You made it to the job interview early, were respectful to the receptionist and nailed the “What’s your greatest weakness?” question. You’re on a roll — that is, until the hiring manager throws out the most sweat-inducing line of all: “What are your salary expectations?”
To avoid a deer-in-the-headlights moment (or worse, lowballing yourself), try this trick that can address the awkwardness *and* help you earn more money: Crack a joke.
That’s the conclusion to research from the University of Idaho, where over 200 college students were asked to imagine they were hiring an administrative assistant. Half of the hiring managers knew the candidate’s previous salary was $29,000. The other group asked directly about desired salary. In some cases, the candidate gave a figure so unrealistically high, it came off as jokey — then left negotiations open-ended (“I would like $100,000, but really I am just looking for something that is fair”).
In the cases where the candidate set the bar way too high, the hiring manager offered an average starting salary of $35,385. The control group that knew the candidate’s previous salary offered nearly $3,000 less. Translation: The candidate who set the tone for negotiations with an unrealistically high number — even in a joking way — secured more money.
This has to do with the concept of anchoring where, in the case of salary, negotiations and the final offer are relative to the first benchmark set, which is usually a previous salary, a number proposed by the candidate or a number proposed by the hiring manager.
The problem with using salary history as a benchmark, though, is that it leaves workers who’ve been historically underpaid at a disadvantage. Realizing this strategy can disproportionately impact women and minorities, many states and cities are working to take salary history out of the hiring equation altogether. New York City was the latest city to ban the question as of October 31, with other citywide ordinances across San Francisco, Philadelphia and Pittsburg. And effective January 1, 2018, California will join Massachusetts, Oregon and Delaware in statewide efforts to ban employers from inquiring about previous salary and benefits.
Even if you don’t live in one of these areas, there are strategies to ensure you don’t set too low of an anchor when negotiating. Use tools like Glassdoor and PayScale to research the going rate for your position based on its responsibilities, the company and your location. You can also tap your network, whether it’s recruiters you know or contacts who’ve held similar positions in the past, to get an idea of what to expect. Then, frame your ask as a range with your desired salary at the bottom. For example, if you’re aiming for a salary of $60,000, set your range between $60,000 and $70,000.
You could also avoid the question and kick it back by saying you’re excited about the position and are open to negotiation when you’ve learned more about the role, or by inquiring about the budget they have in place.
And if the salary history question does come up? Try breaking the tension — and negotiating upward — with a joke.