Jerking Around Candidates on Salary? Not a Way to Start a Relationship

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Quick — what’s the question most job candidates hate to hear coming?

How about “What are your salary expectations?”

Receiving a job offer with a fabulous salary is great. Having to negotiate said salary is a little less so.

But worse than either of these two is being asked about salary waaaaaay early in the recruiting process (like during the initial phone screening) without knowing much of anything about the job duties, job requirements, work environment, or company benefits and perks.

Why do employers keep asking this?

This dilemma comes up on employment discussion boards all the time, because no one wants to price themselves out of a job, and no one wants to be taken advantage of. And while websites like,, and can help a candidate to prepare some for this dreaded question, here’s what I don’t understand …

Why do employers keep asking it?

Now you say, “What a ridiculous question about a question! How else are we going to know whether applicant expectations are in line with ours? I don’t want to waste my time interviewing a candidate and then find out we’re miles apart on salary!

And I say — that’s bull. Here’s why:

  • You have a budget. I know you do. Stop pretending. You know exactly how much you’re willing to pay. Why are you asking candidates then?
  • You control the advertising. Want to weed out candidates whose expectations are too high? Include your salary range in the job posting. I guarantee you that someone expecting to earn $75,000 won’t respond to an ad for $45,000. Worried that your highly competitive salary will attract responses from all kinds of underqualified candidates? Use the “Requirements” section of the ad to weed them out.

But come on, it’s a lousy economy still, and you WILL receive applications from less-than-ideal candidates no matter what. Stop complaining already. You placed an ad and people are responding to it. What’s your problem again?

So why not simplify things a little? It’s to everyone’s advantage.

Here’s what really think

Ohhh, I’m almost scared to say it : You want it all ways, my friend.

You want to hold your cards close to the vest. You want all the advantage, and you don’t want transparency. You want to find the “Prius” candidate and then pay that person the least amount you possibly can.

Maybe that’s good business. Or, maybe that’s a hell of a way to start a new relationship.

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Or …

You really don’t know what you’re doing. Maybe it’s not entirely your fault.

Sending mixed signals

Maybe your bosses are sending all kinds of mixed signals, so you’re keeping everything wide open, hoping the market will do your job for you. And I guess that’s not so bad. But if the market does do your job, could you at least say thanks?

While I don’t claim to be Every Employer, it’s true. I’ve never once advertised a job without knowing exactly what wage I was prepared to offer.

And I’ve never cared about how the candidate’s last employer viewed the function, how much money the candidate needs each month to pay the bills, or whether the candidate would be insulted or elated with the number. The number represented my value of the position in my organization and my research into what the market pays, period.

And after I finish doing my job and interviewing the hell out of you (not to be confused with “interviewing you to death“), I’ll know whether you can do the job and what I’m willing to pay.

I don’t know, maybe I’m just old-fashioned. But I preferred it when you talked about the job and then you haggled over pay. There was none of this, “Tell me all your secrets, and then maybe we can talk” nonsense.


Crystal Spraggins, SPHR, is an HR consultant and freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia. She also writes at her blog, HR BlogVOCATE. For the past 15 years, Crystal has focused on building HR departments in small- to mid-sized companies under the philosophy that "HR is not for wimps." She is also the CEO and Founder of Work It Out! and partners with HRCVision, a full-service HR consultant practice specializing in leadership and diversity training. Contact her at


3 Comments on “Jerking Around Candidates on Salary? Not a Way to Start a Relationship

  1. I have to disagree. Are you a recruiter? We ask pay expectations in the beginning to not waste our time or the candidates time.

    Also, do understand that some candidates lie to us about what they are currently making and its not realistic to ask for $50 hour when you are only making $34. We have to do our due diligence for our clients so it doesn’t look like the candidate is being greedy. Clients do background checks now that include salary history so our client will be upset that we didn’t screen them thoroughly.
    On another note, we catch a lot of candidates in lies because they don’t realize they posted their current salary on Dice, Monster or CareerBuilder an then when talking to them they say they are making something else.
    Please do not look at recruiters as being shady trying to make more commission because this isn’t always the case. I make commission no matter what and just making a placement is good for the client, candidate, my firm and myself 🙂

    1. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for commenting, and no, I’m not a recruiter.

      Now, I’m intrigued by this statement “Its not realistic to ask for $50 hour when you are only making $34.”

      Why not?

      Maybe my current employer undervalues my skills and/or can’t afford to pay what they’re worth. Should I continue to settle for being paid less than I’m worth forever and ever, because of some believe that my current (or most recent) rate must be linked to a new rate? Who says they have to be linked? Why must they be linked? That principle sure as heck doesn’t work in the reverse!


      “We have to do our due diligence for our clients so it doesn’t look like the candidate is being greedy.” Jennifer, seriously? Who cares if the candidate is greedy? And who the heck defines greedy? What are you willing to pay someone to do the job you need done? Why is that question less important than all others? If you don’t know what the job is worth to you, how is that a reflection on the candidate’s poor character?

      And never fear, I wasn’t thinking of shady recruiters when I wrote the piece. I was thinking about how awful the market is (see today’s post from China Gorman) and how this fixation on what some other organization thought (or thinks) about your candidate’s function ain’t helping.

      1. I couldn’t agree more on the salary point. I don’t quite understand why employers are doing background checks to see what someone was making in their previous role. First, how do they know they’re even apples to apples? And if it’s more are they prepared to match it? If the previous employer also paid 100% for benefits will they match that too, vacation..etc.? It does seem that simply knowing what you’re willing to pay for a role and whether a candidate fits the bill should be enough.

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