im-happy-1184894_640Of all of the typical interview questions, that one is the most controversial, because it’s one of the most poorly understood—but is among the most important ones. Many people get electrified by the question because they think the interviewer is ready to negotiate. That conclusion, however, is furthest from the truth. The interviewer merely wants to determine whether—in case the organization goes on to select you—it can afford you. And by the way, as a candidate, you shouldn’t be encouraged by the question because (1) the interviewer has to compare your candidacy with the candidacies of others being interviewed; (2) you are not in a position to negotiate, because you don’t have an offer yet; and (3) you’ve just been put in a potentially crucial and difficult situation to the point that if you don’t know how to find your way out of the maze, you may be stuck there forever—without an offer.

Your value in the marketplace is governed by the most basic principle of economics: supply and demand. Do you remember the days when companies gave candidates many thousands of extra dollars as sign-on bonuses? Was it because of their pretty eyes? No. It was because the company wanted to attract those candidates before other companies did. The economic climate was the reverse of today’s. Companies were growing fast, and to meet the demand for more workers, they had to induce the best candidates to become employees.

Remember: your value in the marketplace will amount only to as much as an employer is willing to pay based on that employer’s needs and perceived value of you and not on what you want and expect based on how much you earned in the past.

In addition, typically, the larger the employer, the better the pay and benefits; but at the same time, salaries at larger employers are more rigid. The hiring manager has to fit you into the department relative to the other employees paid by the department’s budget. And that department has to be in synch with the departments in the rest of the organization—and with the industry. Are you aware that larger companies have employees in their human resources departments who are dedicated specifically to benefits administration and who constantly monitor the aforementioned issues about pay? Companies can’t be too much out of line with the industry, because if they are, they’re not competitive enough and they’ll start losing talent to competitors who pay better.

Hiring managers have to work within pay ranges for the positions they’re trying to fill. The ranges are divided into quartiles, and a best practice is to hire people at the pay rate of the second quartile. Fitting a candidate into the first quartile means the candidate is relatively weak. In the second quartile, the candidate has room for growth and promotion.

When you get prompted by the question about salary expectation, the only good answer is to provide a range. The range should be relatively wide, such as by, say, 30%—for example, from $100,000 to $130,000. Such an answer telegraphs to the interviewer that your lowest acceptable salary is $100,000, but because you’re superior at your occupation, it’s conceivable that you’re worth up to $130,000.

When preparing for the interview, do some homework about your value in today’s marketplace. You can find out what the industry is paying those with your duties and responsibilities by searching such Web sites as,, and, but for a more accurate figure, check out, which might charge a fee. Do your due diligence; you will be handsomely rewarded. And don’t forget that once an offer is made, you can still negotiate provided that you feel comfortable—and know how to.