Have you ever watched World Poker Tour? Full of tension, high stakes and drama, the contenders use their wits to interpret the slightest flick of an eyelid or the tiniest twitch of a muscle to figure out who had the best hand was mesmerising. At times, I would hold my breath, as players with nerves of steel put on their best poker face in a bid to win a small fortune by turning a game of chance into a tactical game of skill.
After a while (and with the benefit of knowing what cards each player had been dealt) I was aware that I too, had begun to search for those minute facial changes that would give the game away and suddenly realised that these players would excel at uncovering the best salary a potential employer had to offer.
Have you ever unwittingly undersold yourself in a job interview? The stakes can be just as high, and if you have ever been manoeuvred into accepting a lower salary than anticipated, the emotions you can experience afterwards range from a feeling of disappointment to being taken advantage of, or simply blaming yourself for not wanting to jeopardise your chances by asking for a salary you think may be too high.
Most of us have experienced the frustration of reading through an exciting job opportunity, only to find no mention or hint of the salary whatsoever and yet, people will still apply for the role. There are many reasons why companies choose to adopt this strategy, including trying to secure the best talent at the lower end of the salary range, keeping the salary confidential from existing employees or testing the market. Regardless of the motive, a lack of transparency around salary is an on-going issue that is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon and even when there is a degree of transparency, you may still be required to negotiate your value within a set salary range.
The good news is that by investing a little time and effort, you can formulate a game plan to help you avoid common pitfalls such as undervaluing yourself or playing the opening gambit when the employer should be showing their hand by using three simple points below.
1. Do your research
It may sound obvious, but do your research. There is a wealth of information and plenty of salary surveys around that will help you benchmark your job in terms of level and experience. Check out job boards such as Seek who aggregate salary information across the entire site. There will also be specialist recruitment companies specific to your industry who can provide annual salary surveys to benchmark against. Remember, salary can also depend on a range of other variables including the size of a company, the location, industry and whether a job is in high demand. It's also worth bearing in mind that while not-for-profit organisations may offer lower salaries, the lower wage can often be offset by salary sacrifice options that equate to cost savings on items such as mortgages and cars.
2. Practise your response
When we are unprepared then confronted with a direct question about salary expectations, our natural instinct is to feel awkward or uncomfortable. Just like a poker player trying to work out what cards their opponents have, a range of thoughts can race through the mind – is the salary I want too high? Is it too low? I don't want to lose this job so I'll go in low; just what is the magic figure they are looking for? You know it's coming, so take control. How well will you answer that awkward question?
A simple approach to remove the feeling of confrontation is to put the question back on to the employer by asking them what the company has budgeted for the role. Another safe option is to answer by saying that you're open to negotiation.
Alternatively, if an employer is offering a salary range of between $70K-$80K, you can counter this by creating your own ballpark figure simply by saying that in leading companies, the job would attract a salary of between $90K-$100K, which will suddenly create the perception that the $80K you are looking for is now perceived as a reasonable amount.
Psychology research has found that applicants who respond with a salary range, received higher overall salaries than those that just gave a single figure, however, the key is in the research and it's essential that you have a thorough understanding of what the salary range should be.
Whichever approach you decide you are most comfortable with, make sure you practise or workshop your answer with a friend or someone you trust as speaking your answer out loud is a very different prospect to how the answer sounds in your head. The more you practise, the easier it will be to articulate under the pressure of an interview.
3. Let the other side go first
You've done the research and have a fairly good idea of your value in the market, you've practised the conversation, so now it's time to bring it all together to uncover the salary and achieve your desired pay.
In general, the discussion around salary occurs at the end of the meeting, giving you time to impress the panel, relax into the interview and build a little rapport. Do you wait for the inevitable question? Or do you initiate the salary discussion yourself ?
Going first is challenging, as you're still unsure of what is on offer. I have worked with people who jumped straight in with a figure they were happy with, only to discover later it was $10K less than the employer was prepared to pay so it is almost always advisable to let the employer go first. Once the salary the employer has in mind has been revealed, you can then decide which tactic or option will work best for you to reach the level of pay you believe you are worth.
There are always exceptions or alternatives and in this case, if you have managed to establish a genuine interest in the job throughout the interview, taking the initiative to tackle a difficult conversation can be viewed in a positive light. All the same, be prepared for the interviewer to put the salary question right back in your court as it is highly likely that if you ask what the salary for the role is, there is a high probability that they will ask what you what you want to be paid.
For the majority of people, salary discussions are still regarded as awkward and difficult conversations, however, the right preparation, practice and knowledge will create a sense of control that will enable you to comfortably discuss salary expectations in a positive way, hopefully reaching an agreement that will leave you feeling valued and excited about your new job.