Why do potential employers ask about my salary expectations?

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On most application forms for jobs I have applied for they ask me for a pay rate. They also make this question an obligation not an option. So if you don’t answer, you can’t submit your application. What’s the reason for this?

This is one of those questions I’m surprised hasn’t come up before. I think it’s something many people encounter – and have trouble with – as they look for a new job. I’ve lost count of the number of times this question has come up on an application form, or in a face-to-face interview, and I’ve hesitated.

Illustration: John ShakespeareCredit:

In fact, for many years in my early career, I remember being outright embarrassed to answer the “salary expectations” question, and would lace my answer with qualifications and roundabout language.

What’s the reason for the question? I think it’s often a way of setting expectations for any coming negotiation – in this case, presented very early in the recruitment process. I spoke with Dr Bradley Hastings, an Insights Associate in the University of New South Wales Business Insights Institute. He’s an expert in several fields, including career-related negotiations.

Hastings told me that there are two main types of negotiation. The first is what’s known as a competitive negotiation. An example would be buying a car – you and the other party both want the very best deal for yourselves. The second is a collaborative negotiation. An example would be creating a business partnership – you and the other party want a mutually beneficial exchange.

“For competitive negotiations, the strategy employed is focused on gaining an advantage. As such, there are a few tactics that can be put into play, such as anchoring and log rolling.”

Keep in mind that asking a “salary expectation” question might be a sloppy attempt at research on the fly.

“Anchoring is something people do when purchasing something, for instance. They go in with a ridiculously low offer. While this may seem disingenuous at first, evidence indicates that the approach alters the seller’s perception of value and can result in a lower sale price. Log rolling is when a buyer will only improve their price if they get something in return – ‘If you include some accessories, I am willing to pay what you’re asking’.”

Hastings says collaborative negotiations are very different from competitive negotiations, as the emphasis is on building trust between the parties.



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