Last month, an e-mail list I'm on erupted into a debate about whose responsibly it is to name a dollar amount first during the job interview process: the applicant's or the employer's.
"It's the candidate's responsibility," typed several human resources professionals, hiring managers and recruiters on the list. "How am I supposed to move forward with interviewing you if I don't know what salary you're looking for -- and if, for that matter, we can even afford you?"
"Unfair!" cried a number of employees and career coaches on the list. "A candidate is damned if she does name her price and damned if she doesn't. Name a number too high -- especially when companies are slashing budgets right and left these days -- and you're eliminated before the next round. Name a number too low and you risk leaving thousands of dollars on the table."
The interview process would be infinitely easier if every job listing came with a price tag. But alas, the game is rarely played this way, even in a good economy.
Instead, interviewers routinely ask, "How much money are you looking for?" right off the bat. Candidates coyly reply, "My fair market value, which I'm sure is what your organization is paying." And everyone buys into that counterproductive "Whoever names a dollar amount first loses!" mentality.
So let's talk about the best way to play this price-naming game, recession be damned.
Know Your Worth
You'd think a person who's been in the work force five, 10 or 20 years would know what their market value is before they head into an initial interview or phone screening with an employer. But I hear from people every month who put off thinking about that magic dollar amount until the interview loop is over and the job offer's on the table. Even then, many candidates don't know what they're worth, let alone how much dough they'd even want to do the job.
If this sounds familiar, don't despair. Web sites like Salary.com and PayScale.com can help. Just be sure you're looking at salary figures for your industry, experience level and geographic location. The site Glassdoor.com, which lets workers post their salary anonymously, can also be a gold mine of information, as can many professional associations, which conduct surveys on what others in your field are making.
But what about the recession? Does our current economic roller coaster -- and the fact that companies are clamping down on spending -- have any bearing on your market value?
Across the board, it shouldn't, unless you work in an industry that has taken some serious financial hits. That said, scour the Web for any news on companies you're applying with. Also sniff around with your personal and professional networks. Better to find out before the interview that an employer recently instituted a companywide 25 percent salary cut.
When in Doubt, Deflect?
OK, so let's say you've determined what you're worth and you've just spent the last 30 minutes dazzling a human resources rep at a financially healthy company you'd like to work for. Predictably, your human resources pal pops that fateful question: "How much money are you looking for?" (Or, "How much did you make in your last position?")
This is where many career coaches advise you to tight-lip it or deflect the question with another question.
Wanting to hear some of this advice firsthand, I called Penelope Trunk, author of "Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success," and one of the most widely read career blogs on the Web. She suggested several different responses candidates can make:
"Let's talk about salary once I have a better picture of the job requirements." Then find out the particulars of what you'll be doing day to day and who or what projects you'll be managing.
"I think what you're really trying to do is determine whether my skill set is appropriate for the job, so let me tell you what I've done." Then list your most impressive, relevant achievements.
"Can you tell me more about your benefits package first?" In other words, you want to factor vacation time, health insurance and 401(k) matching into the negotiation equation.
All these are fine topics to cover before you talk dollars with a potential employer. But you can only stall so long. When the rep or hiring manager brings the conversation back to salary, as they invariably will, Trunk advises saying: "I'd like you to give the number first and then let's start negotiating."
When You Must Show Your Hand
Know that such punts won't always work. I informally polled a couple dozen human resources professionals and hiring managers over e-mail, and some simply won't move forward with a candidate who won't name a dollar figure first. Interview over.
I side with the workers and career coaches who find this practice ridiculous. And I'm not the only one.
"No one creates a position and says, 'Gee, we have no idea what we're going to pay for this,'" said Andrea Ballard, a human resources manager with CPA firm Peterson Sullivan PLLC in Seattle, and one of the few professionals I talked to who doesn't make candidates show their hand first.
But try as you might, if you can't get the employer to utter the words "This position pays $xx,xxx to $xx,xxx a year -- does that fall within your range?" you're going to have to give up the goods.
Rather than stating a salary range (for example, "I'm looking for $55,000 to $65,000), just give the employer one bottom-line number ("I'm looking for $65,000"). Otherwise, you're likely to get an offer of $56,500. Pad your number about 10 percent, too, in case the employer tries to negotiate.
One caveat: If you're dealing with an outside recruiter, you'll have to cough up a salary figure early on in the process -- and justifiably so.
"If an outside recruiter calls me and says, 'I have this fabulous candidate. Can you meet with them?' one of my first questions is, 'What kind of salary are they looking for?'" said Ballard, who's worked in human resources for 15 years. "Part of their job is getting that information for me."
In Praise of Talking Cash ASAP
Like many of you, I was taught to never talk dollars until an offer's on the table, no doubt by a career adviser who last interviewed for a job during the Nixon administration. While I don't advise bringing up money before the person interviewing you does, I do encourage you to talk financial turkey early in the interview process, rather than endlessly stonewalling or deflecting questions about how much money you're looking for.
Think about it: You're going to have to discuss dollars eventually. So why go through the rigmarole of ironing your clothes, wearing uncomfortable shoes and grinning until your face hurts if you don't have to? Wouldn't you rather know during the first interview that the company pays half the salary you're looking for so you can focus your job hunting efforts elsewhere?
Believe me, unless you're some high-level executive rock star, the salary range the company has slated for the position isn't going to change from first interview to job offer. So do yourself a favor and save your pressed slacks and sales pitches for an organization that's actually in your price range.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) — offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com.