How soon is too soon to talk compensation?

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Interviews are an integral part of your career progression. Whether an interview appears as a promotion discussion with your current boss, an introductory chat with a new company, or a formal panel interview, the aim is to gather information to guide decision making. Popular interview advice has already taught you to do your research, bring your résumé, and prepare intelligent questions, but there is one question that no one seems comfortable with: “How much will I get paid?”

As a recruitment professional, I have the privilege of working with both candidates and employers as they establish their own unofficial rules of engagement and collect the critical information they need to match the right person with the right role. If you hope to be the successful candidate, you don’t want to convey the message that you are only applying for a position for the money. You want to show that there are components to this job description that genuinely excite you and that you think you can succeed in this role. You want to be convincing when you list the reasons why you are interested in the opportunity and you don’t want a compensation discussion getting in the way. Imagine setting up a preliminary interview over lunch and discussing who is going to pay the bill in the middle of your meal. It’s a legitimate point to be curious about but, if it is brought up, it’s going to get in the way of the social interaction and likely create a bit of tension.

Yet, despite all of these valid and relevant reasons to avoid the topic, whether or not we'd like to admit it, compensation is an important consideration. To better understand your role as the candidate in addressing the subject, let’s take a closer look at the interview process.

The first step in the interview process is typically considered a "preliminary conversation". Often times these discussions will take on a conversational tone. For various reasons, discussing salary in your first conversation with someone can feel awkward. It’s not unusual for employers to avoid the topic before they have the opportunity to get to know you. Interviewees often struggle to find the right words to ask about compensation in these first meetings. Let me help save you this discomfort with a little professional advice – don’t ask.

The strategy for avoiding the compensation question goes beyond being polite. First, if you don't impress the prospective employer in the initial conversation, there's no need to worry about how you will be compensated because you won’t be hired. The goal is to first convince an employer that you are the best person for the role and then the power is in your hands in the negotiation. It’s better to have the hiring manager walk away from the chat saying “Wow, they were impressive. I wonder if we can meet their compensation requirements,” rather than “Wow, they were impressive, but I’m uneasy about how much they seemed to focus on compensation.”

You may be wondering, “What if they ask me about compensation?” If the question is posed by an employer or a recruiter, they are likely trying to gauge your expectations of the role to determine the fit. Your response should be informed by your assessment of the role’s responsibilities, your abilities, and your research into competitive compensation for similar roles. Talking about your ideal paycheque is like talking about what you’d do if you won a million dollars; it is fun to talk about but it doesn’t really get you there. Don’t undersell yourself but keep your expectations rooted in reality. It isn’t necessary to reveal your current compensation package, particularly if you feel you are currently undervalued or if you are interviewing with a competitor. Offering honest rational for focusing on expectations rather than current compensation, politely and respectfully, is completely appropriate. Following up your response by asking more questions about how the organization will measure success in the role is a tactful way to move on from the topic.

Employers often reserve the topic of compensation to the second interview, wanting to ensure that what they are willing to offer aligns with your expectations before you both invest your time in the process. But there are always exceptions. Every interview process is different and every hiring manager or recruiter will have their own style. Trust that remuneration will reflect the responsibilities of the role and leave it up to the employer to tackle the topic. Focus your attention on ensuring you perform as well as possible in the interview. Don’t underestimate the importance of human interaction. Your résumé may enable employers to check every box pertaining to relevant experience in the job description, but if the interview goes poorly that experience comes with a caveat.

Compensation is a private and sensitive discussion topic that can either harm or help your candidacy. Let the employer determine how soon they want to discuss it. Is it possible the opportunity won’t offer the rewards you hoped for? Might you invest your time only to be disappointed by the offer letter? Maybe. But if you derail the conversation prematurely you will never know.