The Mentorist

May We Have a Little Mood Lighting Here? What to Do When the Salary Question Comes Too Soon


‘Hiring someone is essentially a romantic process, in which the job interview functions as a desexualized version of a date’ –- or so Malcolm Gladwell wrote, not that long ago.

Ah, I remember those days.  First interviews — while, on the surface, spent discussing the interviewee’s qualifications for the job at hand -– were about figuring out whether the ‘chemistry’ was right.  The other ‘c’ word –- ‘compensation’ –- never came up.

No more.  Today it’s typical for job candidates to be asked upfront, ‘What salary do you expect to make?’

Good-bye, first date.  Hello, arranged marriage.

I realize that the desire to run an efficient interview process is what’s causing companies to ask the ‘expected salary’ question right after the ‘hellos’ are over.  They want to know whether it’s even worth talking to a candidate further.

My advice to all you candidates out there?  Dodge the question. It’s a first date.  Make them fall in love with you first.

Think about it:  If you answer the salary question with a number that’s too high, the interviewer is apt to write you off from the ‘get go’ as unaffordable.

Worse yet, if your answer is lower than what the company is prepared to pay:  The interviewer is apt to lose respect for you and start thinking you’re underqualified for the job.  Even if that doesn’t happen, you will have ‘boxed yourself in’ when it later comes time to negotiate your actual salary.

At the ‘first date’ stage, a job interview should be about showing your potential employer that you have the right experience, talents and ‘world outlook’ to help the company achieve its purpose and solve its problems.

At the same time, the company should be showing you that it offers the sort of environment where people like you are valued and can thrive.  Talk of money should be deferred until you’ve been ‘offered the ring.’

So how to sidestep the salary question?  Say something to this effect:

‘I’m at a loss on how to answer your question, right now.  I’d first need to know more about [Company X’s] compensation system and how this position fits into the organization.  For now, let me just say this:  So long as the salary for the position is fair vis-à-vis its level of responsibility, I’m certain we can agree on a number that works for us both.  I’m excited about the opportunity and don’t want to let numbers get in the way….”

An answer like this signals three things:

  • You understand that the Company has a compensation system it needs to maintain in an equitable fashion.
  • You expect to be paid what the position is worth — both vis-à-vis others in the company, and, implicitly, on the open market.
  • You’ve got your priorities straight, by focusing first on the substance of the position, rather than on its monetary rewards.

But sidestepping the salary question doesn’t mean you should be operating in the dark when it comes to the company’s compensation practices or the job’s market value.

Before your first interview, do research on the company to see what you can learn about its compensation philosophy and how it pays its people.  (If the company is public, start by reading the Compensation Committee Report in its latest SEC proxy filing.)  See what you can find out online or through your network of trusted personal connections.

Romantic Beach DinnerAt the same time, research what the going market rate is for positions like the one you’re applying for.  The more specific the market information you can find (tailored by geography, industry, size and type of company structure, etc.), the stronger your negotiating position will be when you have an offer and it is time to talk salary. [For tips on negotiating compensation, see and ]

As Ray Charles liked to remind us:  It’s funny what love can do. That holds even when you’re a company.

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

2 thoughts on “May We Have a Little Mood Lighting Here? What to Do When the Salary Question Comes Too Soon

  1. Excellent web site you have here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours
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