It's often best to have the recruiter or employer give you a number or salary range first. However, if you are responding to an advertisement or job posting that requests salary requirements, you run the risk of having your response discarded if the information is not provided. In most cases this risk is fairly low -- if the recruiter or employer sees what they are looking for in your cover letter and/or resume -- they will usually call.
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During a phone interview or face-to-face meeting with the hiring decision maker, your goal is to delay the discussion of salary until after you have established your value to the employer and have learned enough about the job to assess your level of interest in accepting the position.
In the early stages of the interview process, you can handle salary questions by stating that your requirements are "open" or "negotiable." As you move further along, be prepared to discuss compensation within the context of ranges appropriate to the type of position you're seeking. Let the employer know that compensation is an important variable and you have done research to gain a better understanding of what other companies are offering.
If pushed, you can try to come back with something like "obviously you and the company know the value placed on this position. If I was fortunate enough to receive an offer, I'm sure that it would be both fair and competitive based on what I would bring to the organization."
Your salary requirements are best discussed during the offer and negotiation stage, at which time you will have already established your value to the company. Keep in mind that your compensation should be based on performance requirements for the new position and not your past salary history or need.
In most cases, successful employers won't try to take advantage of you because they know that once on board you are going to have a very good feel for what's fair for the job. And if they have not made this a "win-win," they'll have a very unhappy employee on board and will likely have to go through the recruiting/negotiation process all over again in a relatively short period of time.
Dave Opton is CEO and Founder of ExecuNet, an online career services center for executives. For more information on executive career management visit firstname.lastname@example.org, he can't answer each individually but look for yours in an upcoming column.