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The Best Way to Respond to Salary Questions During Your Job Search

Follow these tips when negotiating for competitive pay

How to Handle Salary Questions

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Discussing salary for a new position can be a difficult conversation.

En español | The most stomach-churning hurdle of a job hunt is often the dreaded salary question you must answer on an application or even in your first conversation with a potential employer.

Just as religion and politics can be topics to avoid on a first date, so is bringing up money in an interview before you or the company decides you are right for the job. Trouble is, it's becoming standard procedure to deal with the pay question sooner rather than later in the hiring process. After all, if you aren't in the pay range, there's no reason to waste anyone's time — including yours.

When you fill out a job application, you will likely have to state your desired salary or disclose what you made at your last job. Or a recruiter or hiring manager who calls you may bluntly ask your salary requirements right off the bat.

Keep in mind that employers base a salary on the requirements of the job and the availability of qualified job candidates, not what the job seeker was paid in the past, says Susan P. Joyce, online job search expert and editor of Job-Hunt.org and WorkCoachCafe.com.

Since job requirements vary from employer to employer, you never want to walk in with a set number in mind of what the job should pay. What's important is that you know what you are willing to accept.

To manage your expectations, research what jobs pay at Glassdoor, Payscale and Salary.com, as well as the Economic Research Institute. For government jobs, check the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. If you are interested in a nonprofit, check out the organization's latest online tax filing (Form 990) to see how much its key employees and executives earn.

So, how do you answer questions about your salary without turning off a prospective employer during the screening process? If a job application asks you about salary, you can:

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1. Enter the salary you'd be comfortable accepting. If you can add more details, consider qualifying that figure by adding something like, "The minimum salary requirement specified is based on anticipated job responsibilities and workload and does not account for other forms of compensation."

2. Give your base salary only. If you get in the door for an interview and salary comes up, explain that you provided your base salary and mention other ways you were compensated.

3. If the job description specifies a desired salary range, enter a wide range such as $55,000 to $85,000. Be honest with yourself, though, that the low salary amount is something you can live with and would consider accepting.

4. Get creative. "If the form accepts alphabetical characters, I've heard people have success with typing in 'negotiable' and even 'confidential,' but most systems require numbers," says Joyce. In that case, your target salary number (hopefully realistic) or a zero seems to work best.

See also: Take these tests to find your new job

When asked about salary in an interview, the best response is to say that while the position is not precisely the same as your last job, you would need to understand your duties and responsibilities in order to establish a fair salary for the job. "Even if the job title is the same, it's seldom an apples-to-apples comparison," Joyce says.

If you are pressed to be more specific, ask what the salary range is and factor that in your response. So if the salary range is $50,000 to $60,000 and you want to make at least $55,000, you're probably best off asking for something between, say, $55,000 and $60,000.

Sometimes, if you are working with a recruiter hired by the company, you might be able to be more frank about salary than if you were dealing directly with the hiring manager. Recruiters know what the market demands and might be able to go back to the employer and say that your salary figure is reasonable.

And finally, think beyond salary. "Most people don't think about negotiating 'total compensation,' which is salary, of course, plus benefits (and more)," says Joyce.

So, if you're hitting up against a salary deal breaker, take a breath and think creatively. Try asking for salary review in three or six months, tuition reimbursement, parking allowance, transportation passes or extra vacation days, she says.

Kerry Hannon, AARP jobs expert, is a career transition expert and an award-winning author. Her books include What's Next? Finding Your Passion and Your Dream Job in Your Forties, Fifties and Beyond and Great Jobs for Everyone 50+: Finding Work That Keeps You Happy and Healthy … and Pays the Bills. Follow her on Twitter @kerryhannon.

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