How to answer ‘What are your salary expectations?’

In my coaching practice, I see experienced, seasoned professionals fall apart when they negotiate their salary. It’s like they’re afraid of losing a game of poker.

I try to make the negotiations less about playing a cutthroat game, and more about developing a business case.

“Ack! I have a phone screen,” a new client emailed me. “What are they going to ask?”

This client has 20 years in his field, but is looking to return to full-time work after a couple of adventures with startups. His confidence is shaky.

“They’re going to ask you for your salary expectations,” I guessed. “And they’ll want to check that you can string two sentences together.”

I could feel the tension and anxiety from the other side of the email chain. “What are my salary expectations?” he asked. “I haven’t made a real salary in 10 years.”

I don’t believe in playing games with salary negotiations. Games are stressful. You can lose games. Much better experience all around to be straightforward, to non-defensively ask for what you want, and to have a business case to support that ask.

“We’re going to break this down into four ideas,” I told my client. Here they are:

Signal your openness to negotiate. That sounds something like, “I’m pretty open regarding salary.”

Demonstrate what a good person you are. Do this while implicitly flattering the company. “My priority is to find the right role, the right fit, doing interesting, impactful work.”

Frame your starting point as a business case. “Obviously, a fair-market rate is important. I’ve done a little asking around, and it looks like similar roles at my level of experience in the Seattle market come in around $xxx.” (This is easily researched at sites like and Glassdoor.)

Underline your salary starting point:“So mid-$xxx is about where I’d want to start talking about salary. Does that sound about right?”

My client and I got on the phone to role-play the salary question.

“What are your salary expectations?” I asked him.

This senior professional fell apart, stumbling and rambling around his answer, completely losing track of the four ideas above.

“Again,” I said.

We practiced half a dozen times, until he could get through the four ideas with his brain intact, and his answer calm and reasoned.

He emailed me after the phone screen. “I talked to an HR person,” he wrote. “She just wanted to check on salary. I gave my spiel and she said, ‘Perfect.’ I’m talking to the hiring manager this afternoon.”

A last note on this developing story: This starting point is roughly double the salary of his last role. As my client gets further into the interview process, I’ll help him think through his answer to questions about his past compensation.

One step at a time. We’ve started the process at a salary he would be happy to accept. Anything more will be gravy. (And don’t get me wrong, I love gravy!)

Kathryn Crawford Saxer coaches mid- to senior-level professionals on career management and development. Connect with her online at


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