Answering the Salary Question: How much do you need to make?


When you have to include a salary

One of the more delicate questions for job applicants, and the one that attracts conflicted opinions from the experts, is the one posed by job postings that require applicants to specify their desired salaries.

When that happens, the applicant’s dilemma is all too clear. Of the three choices available, not one is obviously correct:

  • Aim too low and you’re liable to leave money on the table. Alternatively, employers might conclude that your low expectations mean you’re not at the level of the job in question.
  • Ask for too much, on the other hand, and you’ll price yourself out of the job entirely.
  • Refuse to answer and it will be held against you. If the posting made salary expectations an explicit requirement, you’ve proven yourself incapable of following instructions. That’s reason enough to toss your application without a second thought, especially for hiring managers who are looking for ways to cut the applicant pool to a manageable size. Don’t make that job easier for them.

There’s no ideal solution, no approach that’s right for everyone in every job, so the decision comes down to an assessment of your individual situation and this particular job opening.

If there’s anything that applies across the board, however, it’s that it’s never wise to ignore the employer’s request entirely. At the very least, the decision to withhold the information should be made in the full knowledge that it may disqualify your application.

If you balk at including dollars and cents, consider a line that shows you read the instructions. “My salary range is flexible, depending on total compensation and specific job responsibilities.” That won’t solve the problem, but it’s better than nothing.

If you’re willing to delve into the world of numbers, use a range instead of a specific salary.

At the low end of the range, use the salary that you’d reasonably need to take the job should an offer be made.

Crystal Ball

At the other end, use the salary that’s the maximum typically paid for the position. Here, some research is in order. You can find salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from job postings and from sites like Glassdoor and

You can get more personal information from people you know in the industry. They may not be willing to divulge their own salaries, but they’ll probably be willing to talk salary in a general way. Remember that geography can play a surprisingly large role in rates of pay, and that salaries for the same job may be very different in California than in Nebraska.

For example, your salary is now $150,000. You’re not about to take a cut in pay, and you’re applying to a larger organization for a job with slightly more responsibility. A 30 percent increase would be reasonable, and it’s consistent with what you’ve learned about the market. All you need to do is include a simple statement, perhaps with an indication of your willingness to adapt to circumstances: “My salary range is from $150,000 to $195,000, depending on the particular scope and responsibilities of the position.”

You don’t have to make your flexibility explicit, just as you don’t need to mention that references are available upon request. Everyone knows that you’ll deliver those references when called upon, and everyone understands that there may be further talk about pay. You’ve made your willingness to have that talk quite clear.

It should go without saying that there’s no need to broach the salary question unless the employer insists. Don’t make it part of your cover letter as a matter of routine. When the employer asks, though, you can stand in silence on principle, knowing the risks, or you can give your best possible answer, knowing that all you can do is make the best of a bad situation.

If you need an experienced resume writer and career coach to help you advance to the next level, I can help you craft a game plan and a resume to get you to your goal.


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