Our Take: Dodge the Compensation Punch

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If you're in transition and recruiters and hiring managers are returning your calls for the first time in awhile, prepare for sticker shock. The compensation you earned a few years ago may no longer be anywhere near what similar roles are paying today.

On the bright side, a rebound in financial hiring is increasingly apparent. But forget the headlines about seven-figure bonus guarantees for MD-level rainmakers. Down in the trenches, both base salaries and total compensation for many junior-level research and portfolio support openings are dramatically lower than levels that prevailed in 2007 and early 2008.

"I've seen and heard a number of cases where a job that used to pay say $120,000 is now only being offered for $75,000," says a research analyst with a decade of varied experience. In transition for a year, his phone has been ringing lately. But some who call him are demanding flat-out that he state a compensation level before they'll schedule an interview. Others kick off the conversation by mentioning a pay number and asking, "Is that acceptable?"

A Deadly Question

Even for candidates who possess a realistic idea how much similar roles pay in today's market, those questions can be deadly. Aside from the obvious danger of immediately pricing yourself out of the game by naming too high a number, there is also a less-obvious one: it is still possible to get rejected out of hand if your figure is too low.

These risks prove the wisdom in that old negotiating chestnut, "Dodge the salary question as long as you possibly can."

How can a job-seeker dodge a question fired at her point-blank, as a condition of continuing the conversation? Here are a few tips.

First of all, don't answer at all unless forced to. For instance, when filling out an online or hard-copy job application form, leave all compensation-related fields blank. If the online application won't proceed to the next screen until you've entered something in that field, give the widest possible range. Don't worry that it will look silly - on the contrary, filling in something meaningless like "$50,000 - $400,000" will let the employer know you're clued-in about negotiating tactics.

Practice Strategic Ambiguity

Of course, if a live human screener is posing the question, whether by telephone or face-to-face, you must say something. I've heard coaches recommend a variety of responses. The common element is to avoid answering concretely. You can say, "I'm flexible." Or you can say, "Before I can give a reasonable answer, I will need to learn more specifics about the role, in order to place a value on my prospective contribution." Or: "I would like to be paid in a range that the market currently values similar roles."

One of my favorite answers comes from career coach Win Sheffield: "I'm sure compensation won't be a problem." Call that strategic ambiguity. The interviewer will hear, "I'll take whatever you end up offering me." But you won't lose credibility if you negotiate later, because your real meaning was, "I'm sure your company knows there's a positive ROI from being competitive in compensation."

Some coaches even advise answering the question with a question: "What is the position budgeted for?"

If an Interviewer Won't Let You Duck

Even in a face-to-face job interview, candidates are advised to sidestep the salary question as long as possible. If the interviewer won't settle for evasions, you may reach a point where you must give a range or risk damaging your rapport. (That never happened to me as a job-seeker - not even once.)

If you do reach a point where you are forced to specify a compensation requirement, give a range, not a single number. Even that needn't prevent you from negotiating later on. If that employer eventually makes an offer at the bottom of your stated range - and in practice, that's where the offer almost always will be - you can still negotiate for more without looking like a liar. How? Say this: "As a result of my ongoing discussions and research, I have learned my market value is higher than I thought at the time I told you that figure."

In the end, it's still vital to know both your own value - at today's prices, not 2007's - and that of the job you're pursuing. All the negotiating skill in the world can't undo the past two years' changes in the market for financial talent. But as long as a candidate remains in the ring, she has a chance to prove she can add more value than a decision-maker originally thought. By following some of the suggestions above, you may sidestep a first-round knockout from the compensation punch.

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