Discussing salary can be one of the most difficult and uncomfortable aspects of an interview, particularly for recent college graduates.  I often get questions from students on when they should bring up salary and how they should respond if the employer decides to bring it up.  Discussing salary is a sensitive topic that requires delicate and diplomatic discussion with excellent timing, especially when you’re a recent college graduate in an employer’s economy and have much less leverage to negotiate or bargain. 

Why Bringing Up Salary Can Be Viewed Negatively
Typically, when companies make hiring decisions, there is a process consisting of resume screening, screening interviews, multiple face-to-face interviews and perhaps input from more than one individual before a final candidate is selected.  Basically, there is a weeding-out process to narrow the candidate pool and several other mechanisms can be used such as skills tests, personality tests, etc.  Any candidate going through this process should understand that their job is to sell themselves and the best way to do this is to focus on what they can offer the organization and what value they can add.  Thus, bringing up salary can lead to the potential misperception that you are only interested in what you get from the employer vs. what you can offer.  This is poor salesmanship and is not strategic.  It doesn’t mean that 100% of employers will interpret a question of salary as negative, but in an interview, a candidate’s job is to prevent any negative misperceptions from occurring to increase their likelihood of progressing further in the process.  Thus, I advise to let the employer bring up salary and patiently wait.   

Why You Should Let the Employer Initiate the Salary Discussion
Typically, if salary is brought up early in the interview process, such as during the first phone interview, it is used as a screening mechanism.  If a candidate responds with an expected amount that is higher than what the company has budgeted for the position, it may prevent the candidate from progressing in the hiring process.  If salary is brought up in the later stages of interviewing, it is likely because there is interest and the company wants to explore what salary would attract the candidates with whom they are interested.  The reason a candidate should let employers bring up salary is because it can be a signal of interest or screening.  These signals are important for the strategic interviewer.   Moreover, waiting for the employer to initiate the salary discussion can prevent a potential misperception that salary is all the candidate is after which could indicate a lack of genuine interest or passion in the position, company, or industry. 

How to Conduct Salary Research
Preparing for the salary question requires research.  There are many salary calculators that can be found by simply doing a Google search.  Some tools to conduct research on salary are below:

When conducting research, use several tools and seek ranges to find consistent and reasonable low, mid, and high salary data.  Often, recent grads will use only one tool or use several until they find a range they prefer.  Salary research isn’t about seeking what you want but finding factual information to have a basis from which to negotiate.  The problem with using limited tools is that every tool calculates ranges differently and the user won’t necessarily know how much data was used, how the data was collected, how old the data is, or even if it accounts for differences in geographical locations, experience levels, or any other variables that influence salary.  When conducting research and finding ranges, be honest about where you likely fall given your experience level, geographical location, and education level.  For instance, you may have found a range that goes up to $80K but if you are a recent graduate with nothing but an internship under your belt, that range is not likely representative of people like you.  Moreover, one must consider current market conditions. 

Be Prepared to Make Sacrifices, particularly in a Bad Economy
In a bad economy, salaries are typically driven down and productivity goes up which means employers ask for more out of employees and pay less.  You should also calculate your own expenses to find out what you actually need to survive.  This doesn’t mean including your expenses for your maid or your stylist, but calculate your actual cost of living minus luxuries.  Don’t forget to calculate how much of your income would go to taxes either!  Understanding the bare minimum you need to survive gives you another base from which to make decisions about potential job opportunities.  This is important because some industries are particularly challenging to break into and in bad economies, finding work might require more of a sacrifice than originally anticipated.  This means, you may want to consider taking a salary lower than what your research indicated was typical if it still allows you to survive and gives you your foot in the door.  Just how low will be a personal decision, but at least it will be an informed decision.  Always consider the location of any job offer as well because the cost of living is very different depending upon the location.     

How to Actually Respond and Negotiate
When asked about your salary expectations, it is a safe and strategic route to indicate that it is negotiable so that you don’t put your cards on the table first.  If the employer insists on an actual amount, provide a range based on research and what you want.  However, know that what you want isn’t relevant to the employer.  Employers don’t care what you want.  Understanding your needs and wants, your job in negotiating is to get the employer to agree that what you want is what they should offer based on solid reasons you need to prepare. 

Whatever you claim you bring to the organization must be substantiated with actual proof in past experiences, your portfolio, and relevant achievement.  If you discover the company’s budget is lower than the range you provided, this is where your understanding of your expenses and income needs will come in handy as you can decide if it is still something you are able to pursue or must turn down.  However, when considering compensation, make sure you have a grasp of the full picture including any bonus plans and benefits the company might offer.  If the salary question is brought up in the first interview, refrain from asking about benefits and bonuses as you know it is likely a simple screening question and real negotiations will likely occur later in the process if you make it that far.  If salary has been brought up later in the candidate hiring process, it is less likely to be viewed negatively to inquire about potential bonus or benefit programs.  Have confidence when you actually begin negotiating and base your negotiations on the strong research you have done as well as the facts you have to substantiate the value you bring to an organization.