"What's your salary expectation?" - A delicate interview question
4 min read

"What's your salary expectation?" - A delicate interview question

For today, I'm helping you answer the most unpleasant question in any job interview: "What's your salary expectation?". Which is especially hard to answer in interviews for remote jobs.


I'm Sergio Pereira, and this is the Remote Work newsletter 👋

Last week I shared my thoughts about career growth in remote work, as tenures tend to be shorter, and the range of possibly salaries much wider than in a local in-office job. 

Before today's topic, let me remind you that this is your last chance to grab a seat for Cohort #2 of the Remote Jobs Braintrust. The first live session is next Monday 13/November at 4pm UK time. If you're interested in joining us, go ahead and grab your seat.

For today, I'm helping you answer the most unpleasant question in any job interview:

• "What's your salary expectation?"

This is especially hard to answer in interviews for remote jobs, where salary ranges tend to be wider, and there's all sorts of calculations to index salaries to local cost of living.

This question is unpleasant because it's a tripwire. It exists to make you feel guilty about your salary goals. It pushes you to commit to a lowball offer, right in the beginning of the interview process, and before you learn anything about the company, the role, or the actual budget for the role's salary.

You shouldn't fall that easily. People do work primarily to earn money and pay their bills. It's absolutely normal that you do the same. You should never feel guilty about that, and you should absolutely try to optimize your earnings and grow. That's what we all aim for.

But how can you avoid the tripwire? Well, these are 5 simple steps you can use in your next interview:

1/ Understand your position & alternatives

What's your BATNA (Best Alternative To Negotiated Agreement)? As in: If you lose this offer, what's your best alternative?

Some people have a high paying job and nothing pressuring them to take a lower offer. In those cases, they don't need much from this interview process. Other people have multiple offers on the table. They have the luxury to bargain and push for a higher offer, even if that means getting the opportunity removed from them.

But many people are unemployed, and a lowball offer is better than nothing.

This question about salary opens a negotiation, whether you like it or not. You should act accordingly to your current context and alternatives.

2/ Do NOT throw a number

If you throw a number to the table, that will set a ceiling for any future offer you could receive from this company. And if your number is high, your interviewer will push you to throw a lower number.

You'd be cornered into a game you'll always lose. Refrain from replying directly. Don't say "My current salary is X". Nor "The minimum I'd accept is Y". Do NOT say a number, you'll retain a better negotiation position.

3/ Revert the question

Ask your interviewer:

• “I understand you're concerned I could reject your offer. What’s your budget for this role?”

It's perfectly fair of a candidate to ask this question. It shows interview experience, and shows that you know your value. But more than that, it levels the negotiation. But your interviewer is smart. Most of the times they won't give you a number either, because that would make their negotiation position weaker.

Still, some companies do have a fixed budget per role, and in such cases the interviewer might give you their number. That would be best cases scenario out of this interview question.

4/ Broaden the reverted question

In the common case that your interviewer evades your question about the budget for this role. Try asking this follow up:

• “Tell me more about the compensation packages at the company, beyond salary”.

This is a question they'll answer, since it's an opportunity to sell the benefits the company has to offer without the discomfort of committing to numbers. And you'll learn about the company and compensation structure as a result, which nice added context.

But more than that, this conversation removes focus from the number your interviewer asked you.

5/ Leave it open ended

It's likely that your interviewer won't go back to the initial question after this detour. But if they do, you can politely finish this unpleasant dance with:

• “Let’s get back to salary discussion at the end of the process, if I make it through all interviews”.

Not committing to a salary ceiling so early in the interview process is a win for you already. Your negotiation power is much higher at the end of the selection process.

The reason is because in the first interview you're one candidate in a pool of 100+ candidates, from which probably 10-20 are being interviewed. You're being perceived as a commodity, another CV in the pile.

On the other hand, after you make it through all interviews, you'll have several people in the company vouching for you, and recommending the company to hire you. It's very likely that from the initial pile of 100+ CV, only 2-3 candidates make it to this stage, if at all. You are now at a much more favourable negotiation position, and you can use that to bargain the salary you're offered and push it up a bit.

I learned this is after messing up a few times. Living in a low wage country gets us used to low salary standards. The high salaries in our country are probably lower than the salary range of the remote roles we're interviewing for. It's so easy for us to fall in the tripwire and leave significant money on the table.

 This discussion about remote salaries and contracts is part of Session #6 of the Remote Jobs Braintrust. I'm kicking off Cohort #2 next Monday at 4pm. I've added it to the Gumroad checkout page, with the 50% launch discount, just like Cohort #1 had. There are still some seats available. If you join us now, you'll hear from me later today, as I'm sending out the invites for the 6 live sessions.

Thanks for reading this newsletter until the end. You can read all past editions here. Make sure to share the link with your friends and colleagues so they can read it too. 

See you next Friday,

Sergio Pereira, 
Startup CTO & Remote Work Lover

Get the free ebook on your email with advice to land a remote job.