Should you reveal your salary expectations on job applications?

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(MoneyWatch) Dear Evil HR Lady,

An online application is obligatory at a certain company, even though the candidate has developed inside contacts in the team (not HR) he wishes to work for. There is a field for "minimum salary." This is not one of the required fields with a "*" next to it and the application can well be completed without filling it in. There are several potential strategies I have read up on for dealing with such a form:

1. Leave it blank (it is not possible to type a word, i.e. "negotiable");

2. Enter the number that is the lowest number you are willing to accept;

3. Enter the number that is at the higher range of what you realistically think they might pay;

4. Enter a number that is in between those described in points #3 and #4.

Now, #1 would obviously be the most desirable, as the first rule in negotiation (of salary or anything else) is that the upper edge belongs to the party with the most information. However, although it is not a required question for the application, HR might be using it as a "weeder" question and not want to consider any applicant who has left it blank. (I consider that a bad strategy, since it turns off a lot of attractive and savvy candidates, but it's a fairly common one, unfortunately.)

The problem with #2 is that you risk low-balling yourself. During negotiations, "Ah! But you said that you would accept a salary of _____" could come up, and that would rather tend to pigeon you during negotiations. The principal problem with #3 and #4 is that such strategies are fundamentally dishonest. After all, the application DID say "minimum salary," and isn't it unwise not to tell the truth to a prospective future employer?

Besides, when we are talking about a range of acceptable salaries, #3 and #4 both carry the risk of either low-balling you (if the company's budget is at the higher end of your imagined range or even higher) or getting you eliminated (if the company's budget is at the lower end of your imagined range).

What are your thoughts? I know there could be several reasons why that slot is on the application. How is a candidate to work with it without either eliminating himself from consideration or low-balling himself?

It's clear that you've put a lot of thought into this. Perhaps a little too much thought, but that is certainly normal when it comes to job applications.

Everything you've said is, sadly, true. There are risks no matter what you do and, to some extent, it's all a silly game. In a perfect world, the company should say, "We're looking to hire a Dragon Trainer, with a salary between $50,000 and $72,500, depending on experience and qualifications. If you're interested, please submit your application."

But, there's this fear that everyone believes that they are worth $72,500 and absolutely will not accept the job for a penny lower, since they know it's been budgeted to that level. Additionally, if someone comes along that is super fabulous and can both train the dragons and build the dragon cages, they may be willing to go up to $85,742, and they fear that somebody with both of these skills would not apply if they saw the lower salary.

And, since employers feel that they have all the power, they can ask what they want.

Now, in your specific situation, I would do one of two things. 1. Ask your contacts in the team what salary figure they think you should put down, or 2. Leave it blank. If you have a good relationship with the contacts (for instance, you are not just a friend of a friend of a cousin of the person), they'll probably be honest with you and say, "Oh, most dragon trainers around here get $65k, but you're super experienced, so I'd ask for $70k." If you don't feel comfortable asking, that's your hint that you don't know the person well enough.

Leaving it blank is normally not recommended because recruiters often use that as criteria when they are running a search through their resume system. After all, it is a waste of everyone's time if you'll only accept $120,000 and they are totally maxed out $50,000 lower. But, since you have already networked your way into consideration, filling in the application may be just a little check box that has to be checked off. And, as you said, it's not a required field.

If you were applying off the street and didn't have any inside knowledge or connections (and you couldn't figure out a way to make them), it totally depends on how much you want (or need!) this job. If you're unemployed, I'd go lower and plan on negotiating up. If you're currently employed and would only take the job if it gave you a significant increase over what you are making now, I'd go higher. If you hate your job and desperately need a new one, I'd go lower.

So, there's not a clear answer, because (as I said) it's a ridiculous game. But, at least they aren't asking you what your salary at your previous jobs were. That, I think, is none of anyone but your spouse's business. Your accountant needs to know as well, but he shouldn't care. Companies should be offering salaries based on what you can do for them, not based on what you could do for other companies.

Have a workplace dilemma? Send your questions to EvilHRLady@gmail.com.

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