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When to Broach the Salary Question?

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"I'm waiting for a job offer, and I hope the salary isn't disgusting," said my friend Neil. "Why would you expect a lowball salary offer?" I asked him. "No special reason, but the topic of compensation hasn't come up yet, so I don't want to get my hopes up," said Neil. "You're waiting for an offer, and you don't have any idea what will be in it, salarywise?" I asked. "Right," said Neil.

Here's the problem. Gazillions of job-search advice articles and books have told job-seekers to clam up on the subject of their compensation requirements. "Wait for the offer," these books and articles say. "Whoever is first to name a number, loses," goes the old wives' tale.

But look -- when we have a house for sale, we put a price tag on it. We call that the asking price. We don't say "Hey, make an offer." If we did, we could expect to waste a lot of time dealing with crazy-lowball offers for our house. Why shouldn't someone offer us a crazy-low price for the house? -- after all, we didn't put a price tag on it.

It's the same way in a job search. You have to do enough research to know your market rate (which may also vary with the opportunity). Glassdoor.com, Salary.com and Payscale.com are three good places to conduct that research.

Let's say your market rate is $50,000 a year. You've gone on a first interview, and things seemed to go very well. The phone rings two days later. It's Susan from HR at the company you're interviewing with; she wants to schedule you for a second interview. This is the perfect juncture at which to inquire about salary. You've got to make sure these folks are in the same ballpark with you vis-a-vis the comp level for this job. Otherwise, staying in the interview pipeline would be a huge waste of your time.

"Oh, that's wonderful," you say to Susan. "I enjoyed my conversation with Karl. I'm excited to meet Nancy and Javier."

"So, is four o'clock on Thursday a good time for you then?" asks Susan.

"I can't say at this second, but let me try to move things around," you say. "I will try to make that work. I can let you know tomorrow. In the meantime, shall we synch up on salary? Are you the right person to do that with?"

You are asking Susan whether she's equipped to talk with you about the salary range for the job. If she isn't, now is her chance to have you talk to someone else -- perhaps the hiring manager -- who knows the deal on this job's pay level.

"Er, I can do that," Susan may say. "What were you earning at your last job?"

HA HA HA! you will think (just don't laugh out loud). Wait a second -- you guys just asked ME to come back for a second interview. Wherefore asketh thee "What was some other company paying you?" Not relevant. Also, none of your beeswax.

"I'm focusing on opportunities in the 50k range," you will say. That's your salary requirement. That is a legitimate request. "What was some other company paying you?" is not.

"Er, but I need to know what you were earning at the last place," Susan may say, only because no one has ever taught her that asking people for their personal financial information is very rude. "Oh goodness, my accountant would have my head if he thought I were sharing my financial info," you will say with a smile in your voice. "Tell me, is this Project Management position in about the fifty-thousand dollar range? If so, it would make sense for us to keep talking. If not, I totally understand."

Susan has to make a choice. So far, I haven't heard of an HR person or hiring manager holding out for the salary-history data (not when they have a sharp candidate on the hoof and in the hand, as it were) but it could happen. If you got that ultimatum ("Fork over your salary-history details or the conversation stops here") you'd have a decision to make, yourself. Do you want to work -- for that matter, could you force yourself to work -- among people who treat their talented value creators that way?

Let's say that Susan confirms the salary range. "Yep, we are in the same range," she might say. "Fantastic -- that is good news," you'll reply. You'll set up the second interview. When it comes to the actual offer down the road, you'll get into other areas like bonus, vacation time and professional development. But up front, as soon as the second-interview trigger gets pulled, I want you to broach the salary history, so that you don't waste a lot of time jumping through hoops only to be presented with an insultingly low offer at the end of the process.