If you’ve applied for a job online, you’ve run into it: The Inflexible Form. The job application form has a box that says, “Salary Expected.” It doesn’t ask for a salary requirement, it demands it. You’d have a better chance negotiating push-ups with a drill sergeant.
There’s no fudging with typing in “market rate” when the form won’t accept alphabetical characters. No weaseling with a numeric range when it only accepts a precise answer. Type in exactly what it asks for, or you can’t submit your job application.
As job-seekers, we truly are “boxed in.” What should we put in that box?
First, why do employers demand a salary at the resume phase? According to several career experts I spoke to, companies want salary requirements so they can discover…
- Do you know what you’re talking about?
If the going rate for a position is $100k, and you’re asking for $45k, it looks like you’ve never had the responsibilities the job requires, despite the titles on your resume. If you had, you’d know better.
Note that’s different from salary history. An employer understands (or should understand) that you may have worked in a different region with a lower salary structure. But you need to show you know the worth of the position in the local market. Otherwise you risk looking desperate or having your “VP” title downgraded to “Manager” in an HR rep’s mind.
- Are you at least within their ballpark?
If an employer wants to pay $45k for a position you think is worth $50k, they may find ways to fit you into their budget. If they want to pay $45k for a position you think is worth $100k, maybe it’s not even worth starting a discussion.
Don’t second-guess the form, say the experts. It’s possible there’s a cut-off on the high end. But it’s also possible there’s a cut-off on the low end, if the company’s trying to weed out people trying to game the system.
Don’t second-guess yourself, says career coach Tanya Ezekiel, “People fill in the form, and then spend the next three hours going to the opposite extremes: Did I give it away or did I scare them off? Know the number you would be happy accepting that job for.”
So, how do you finesse that box?
“You can take the power back by knowing your worth,” says Scott Dobroski, Community Expert at Glassdoor.com.
There are now several places to get salary figures, among them Glassdoor.com, Salary.com, Indeed.com, and technology recruiters Robert Half. “You can download our salary survey for free,” says John Reed, executive director of Robert Half. “It has many, many positions in IT, and it’s based off of real placements—real people who got real jobs—and what their real starting salaries were.”
In addition, if you belong to professional organizations, check if they have done salary surveys.
For a quick answer, you can check just one source. For a thorough answer, use the RATE list (Research, Adjust, Tailor, Establish) to find your salary-expected fill-in figure in five, research-intensive steps:
1. Research market rates by exact title or the closest job category. Make sure to check rates at the company’s direct competitors.
If you can’t find examples for your title or category, use others for comparison. If the assistants in your current company make $50k a year, and you’re applying to a company where assistants make $18k, that should tell you something. (Likely something you’d rather not know.)
2. Adjust those rates against salaries in similarly sized companies in the same sector—and the same city or region. Robert Half’s Salary Guide has a chart of local variances, ranging from 131% of the national average in Stamford, Connecticut to 76% in Pueblo, Colorado.
3. Tailor a realistic range for the job you’re interested in.
To save yourself time on the next round, create ranges for broad categories, such as VP Engineering Small Company/Small City; VP Engineering Large Company/Small City, etc. Remember to update those ranges every year, since many factors can cause salaries to fluctuate.
4. Establish where your years of experience and skillset should place you on that range.
There’s no algorithm for that, unfortunately, only advice.
Career coach Hallie Crawford’s strategy for the current economy is to put down a number closer to the low end of the range. “In a stronger economy,” she says, “You can go more towards the middle.”
To get more precise, read the recent news and online quarterly reports from the particular company to which you’re applying, says Dobroski, “You can gauge if they have money. If they just laid off 600 workers—maybe you want to be a little more cautious.”
Most importantly, say the experts, when coming up with a number, consider the total compensation package as well as base salary. Read the form carefully. If it doesn’t specify which one, a base salary looks enticingly lower. Reading employee reviews of companies on sites like Glassdoor can help at this stage. If employees are complaining a company is stingy with benefits, you might want to up the base salary figure. If employees are ecstatic about the six-week vacations, you might want to lower it.
5. Fill in the Box.
If you don’t get an interview, you may wish you’d just used a dart board. But it’s never time wasted, since it can become ammunition at your next performance review.
In addition, you’ve done the homework for the type of blind ad you might find on Craigslist. Instead of guessing, you can use your RATE list to give a range, with the disclaimer that you will narrow the range once you know more about the company and position.
If you do get an interview, you’ve strengthened your negotiating position for when real numbers are in play. “You can be an even more attractive candidate,” says Dobroski, “because you’ve shown you’ve done your research, you know what’s going on in the real world, and you’re smart.”