When & How Should You Talk About Compensation During Your Job Search?

You’ve read it and so have I: “The first person to discuss compensation in an interview loses.” 

Can we set that conventional wisdom aside and chat for a moment? As both a seasoned recruiter and career transition coach, I encourage you to replace the above advice with a more modern and well-advised approach that ensures you invest your job search time wisely – particularly, your interviewing time. Your job search time is valuable and you want it to be productive.

I’d like to share a story with you:

My friend “Bart” was recently and enthusiastically telling me about a job interview with a company he was really excited about.  Bart had sailed through the phone-screening three weeks earlier and interviewed with his prospective new manager a week later.  He liked the company, the hiring manager, and the opportunities for growth.  He thought this job could be “the one”.  

Here’s the conversation we had:

ME:

I’m so glad you like the opportunity! Let’s size it up based on your skills and what you want. First of all, what are the major job responsibilities?

BART:

The primary functions are the supervision of a call center staff, ensuring quality client service, including managing average call times and hitting goals on client surveys.  Other key responsibilities include employee selection, training, and coaching because the company anticipates growth within the next few years.  Reporting and administration is also a piece of the job.

ME:

You seem to have a clear picture of the job which is great!  How do the job, company, and benefits line up with your “must have” list?  I remember company culture is important to you, too, right?

BART:

I like the company and its focus on and investment in client service.  I asked Jane, my potential next manager, how employees would describe the culture and based on what she said, it lines up well with what I value.  Another of my “must haves” is the fit with my manager so I asked Jane about her management style. I really think we would work well together! She’s supportive, a great coach and somebody who can mentor me.  The job responsibilities are exactly what I’m after.  One thing on my list is health benefits but I thought it might be early to talk about that, so I’ll wait ‘til the next round of interviews.

ME:

Sounds to me like you’re thinking this through and asking well thought-out questions. Ok, my friend, what about money? If I remember right, you don’t plan to volunteer your services so tell me about the nature of the compensation discussion so far.

BART:

Oh, I’ve been reading about that, Jamie, and I want them to realize I’m the best candidate for the job and then I’m sure we’ll talk about compensation. Besides, you of all people should have read all the books and articles saying not to bring up compensation too early in the process.

ME:

So, has the company brought up compensation?

BART:

They asked what I’m looking for but I said I’d like to defer that discussion til later and that seemed to be OK with them.

ME:

We have an opportunity for a course-correction, Bart, and you’re right – I’ve read the articles you refer to. This opportunity seems to meet your needs with the exception of comp and benefits and we’re in the dark on those important points. I’d like to tell you a story. My friend Lisa interviewed for a job 6 months ago and fell in love with an opportunity – the company seemed to feel the same about Lisa. The job and the company were a great fit and she was confident they were the type of company that would pay her what she’s worth in the market. Lisa had 4 interviews with this organization and completed an assessment, so both parties seemed to know each other well and the company even checked her references.  She got “THE CALL” on a Friday afternoon and heard the words every job searcher wants to hear, “We’re delighted to offer you the job.”  And then came the lead balloon.  They offered her $8000 less than her least acceptable salary.  She was unsuccessful negotiating an increase and after much time, energy, and effort, she walked away empty handed and so did the company.

BART:

Well, that’s not good news.  What do you think I should do now? I don’t want this thing to fall apart. 

ME:

How about calling the recruiter who initially contacted you about the opportunity? Let her know you like this position a great deal and indicate an interest in knowing the salary and total compensation range as well as an overview of the benefits package so that all parties are on the same page?

BART:

I see the value of that. What if the comp range is lower than where I’m willing to go?

ME:

If there is a bonus opportunity and based on how good the benefits are, we can strategize regarding your response and whether you want to “stay in the game” for this one.  Let me know how it goes, OK? 

Bart opted to call Lisa, the recruiter, and asked about the salary  range for the position.  Lisa flipped it around and asked Bart for his minimum salary expectation. He wisely answered with a range, with the bottom of the range as his minimum, “must have” salary.  He also stated that the benefits package would factor into his required salary, as would any bonus opportunities – items not yet discussed during the interview process.   Lisa provided feedback that his range is in line with the company’s range, that there is a 10% bonus opportunity based on company success, and he learned the benefits and health care out-of-pocket expenses are comparable to those he most recently had. 

Over the following few weeks, Bart had 2 more interviews and was then offered the position at a salary in the middle of the range he’d provided Lisa. He accepted the job and started a week later.

I recommend talking about compensation during the first interview and if the company doesn’t bring it up, “take the bull by the horns.” Ask the company for the salary range to make sure all parties are on the same page. If the company asks for your minimum salary expectation, answer with a range that is dependent upon bonus/incentive pay opportunities and benefits.  The range will allow flexibility as you learn more about the opportunity and other aspects of compensation and benefits throughout the interview process. 

Waiting until the end of the interview process to have these conversations can result in walking away from all the time and work – empty-handed. Your time is precious in a job search, make sure you have the conversation about compensation early so you can decide if it is an opportunity you will continue to invest your time in – or if it’s time to move on.