First, try to avoid the subject for as long as you can. Of course, you will be well prepared when you go into the offer phase because you’ll have carefully researched appropriate compensation levels either via salary surveys or through your personal network.
If you manage to avoid the topic of money early on, chances are you will have more opportunity to build value and increase your negotiating abilities when there is an offer. The hiring manager will have a clearer picture of your true worth. Your objective is to avoid being screened out because of a number and continue the process of selling and demonstrating a great fit so that the number increases the longer the process goes on.
Now comes the tricky part. How do you avoid discussing the subject when the interviewer asks you within, perhaps, the first ten minutes of the first interview what you were earning on the last job, or what you’re “looking for”?
You can’t say, “I’d rather talk about this later.” Some of the people I’ve met over the years internalize the idea that avoiding the subject is always good, and then they feel free to tell the interviewer they’d rather not talk about it. Not a good relationship builder!
You can say, “I’d hate to eliminate myself because of a dollar figure at this point. Right now, the key issue for me is finding a great fit. I figure if the fit is there, then we’ll work out the money part. If it’s okay with you, could we talk about this a little later on in the process?” This frequently works. But, sometimes it doesn’t.
What if the interviewer comes right back with, “That’s very nice and all, but I need to know what your last salary was. I don’t want to waste my time . . . or yours.”
Turning the question around with, “Could you give me an idea of your range?” often works. If the range is anywhere close to where you think you should be, you can say, “Oh, we’ll be able to work this out easily.” If it’s way below your range, then you might want to indicate that by saying, “It’s a little lower than what my current expectations are, but I’d like to continue our conversation. It’s not always strictly about the money for me.” You want to keep the conversation going, unless the numbers are so ridiculously low you know there’s no chance you’ll be able to “work this out.”
What if the hiring manager starts to get a little irritated? “Okay, I understand that you don’t want to talk about it, but I really need to know.”
No matter what the original question was, you might respond with, “I’ll be looking for a total compensation package in the range of . . .” If that doesn’t work, it’s time to give in.
More about giving in another time.