This is commonly one of the first questions you're asked when interviewing for a new job. Employers want to get this question out in the open for a few reasons: 1) They want to get a general sense if you're willing to work at or below the top of their pay scale for a given job, and 2) they are in effect, asking you to negotiate against yourself, at the point in discussions when you have the least negotiating leverage. Job hunters are often at a loss (figuratively and literally) trying to both get the job and obtain the highest possible compensation. Here's how to do it:
1. Be responsive, but don't commit early on. Talk about your current and/or recent compensation level. Make certain to distinguish between "base" and "total" compensation. Then, pivot the focus away from salary to talk about the real purpose of the discussion at this stage, from your perspective: To determine if you and the employer make a great fit. Quickly close this part of the conversation by saying, "I'm sure that you agree that if I'm not the right fit for this position, it doesn't matter how much I want or how much you're likely to pay to whomever you hire. And, if it is a great fit, we will each work to treat each other fairly when it comes to determining a specific salary for this job, right?"
2. Find objective data to justify your request. Employers hire human resources professionals whose sole focus is dealing with employee compensation issues. They have access to a great deal of data, accumulated through industry research and other sources. You need to level the "information battleground" as best as you can. Research sites like Salary.com, Payscale.com, Jobstar.org, and a host of others to get as much knowledge as possible about how people with similar skills and education, years of experience, and levels of responsibility are compensated nationwide and in your particular geographic area.
3. Figure out your ZOPA. The first rule of negotiations is that sellers always have some level below which they will not sell—but no maximum on what they're willing to receive. For buyers, it is the opposite. As a buyer, you aren't likely to say, "I'm not willing to paying less than X" for whatever you're buying. But buyers do have at an upper limit of what they're willing to pay.
When you're negotiating for a position, you are the seller of your services, and the company is the buyer. Your ZOPA is the Zone Of Possible Agreement. Barring other factors, like other jobs you might accept or other candidates the employer might hire, there is a whole range of possible salary numbers that could be mutually acceptable. That zone is anything between the upper limit of what the company is willing to pay, and, at the same time, anything above the lowest amount you're willing to accept.
Chances are, you will never have perfect information to determine a ZOPA, but as you do your research you can approach it.
4. Talk about creating fairness and finding common ground. Remember that it is imperative to always keep a friendly tone, and base your arguments on objective facts, not your particular needs or desires. You can go far by asking probing questions with a smile on your face. In the course of your discussion you might use statements and questions like these:
"You know, I'm excited about doing this job, and I'd love to work here. But I'm curious if you could explain the basis of why you're offering X dollars?"
If they can't come up with anything compelling, this is when you bring your research to the fore:
"I know that you've had the opportunity to review many resumes and interview other candidates. I'm really flattered and thrilled that you think I'm a better fit than my competition. Given all that, I've been looking to figure out what a fair level of compensation would be. Salary survey 'such and such' suggests that there is a range of X to Y for this kind of work in this geographic area, with an average of Z. I'm sure you and I agree at this point that I'm far better than average at doing this work. Wouldn't it be fair to expect compensation that would reflect that shared judgment?
Of course, there can be counter arguments, and alternate facts will enter into the discussion. But when you negotiate based on facts and principles rather than whims and desires you show yourself to be reasonable and a solid professional. It is really hard at this point to argue against fairness, and you're well on your way to getting the highest possible compensation for the value you bring to your new job.
Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.