CPA INSIDER

Tough interview questions: ‘What salary are you looking for?’

Do your research and mention an appropriate salary range.
By Stephanie Vozza

Editor's note: This article is one in a series on how to answer some of the toughest job interview questions. Read previous articles in the series here and here.

You've reached the part of the job interview where it's time to discuss compensation. It can be hard to know how to answer if you're asked, "What salary are you looking for?" State too high a figure and your potential employer might think they can't afford you; mention too low a figure and you may end up being paid less than you should.

"This is always a tough question," admitted Lindsay Gaal, chief human resources officer at accounting firm Friedman LLP in New York City.

It can be tempting to answer by simply saying, "It's negotiable," but Gina Curtis, executive recruiting manager at JMJ Phillip Group and career coach for the career coaching firm Employment BOOST in Troy, Mich., advised against that tactic. "It can be very hard for hiring managers to move you forward in the process if you do not give a specific answer," she said.

There are ways to tackle this thorny question without waffling, though. To start, it helps to understand why hiring managers ask it.

What the hiring manager wants to learn

Unlike many challenging interview questions, this one is pretty straightforward, said Michelle Armer, chief people officer at the job website CareerBuilder, based in Chicago: the hiring team needs to know how much money you want to make if you are offered the job.

They also want to learn if your salary expectations are a match with what they are offering and with your level of experience, said Curtis.

Good strategies for answering the question

Instead of pulling a number out of thin air, formulate a good answer by doing your research, said Curtis. Websites such as Glassdoor, Salary.com, PayScale.com, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics offer salary ranges that can be helpful. You can also consult accounting-specific salary guides such as the ones produced by Robert Half and Accounting Principals.

"Keep in mind the size of the hiring organization, its location, and your level of experience" when determining an appropriate salary, said Curtis.

Once you are armed with information, you can take a couple of different approaches to answer the salary question.

"If you are being underpaid in your current role you may want to give a target salary and not share your current compensation," said Curtis. "If you feel like you are being compensated well and are looking for something competitive, then it may be appropriate to share your current salary."

Armer suggests providing the hiring manager with a salary range that would be acceptable to you.

"Giving a range shows that you are flexible," she said. Though it can feel awkward to talk about money, she said, "it is important that you don't leave the ball in the hiring manager's court. They could come in with a low offer that will be hard for you to negotiate up to what you want."

Once you state a range, you can follow up by asking if it falls within the organization's target, said Gaal.

"If the answer is 'no,' ask what they were thinking" of offering, she said.

If you are offered a salary at the top of your range, "you should be willing to accept that offer," Armer said.

Another good strategy for answering this question is to inquire about the total compensation package, including benefits, said Armer. Some companies offer benefits such as free child care or student loan reimbursement, and knowing these perks can give you more context around the salary you need.

"In many cases, benefits can provide a lot of value on top of the salary offer," she said.

What not to say

Avoid giving a flat number; it removes the opportunity for negotiation if your target is met from the get-go, said Armer.

And while it's a good strategy to provide a salary range, make sure the range is not too large, said Curtis. A wide range can make it "difficult to determine what you are actually looking for" and the organization "may offer you the lower end of the range," she said.

Remember, while talking about money can be awkward, it's an important part of your job search. By finding a position that fits both your professional and financial goals, you can make an investment in your future.

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Michigan. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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