In the December 13, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a long-time reader asks whether it’s okay to discuss salary range with a headhunter before taking time out of a busy work schedule to interview:

I’m a long-time reader. This is my second-time question — the last one was in 2004! I’ve just been headhunted for a position that would require an hour commute. We’re past the phone-screen stage, and now at a point of coordinating schedules for in-person meetings. This is the busiest time of year for my current employer, so to leave for a half day would be very difficult. Is it acceptable to discuss salary range before I invest time in interviewing? Or does that automatically mark me as a problem child?

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

Nice to hear from you again! “The money question” troubles many people. We all know there’s no hire until money is discussed, so why is it such an awkward topic? Why do employers and applicants alike prefer to “wait until later” to bring it up?

An employer has a budget for a position. It might stretch the compensation to hire a particularly good candidate. But that depends on the quality of the interviews, not on whether the salary range has been discussed in advance.

I think it’s key to get the money question on the table early — especially if you have to invest travel and time to interview.

I like the off-the-cuff approach. Call the headhunter, express your interest in the job, and then say the following.

How to Say It

“By the way, what’s the compensation like for this position?”

That’s not aggressive and it’s not the last word. It leaves room for further discussion. Then stay silent and let the headhunter speak. If she won’t answer you candidly, then don’t feel guilty pressing her.

How to Say It

“We should make sure we’re in the right range…” or “I’d like to make sure I’m on the same page as the employer before we all invest our time…”

If the headhunter deflects by asking what you’re making or what you want, you should turn the tables to test the headhunter. Yes, I said test the headhunter. Make her work to recruit you, or she’s not really worth talking to.

How to Say It

…(This last How to Say It suggestion is only in the newsletter… Don’t miss next week’s edition. Sign up now! It’s free!)

This makes the headhunter work for it. If she’s not able to engage with you now on the subject of money, then negotiations are likely to be difficult later, after you’ve invested a lot of time. (This is why both headhunters and employers often avoid talking money: The more time they get you to invest, the less likely you will be to walk away from a low offer.) For more about negotiating with headhunters, please see How To Work With Headhunters.

Could the headhunter conclude you’re a problem child and drop you? Sure — but you’ve hardly been “dropped.” Rescued is more like it. If you don’t know what the compensation range is, there’s really nothing more to talk about. Exploring new opportunities is a good thing, but not every recruiting call is an opportunity. Test the recruiter quickly. Find out how much she knows about the employer and the position, and make sure there’s a suitable payoff if you invest your time. If the headhunter thinks you’re a problem child because you want to talk about money, then the call itself is a problem.

Do you ask about money before you interview? I’ve heard lots of justifications for putting it off, but I don’t really buy any of them. Am I wrong? How far do you go before talking money?

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  1. Many years ago, as an Admin Assistant, I was looking for a new position. I did precisely what you suggest here, Nick, and prior to scheduling an interview (after a telephone interview) I asked about compensation. Glad I did as it was almost half of what I was earning and saved me making up for time taken off to attend an interview.
    Job hunters need to assert themselves – and take into account their career goals, needs, and desires – rather than hand over all control! Love your advice – Stephanie

  2. I think you should talk about money up front….but with caveats. It’s just like buying a custom piece of equipment.

    It’s perfectly reasonable to call up a vendor, explain your need, and ask for a recommendation along with a ballpark price *if* you understand that it’s a guide only. As you provide more details and a more refined product/solution is developed, the vendor can provide a more firm price.

    People doing jobs are, in essence, custom solutions for employers. There’s no problem with both parties discussing *ranges* at the beginning. If they’re wildly different, they can go their separate ways without wasting time. If they’re close, they can talk more. As discussions proceed, both parties can refine those ranges in their heads to (hopefully) come to a mutually agreeable number.

    Unfortunately, many companies (and employees) can’t get beyond the initial numbers. They seem to lock those numbers in their heads.

  3. I’ve never had to raise the money issue even once, since all the recruiters are so eager to raise it themselves. I think you’re comment about current earnings being irrelevant to the process deserves a reprise in this column. One prominent career coach, also with a marketing and recruiting background, insists you are WRONG (her caps, not mine. :) )


  4. Where I work we get that up front. When we post a job on our web site we lay out the STARTING salary/pay range. When someone salutes and I talk with them, the idea is we’ve told them what to expect, and can assume somewhere in the range works for them. They know what they’re working with. However, that’s not a perfect solution as I’ve learned that:
    1) grown men don’t read a description past the job title, so I have to confirm that they’ve read it & understand the compensation. If not, I’ll make sure they understand the range. to help them assess their interest
    2) I need to explain it’s not moveable. Don’t expect to have us fall in love with you then negotiate.
    3) it’s a range of starting pay. not the pay range for the job. within reason, we don’t cap the salary.
    We’re trying to save time for all interested parties, e.g. in this person’s situation so you have key information before you proceed.
    (You can guess how annoying it is when you provide the info it’s ignored or worse I’m told they read it, then raise it as an issue in an interview.)
    In sum, I agree, I can’t see why employers hold this card close to their chest. Just tell people what they think the job is worth and minimize dancing around the subject. It saves everyone time

  5. @Chris: That’s a key point you raise, and that I discuss again and again throughout Ask The Headhunter. The comp should be based on the value you bring to a job. And that varies depending on the job. A physicist might be worth only $9/hr flipping burgers. And a marketing assistant earning $50k might be worth $100k if she can bring effective digital marketing to a copmany.

    But if the candidate and the company are in different ballparks to start, that usually indicates far more than a difference in money. It usually reveals enormous differences in how they view a job and the desired outcomes. It’s good to know up front.

    Candid discussion about money might reveal a big chasm. There’s nothing to prevent the candidate and employer from discussing how the candidate might bridge it by delivering unexpected value. But it’s usually up to the candidate to bring that up. And of course, that’s something we discuss here all the time: How to demonstrate your value. Not many people can do it off-the-cuff; it takes a lot of work and preparation. But it’s worth it.

  6. @Kent: Why don’t you invite that prominent career coach over to debate the point?

  7. @Don: Nice bunch of important points! Not least of which is that a candidate who ignores a stated salary range, then hopes he can “convince them” to pay more, is gonna get hurt. Mind you, I am a firm believer in showing you can do more in order to get more. But it’s a fool’s errand to walk into an interview process knowing the salary range is significantly lower than your desired range — without getting the employer to agree that if you can demonstrate your added value, they’ll seriously consider paying you more.

    Good negotiating is not a clever game. It’s an honest exchange between people willing to dicker over value.

  8. Hi, I have been headhunted recently and I told the headhunter that I will not touch the C&B (compensation & benefits) numbers until all parties understand each other. I know the market range and I am very selective with the end user. But, I make it clear early on -usually when they ask me the reason for not disclosing the C&B- that I will give the end user a copy of my paycheck (+other C&B documents)as a proof when everything has been agreed at the final stage.
    So far, I am able to ensure that the headhunter is professional and is willing to spend the time to work with me, and the end user focus on what I have to offer, and on what I can offer.

    Please note that I am working in a narrow field within the power generation sector.

    I would like to hear other opinions about not disclosing C&B until the very end.

  9. There’s another dimension to consider when exploring a new company regarding how they react to salary discussions.
    You may be getting insights into how they handle salary per se. Keep in mind that if you get hired, the compensation system and your career development are very much a part of your professional life with that company. It’s not a topic that ends when you’re hired.
    If they guard this information like the crown jewels they may do that as a matter of practice, as if it’s none of your business.
    You may negotiate an acceptable compensation package, but that doesn’t mean you have it’s context. Simply put, will you know how you stand in how that company values your role…the pay range for that job? Are you at the low end with room to grow? high end and red lined? were they fair relative to equity, fairly comped as to peers? to the market? to where you are now? If they won’t tell you the pay range and how you stand within it, you can probably assume they won’t tell you after you’re employed either.
    The lack of this info isn’t crippling, but it kind of leaves you flying blind as to managing your growth.
    For example. I worked for a company that changed their approach on this. When I 1st went to work for them, they actually gave everyone a wallet sized card with the engineering family laid out (eng 1, eng 2 ,etc, right up the line to the executive grades) and the pay ranges for same. This was admirably transparent. You absolutely knew where you stood and what you could reach for. As a manager, I’d use it as a recruiting tool. I’d show the person the grade level we were talking about, where we wanted to bring them in at, and how that level fit into the family. No secrets. It was great.
    Same company. Decided later they didn’t like this, and the wallet card disappeared along with disclosure, though most of us managers disclosed ranges to employees anyway when discussing appraisals, growth etc. Along with the wallet card disappearance came the policy of firing offense in disclosing your pay to others.
    I can see why the wallet card disappeared, as this was very interesting info to the competition, but rat holing the information entirely was stupid.
    In sum in my opinion it’s way better to work in an environment where the company is confident in their compensation system to where you’re given that information…then one where it’s a deep secret leaving you feel like you possibly may be getting hosed.

  10. My experience has been to take the meeting, do the interview, if it does not require extensive travel or preparation, and worry about the money later. But if you are really concerned that the money will not be right, or that interviewing requires a big time investment, then you should ask.

  11. Headhunters and candidates should be upfront about compensation. It’s not a game; it’s adults dealing with serious issues: for the candidate – how you pay your mortgage, feed your family, where you live; for the headhunter his effectiveness, professional reputation, his income – pretty important stuff.
    If a headhunter won’t discuss compensation blow him off.
    If a candidate won’t discuss compensation move on to someone who wants to be straight with you.

  12. I was recently conducting a search for a Vice President. A great candidate with great experience who was also a good fit for the role. I explained the compensation structure up front: base salary range, target short term incentive, and long term incentive/equity structure. He stated that the compensation structure worked for him and he would like to move further in the process.

    When I called back to schedule in-person interviews, he changed the game and upped his expected compensation. Frustrating situation. I would prefer honesty. Say you have a pending offer at a higher compensation level. Say you are targeting a higher level of compensation than I described and ask me if there is flexibility. But,please, don’t tell me you are comfortable with the compensation after I have been completely open with you – and then change your mind without explaining why. We parted ways.

  13. I think it’s a good approach to know the range and duties up front. I have been burned a few times in the past because I did not know the range.

    If the recruiter / company can’t be honest with this information, who knows what lies ahead…

  14. Hi, recently i had an face to face interaction with one of the head hunter as i met him by the refrence of one of my college sineor. the salary offered by them is not satisfactory but i coudnt resist at that time nor i agreed. is there still time for negotiation if so in what manner

  15. Interesting that Don’s company posts a STARTING salary range. I interviewed with one company that posted a salary range in the original advertisement, and it turned out it was the salary for the position — you had to be hired at the bottom of the range so you would have room to grow. What do you do when you are comfortable being near the top of the range, but not the bottom? Sometimes there’s quite a difference.

  16. When interviewing for my current job, the recruiting company* asked about my current salary. I replied, firmly, but politely, that going from a government to a private position and having several more years of experience under my belt, I would in any case expect the salary to increase. Therefore, I would not disclose it. I was, however, happy to state and discuss my expected salary range. The recruiter was professional and accepted that.

    (*It was an advertised position, but intitally handled by a recruiting company)

  17. @xishan: If you are in the process of interviewing for a job with an inadequate salary, you should discuss this now with the headhunter.

  18. I think it is a good idea to discuss salary ranges for the reasons Nick, Don, and others mentioned.

    Companies often hold this information close to the vest. Too often the hiring process becomes like buying a car, particularly once you’ve gotten beyond the stage where there is mutual interest. You (job seeker) want to get as a high a salary as possible, and the prospective employee wants to get you for as little as possible.

    The part where people play chicken is in the disclosure–give too high a figure and a prospective employer balks. Give too low a figure and you may need to get a second job to pay your bills. The key is to find the right balance and hopefully there is room for some negotiation.

    Don’s story re the cards reminded me of one of my first jobs out of college. I worked for a municipality and salaries were not only public information to anyone who wanted to see how their tax dollars were being spent but I was given a schedule at my first interview showing the salary and the steps for each level. Most new hires started at or near the bottom, and you knew how much of a raise you could get in a year or 5 years or 15 years by consulting the schedule. There can be quite a difference between the starting salary at a particular level and step and where you’d be if/when you cap out (reach the highest you can go).

    Don and Nick are right–it is important to have this info so there are no surprises and no one wastes their time interviewing for a job (or interviewing someone for a job) that he can’t afford to take. Adults have adult lives and expenses. If the job doesn’t pay enough for you to make your rent or mortgage payments, then you need to keep looking if the employer states there is no negotiation (take what he offers or he’ll hire someone else).

    Yet all too often we’re told to negotiate for salary. The challenge is to figure out of the employer is open to it or it, so transparency is a good thing.

  19. @marybeth –

    I think you bring up good points about knowing raise structure, pay ranges, etc.

    It does bring up an important thing in my mind…

    I have no (or less of a) problem telling my current salary and expections once I know what the budget is, and what the raise schedule is like, etc. I’ve interviewed for positions where I’d move for my current company where I was at/near the bottom of my pay range to a position where I’d be at the top of their range and the position itself wouldn’t make it worth it. If I would have known that upfront, I wouldn’t have applied or taken things past a certain point.

    One other thing that drives me bonkers is that sometimes the phone screener doesn’t know much about the duties and pay ranges nor has much power to say yay or nay to things. Yet, they’ll ask current salary and/or expected range.

  20. Nick saved me from s*cking canal water!

    I was talking to a local employer about a job I thought could be a good fit for me. Thanks to the “Ask Nick” conversation I had with him, Nick brought up significant points and gave me his wise counsel on how to get clarification from these folks before spending/investing/wasting any more of my time.

    I did speak to them yesterday, to clarify their idea on salary. And it was about 1/2 what I would ever consider.

    So Nick saved me not only time but also hope and aggravation – it was worth every penny AND SO MUCH MORE.

    I had to post here to express my complete appreciation, admiration and thanks to Nick. On-the-money, discerning, frank and wise … and a genuinely nice man. I have learned a lot from reading his stuff over the years, and I am so very grateful to him for helping me with this particular situation. Bravo, Nick!

  21. Most of the discussion is aimed at frustrations with the company/recruiting playing cutesy with salary information. But remember that door swings two ways and candidates need to play fair as well. I’ll give you an example I alluded to in my 1st note.
    I posted a key role with starting salary range.
    (i’m in the Houston area). someone saluted from out of town so I scheduled a phone screen. We typically invest a lot of time talking with people. I don’t do Q&A sessions. The 1st time around I’ll do more talking than you, give you a briefing on the company, peel back the web site so to speak.
    In the morning of the call I emailed a re-confirm and asked if he’d read the description. Yes. Looks great!
    Call went on as scheduled. I opened again with asking if he’d read the description. Yes.
    Two hours into the discussion, I got confirmation he was full of it…when he asked me what comp was. I told him the range to which he replied “Oh I couldn’t possibly move to Houston for that”. end of discussion.
    It’s possible that he didn’t like what he heard about the company, or the job, or I bored him etc. But I did get the feeling that no, he didn’t bother to read the description or just didn’t scroll to the end where I had that with a benefits summation.
    One big reason for a company to signal the range is to save everyone time. If it doesn’t work…don’t engage

  22. @Don – completely agree. No doubt there are canidates out there who don’t do their homework and are dishonest, etc. I certainly have heard my fair share of horror stories.

    However, I think the issue is that the employers say they want to hold canidates/employees to high standards but in some cases they could do better as well.

  23. @Don That’s an example of a basic candidate testing technique: If they can’t or won’t follow the simple instructions in the job description then they’re not going to follow the boss’s instructions once they start, so you can drop that candidate from consideration immediately.

  24. @Dave: you make good points re disclosure of salary and when it is appropriate. The problem of uninformed phone screeners is frustrating. Getting this information before time is wasted and money spent (especially if you’re travelling a great distance) is a good thing for BOTH the candidate and the prospective employer. If I were the employer, it would be very disappointing if I found a great candidate, only to discover that he won’t take the job because the salary is too low and I can’t give him more because of budget constraints. It would have been better to know that up front. That requires honesty from me–I have to be honest about the salary, and from the candidate–he should take me at my word that I can’t offer him more money and why.

    @Don: you make some excellent points in your last post. That honesty and transparency things does go both ways–back to my dating analogy–if you’re not honest, then somebody (or maybe both parties) won’t be happy. I dislike dealing with car salespeople for this reason–I never know what the real price of the car is because we’re expected to haggle, but if I walk and say I’m paying cash, then all kinds of “deals” suddenly materialize that wouldn’t have been available if I had to get financing. Makes me nuts. Job hunting is getting to be like buying a car.

    I sympathize with you re your candidates who don’t read or have poor reading comprehension skills. It is annoying at best, and makes you look bad at worst. Don’t take it personally. I bet these people don’t read anything thoroughly. I had the same problem at my last job when dealing with applicants to the program and with some (not all) students re registration. All of the info. was posted for them, but a growing number of them didn’t read it or didn’t comprehend what they read. Mostly it was lack of reading the letters, applications, website, etc. Even more frustrating was that these were GRADUATE STUDENTS, most of whom were older (mid-late 30’s-nearly 70, but some in their 20’s). I know people are busy, but I really got all of the info. together and put it in the letter. When it came to the applicants, they, too, seemed to think we were a car dealership, not a university. The requirements (admission process) stated they had to submit an application, fee, personal statement, current CV, official GRE score report (unless exempt and included a list of those who were exempt–pretty much only those who had terminal degrees from U.S. universities or foreign medical degrees AND ECFMG certification), official transcripts, 2 letters of recommendation. I was always surprised by the number of applicants who would submit the application, then call me to try to wheel and deal their way out of having to submit GRE scores, transcripts, letters. Had one who didn’t want to take the GRE at all. Told me that she didn’t want to take it, had no intention of taking it, and we’d have to accept her or else. She got scared when I informed her that her file was incomplete and without the GRE scores, she’d be automatically denied admission due to having an incomplete file. No one on the committee would look at it until it was complete. Then she tried to bargain with me; she’d give me a 3rd letter of recommendation and I would waive the GRE. No–she didn’t have a terminal degree or a foreign medical degree & ECFMG certification, so she didn’t qualify for the waiver. She called me in shock at the deny letter she received. All of the info re the process was posted on our website, on the Grad. School’s website. I emailed her info, breaking it down and putting the requirements into easy bulleted points for her. Yes, I was frustrated too, but then I remembered that the automatic denial of admission meant that I wouldn’t have to deal with her (I advised the students), and neither would the faculty. If they can’t or won’t read the info and follow the directions, then they won’t read the info. syllabus and follow directions (do homework) and will be problem students. Look at it this way, Don–if these candidates can’t be bothered to read and follow directions, then it is a warning to you that they may not be the best candidate for your client.

  25. @G: If they can’t or won’t follow the simple instructions in the job description then they’re not going to follow the boss’s instructions once they start, so you can drop that candidate from consideration immediately.

    While you certainly make a valid point, I would emphasize that most also want – at least should want – employees who can do some thinking for themselves. Which may include skipping stupid HR employment procedures.

  26. Re: adversarial career counselor. Invite her to this blog on your turf, Nick? I could try, but she’d probably be mystified I was doing your bidding. It amazes me that most career counselors like her know very little about their esteemed colleagues in the field. They have to learn about them from their job hunting following and clients. Generally, it’s because they’re so convinced they are unassailably right that they don’t need to know. The one in question also seems to get nervous that by sharing opinions and approaches we may be spreading her proprietary material around. Still, it would be fun and useful to all readers to try.