Posted on Jun 26, 2006

Q: When I go to a job interview, there's one question I never know how to handle. What should I say when the interviewer asks me what my salary expectations are? I don't want to mention a number that's too high and be eliminated, and I don't want to suggest a number that's too low and wind up short-changing myself if I'm hired.

Could I head off the problem by raising the issue first and asking what the employer intends to offer?

A: Don't raise the issue first. There's universal agreement on that point among our experts. If you ask first, you'll lose out one way or another, they say.

“If they've made an offer to hire you and they haven't mentioned salary, that is the only case when I might say a job-seeker should inquire what the salary is,” said Thomas J. McKenna of McKenna & Associates, an executive marketing and career counseling firm in Menands.

That's rare, however. It's far more common for an interviewer to pose the salary question before you're ready to answer it, and the options for fielding it gracefully don't always come easily to mind when you're working so hard to make a good impression.

Flatly refusing to address the issue won't go over well, of course, and McKenna and the other experts note that interviewers may use the question as a screening tool to quickly weed out candidates who will expect more than an employer is willing to offer.

“Rarely, if this is happening early in the process, does the candidate have sufficient information to provide an answer” that matches the scope and duties of the position, said Erik Larsen, director of the Stanley R. Becker Career Center at Union College in Schenectady.

There are, however, ways to skirt the question in the early stages of discussion and still make a good impression. One technique is to put the ball back in the interviewer's court by asking more about the job and the employer's expectations.

“My recommendation is that you tell them what your previous salary was and ask, 'What range did you identify for this position?' ” McKenna said. “You're giving them some information, which they're going to ask anyway, but you're throwing the question back to them.”

Added Larsen, “Some find it useful to communicate that they are seeking an amount that is consistent with the responsibilities and expectations of the position,” then follow up with a request for more specifics.

“Defer salary negotiation until the offer is made,” suggests Tom Denham, managing partner with Careers in Transition in Colonie. “Say, 'I would prefer to discuss salary after an offer is made.' If they press you, throw it back on them: 'Based on the requirements for this position, what is your typical salary range for this opportunity?' “

If the interviewer comes back with a reasonable range, based on your research, say something like: “That's something I can work with. We can iron out the details after we agree on an offer,” Denham said.

If and when it becomes absolutely necessary to put some amount on the table, the experts say you should offer a range, rather than a precise number.

“We recommend that candidates try to express a range from slightly below the expectation to slightly above,” said Mark Schmiedeshoff, director of The Center for Careers & Employment at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.

And especially for newer job-seekers, the experts say, advance research can be critical for determining a reasonable range for the job and the region where it's located.

“Go to Web sites, look at ads, go to the career center. We have salary surveys that we can share with the students,” Schmiedeshoff said.

Larsen suggests citing a source for your estimate, aside from yourself. Mention that faculty members or fellow students who are being recruited for similar positions have indicated what would be a usual range.

“Instead of saying, 'This is what I demand,' or, 'This is what I expect,' say something more like, 'This is what I understand is the going rate,' ” Larsen said.

Q: I'm trying to land a new job and am asking that potential employers reach me at my home telephone number, which also is our family telephone. What sort of greeting can I record that will provide the necessary information for an employer, strike a professional tone, and also serve our household well?

A: At least for a while, it would be best to let the family greeting take a back seat and concentrate on recording something that will serve you well in your job search.

“The biggest problem that I have from my clients is their 10-year-old wants to record the message,” said Tom McKenna of McKenna & Associates. “It's cute, but if a person's looking for a job, it also comes across as unprofessional. It also gives away some personal information: The company doesn't need to know that the person has a child.”

Employers can make incorrect assumptions, based on what they hear on an answering machine — perhaps that the candidate won't be willing to travel for his job or will have family concerns that could be distractions, the experts say.

Don't given them the chance to jump to the wrong conclusions.

“Keep it professional but friendly,” advised Tom Denham of Careers in Transition, noting that most employers understand the greeting they hear when they call a home number will likely be less formal than at a business telephone.

Denham's suggestion: “Hello. You have reached the Smith household. At the tone, please leave your name, number, time you called and a brief message. We will get back to you as soon as possible.”

McKenna advises something as simple as possible, such as: “This is Robert Smith. I'm tied up right now. Please feel free to leave a message.”

Don't overlook tone, as well as content.

“Be enthusiastic and energetic with the tone of your voice,” Denham said. “Employers can often tell a lot about a potential candidate's character by the inflection in one's speech. Does it sound positive or mediocre?”