How to Have the Salary Expectations Discussion

For years, I kept a text file in the same folder as my resume so that I had a prepared response for the question about my salary expectations. It said this:

I am flexible in my salary requirements, as I take a holistic view of positions, factoring in the salary, benefits, hours, tasks, perks, developmental opportunities, travel, and job satisfaction (there is nothing quite like loving your job!).

One of the places where I worked, for instance, didn’t have the best pay, but I had an incredible amount of freedom to choose my own hours, a fantastic paid time off system, on-the-job downtime, a discounted metro pass, and access to leftover resources for personal projects.

Think about it: how much would you be willing to give up in salary if you were allowed to telecommute as much as you liked? Or if you could make your own hours? Or if the company would give you access to training courses?

One of my MBA students once asked why management consultants at big firms get paid so much, especially when some of them know so little in their early years. The answer is that these folks wake up Monday morning, tackle rush hour at both the streets and the airport, brave the indignities of flying, work 12+-hour days at client site (often doing scut work), crash in a strange bed in some hotel (at least it’s a nice one), and have almost no social contact until they get back to their home cities late Thursday night (that is, if they don’t stay in that city over the weekend). At that point, they have put in no fewer than 50 hours of work, spent the week in a strange bed and city, and dealt with the horrors of air travel twice. They were probably also cooped up in an office building or a hotel lounge for at least 95% of their waking hours during that time. How much would a company have to pay you to put up with all that?

This all leaves me wondering why so many companies insist on getting a dollar amount from people during the application process, while leaving all of the other factors undefined. As noted in the list above that I provided employers, there are so many different aspects of the job that change how much someone can/should/would be willing to accept in monetary compensation. Think about how much you would value each of the following:

Health Benefits. Companies can provide differing degrees and qualities of health insurance (medical, dental, vision, mental) and life insurance, along with related perks like wellness classes, coaching, nutritionists, or gym memberships.

Hours: This pertains to the amount of control you have over the hours in which you work, how many hours per day you are expected to work, what the rules are for breaks and downtime, and whether and how you are expected to be “on call” in the off hours (e.g., do you have to answer emails, take calls, drop everything and get work done from home?).

Location/Travel: The traditional model of a job has the employee on-site or travelling a certain percentage of the time, but where people have to work matters a lot. Commutes (especially in the USA) can be horrific, and they are not considered paid time, whereas travel is considered paid time from the moment you embark on the trip (in most places, but with some exceptions). For some jobs, use of a personal vehicle is required and may or may not be compensated (both for time and for wear and tear on the vehicle). Options like telecommuting save a lot of time (especially because commute time isn’t paid) and aggravation. For travel, an important question is whether the employee receives the frequent flier miles and loyalty program/credit card points (those add up to big benefits over time). Likewise, it is critical to consider how much time is spent on the road, because it really can wear some people out.

Tasks: What you have to do on the job matters more than almost anything else. Thus, it’s important to find out whether the tasks will be fun, repetitive, [dis]stressful, challenging, long, tedious, varied, et cetera. And, the relationship between the tasks and the your skillset and personal quirks also matters. For example, if you are really good at dealing with people, but it wears you out, you might want a higher salary for a job that requires people-handling than you would for a job that uses your skillset in way that isn’t so taxing. Another key element is whether the tasks you are doing offer opportunities for challenge, growth, spending time with great people, and fun.

Developmental Opportunities. I was talking with a former student of mine recently, and she mentioned accepting one of the lower offers she was given because they were going to put her on a leadership training track that would lead to higher positions and salaries sooner than she would find them at the other companies vying to get her considerable skillset. Besides having growth-oriented work tasks, it’s important to consider whether you will get good growth opportunities on the job. This includes training (paid or not), access to a professional network, attending conferences, all of the personal and professional aspects of mentoring (such as sponsorship for promotions, exposure to people/opportunities that can facilitate your development, coaching, and shielding from adverse forces in the company), and the like.

Perks: This one is nearly limitless, and includes everything from metro passes, to gym memberships, to discounts on you-name-it, to free food, to dry cleaning services, to family perks (e.g., allowing family to travel with you on some trips or including family in some of the discounts), to being allowed to shop in the company store (loved that when I was an intern at a company that made products), to use of company materials for personal (non-commercial) projects.

Job Satisfaction: I keep loving one’s job separate from the others, because you can have all of the perks in the world and still want to quit your job (e.g., asshole boss). There are some fuzzy factors (which even scientists haven’t fully pinned down, despite what you may read in the press) that affect whether you love your job, including the people you work with, the amount of control you have over how and when you do your work, the adversities and advantages, and how meaningful you find your job and whether it feels like a calling.

Once you have all of that covered, feel free to start talking numbers.

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Orin Davis

Self-actualization engineer who makes workplaces great places to work. PI at Quality of Life Lab (www.qllab.org). Consultant. Professor. Startup Advisor.