'Talk about salary' in the job interview process, says career expert — this is the best way

Vicki Salemi
Getty Images | Aleksandar Georgiev

During a job interview, it's important to ask questions. But which ones are smart, and which are off-limits?

While there may be some topics you have concerns about bringing up during the interview process, there are strategic ways to talk about things like salary and benefits that won't offend the recruiter or hiring manager, and that can help you make an informed decision about whether this job is right for you.

Talk about salary — really, it's OK

It might feel nerve-wracking and counterintuitive, but it's actually in your best interests to talk about money during the job interview process.

This conversation usually happens in stages with different members of the hiring team. The recruiter is usually the first person you will talk to. They will be your go-to contact for questions related to the company, logistics like the interview time, and your status as a candidate. Next, you will likely meet the hiring manager. They would be your point of contact for specific questions about the job, career growth, and more.

The recruiter typically works in HR while the hiring manager might be your prospective boss or team member.

The first time money will come up will be during your phone screen with HR. When the recruiter asks you what your salary range is, don't be nervous — this conversation is to make sure you're both on the same page. Think of it this way: If you get to the end of the process, and a job offer ends up being below your expectations and you turn it down, you will have spent a lot of time and energy on an unsatisfying process. The same applies to the employer.

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The second conversation about money will be with the hiring manager as you head into the offer stage. If you have three in-person interviews, for example, the third interview is likely when the topic would be broached again. In that meeting, before you offer a specific figure, first see if the employer can tell you what the range for the position is.

There is a possibility that the employer may not provide you with the salary range, even if you ask. If they don't disclose the range yet they're pushing you to provide your expectations, what you can do is give them a range that encompasses your "package," including benefits, paid time off, and more.

Be open-ended and give a broad range to best position yourself to negotiate later. You can use language like, "My package, including benefits, is between $50,000 and $65,000."

If you provide a number that's too low, chances are they won't exclude you from the interview the same way they could potentially reject your candidacy if your figure is well above their range. But hopefully, if you do get a job offer, this conversation will ensure you get paid within the range, and not below it.

Also, remember that it's illegal in some states, such as New York, to be asked about your salary history. Conversations should be focused more on expectations for the future than on your past.

Before you speak to anyone, remember that a big component of your interview preparation is knowing your worth. You can do this by researching salaries online and getting general ballpark numbers through the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Also talk to former colleagues and bosses and officers at the local chapter of your professional industry organization. This way you have your preferred salary range at the ready.

How to ask about benefits the right way

There are strategic ways to learn more about a prospective employer's benefit programs during your interview process.

First make sure you're directing your questions to the right person. The recruiter will probably know more about the company-covered health insurance costs for the upcoming year than the hiring manager, whereas the hiring manager will likely know more about the day-to-day operations on the job and specific tasks than the recruiter.

If you are curious about the personal day policy, for example, be careful about asking the hiring manager, "How soon can I start taking days off once I start working?" That question could be seen as a red flag by a potential boss, who may think, "They're not even working here and they're already thinking about taking time off?"

It would be better to ask in general about the overall PTO policy.

But if you have a big trip already planned soon after the potential start date being discussed, that would be relevant to mention to the recruiter.

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You may also have questions about tuition reimbursement. If the company does offer it, you might want to know if would have to pay any portion of it back if you end up leaving the job within a certain time frame. Though this is a fair question, a hiring manager, if asked it, could wonder, "They're already looking to leave?"

Instead, ask the recruiter if it's possible to see the overall policy so you fully understand how it works.

Generally speaking, if the benefit information you are seeking is available online and you still have additional questions after reviewing it, ask your questions in a way that shows you did your homework. You can use language like, "I noticed that 401(k) matching is indicated on the career section of your website. What is the percentage of the match, and when does it kick in?"

Keep in mind when you address your salary package in the interview, you're setting the expectation that compensation is not an afterthought — it's important to you. Remain positive, professional, and respectful throughout these conversations, and remember that it is better to address money upfront rather than ignore it and hope the employer will offer you what you want.

Vicki Salemi is a career expert for Monster, author of "Big Career in the Big City," speaker and former corporate recruiter. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter. She is based in New York City.

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