify why you should be at the upper end of the permissible range. If not, you should ask the recruiter for that information before you attend any interview.    

4. Conclude with the “Market”: “Of course, in all events, I expect you will make an offer in the market range.” While you may not be aware of your prospective employer’s internal salary structure, you should arrive at your interview with a good idea of what the employment marketplace views to be a reasonable salary for your position. The internet is loaded with websites that offer this information, and as often said, “If you are not preparing to succeed, you are simply preparing to fail.” Having a sense of the “market” for your position is essential for success in salary discussions, and can help you avoid “underselling” yourself, being “lowballed” to your disadvantage, or appearing ill-prepared, which is not exactly how you want to appear in an important interview.   

We offer a wide variety of Model Letters, Memos and a great Master Checklist for New Employment Negotiating for those seeking new employment, including our “Ultimate New Job Package.” If you’re interested in obtaining one, two or the entire “Ultimate New Job Package,” just [click here.] “What to Say, and How to Say It,”™ By  Email, instantly, directly to your desktop printer.  

These Four Smartest Responses to “What Salary Do You Seek?” are just one aspect of beginning the process of preparing yourself to navigate and negotiate for yourself at work. It is by good information and wise judgment that you ensure that you are being paid all you and your efforts are worth. Fairness and protecting yourself, and your family, with information and insight: that’s what  SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.     


SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Negotiation of work and career issues requires that you think “out of the box,” and build value and avoid risks at every point in your career. We strive to help you understand what is commonly before you, and know what to “watch out” for. Regarding Salary Negotiations, this is the place to begin. Now the rest is up to you.        

Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. Always be vigilant. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “rewards” and eliminate or reduce employment “risks.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

*A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.    

Please Note: This Email Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.  

Sklover Working Wisdom™ and Sklover’s Negotiating for Yourself at Work™ are trademarked newsletter publications of Alan L. Sklover, of Sklover & Company, LLC, a law firm dedicated to the counsel and representation of executives in matters of their employment, compensation and severance. Nothing expressed in this material constitutes legal advice. Please note that Mr. Sklover is admitted to practice in the state of New York, only. When assisting clients in other jurisdictions, he retains the assistance of local counsel and/or obtains permission of local courts to appear. Copying, use and/or reproduction of this material in any form or media without prior written permission is strictly prohibited. All rights reserved. For further information, contact Sklover & Company, LLC, 10 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York 10020 (212) 757-5000.    

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