Now, there's a lot of advice out there that advises candidates to refuse to give a real answer to the salary question – for instance, say that you're flexible, or that you'd like to learn more about the job first, or simply turn the question around and ask the employer what their budgeted range is. You can certainly try these tactics, but many, many employers will insist on knowing what your salary expectations are before proceeding. In fact, many online applications won't even let you apply if you don't include a number.
So if you end up in a position where you have to name a salary range, what do you do?
1. First, don't be caught unprepared. If you're caught off-guard, you risk throwing out a number that you'll later realize was too low (or unrealistically high). So before every interview, including phone screens, assume that you're going to be pressed to name your salary expectations, and know how you're going to respond. That means…
2. Do plenty of research beforehand. Unfortunately, salary websites often aren't as accurate as you need because they generally don't account for the fact that job titles frequently represent wildly different scopes of responsibility, or vary significantly by type of company or geography. But you can get a far more accurate idea by simply bouncing figures off of other people in your field, checking with professional organizations in your industry or talking with recruiters. Do your research and come up with a range based on what comparable positions pay for your experience level and in your geographic area.
3. Don't base your salary range on what you want or need, rather than on what the market says you're worth. Too often, people come up with their desired salary by thinking about what they'd like to earn, rather than looking at hard data about their market value. This can make you come across as naive to employers, so make sure your number is correlated to the market.
4. Don't name a range if you'd be unhappy with the lowest end of it. If you give a wide range like "$40,000 to $55,000," don't be surprised if you're offered $40,000, because that's what you told the employer you'd accept willingly. So choose your range carefully, realizing that the employer may only focus on the lower end of it. (Similarly, many employers resist giving out their own ranges because so many candidates only hear the highest end.)
5. Practice your answer out loud. You might think you know how you're going to answer the question, but plenty of people blanch when it comes to actually talking about money. Know what wording you're going to use and practice, so when you're doing it for real, you feel comfortable and it sounds natural.
6. Don't play coy – or at least be attuned to signals that playing coy won't work. While online applications might make it very clear that you can't proceed without naming a salary, some interviewers are just as rigid, and you want to make sure you can recognize it when one is. If your interviewer keeps pushing you to name a number and you keep refusing, you risk coming across as obnoxious or simply getting cut from the running.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.