Boxed In: How to Bypass the “Desired Salary” Field on Online Job Applications

Jim Hopkinson, the author of Salary Tutor, is writing a series of post designed to help with negotiation during some of the most important—and stressful—points in one’s career.

There are many hurdles to clear on your path to getting your dream job—at a dream salary.  You’ll need to make your resume stand out to merit consideration, perform better than the other candidates during interviews, and go toe-to-toe with the hiring manager or HR representative and prove your value for the salary you desire. But there’s one barrier that could stand in your way before you even get out of the starting gate: the online application form.

The forms, put out by “talent technology firms” such as Taleo and BrassRing, all usually start similarly:
•       Basic personal information, such as name, address, email, and phone
•       Education history, including degrees earned
•       Work history
•       Special skills and activities

But many forms also include an innocent-looking “current salary” or “desired salary” field. Although it’s easy to answer the question—just type in how much you’re being paid right now—savvy job seekers know that this is an incredibly important question.

In fact, your answer is crucial, for two reasons:
1)      It will affect how you are screened for the job and whether or not you’ll even make it to the next round.
2)      If you do make it to the next step, your answer immediately sets a framework for how much the company will pay you, and in some cases, what title and level you’ll be considered for.

Remember, when it comes to negotiating a future salary, the golden rules are:
•       Do not be the first person to bring it up
•       Defer all salary talk until you know they want you
•       Get the company to reveal its number first

Knowing these rules, but with that question staring you in the face, you ask yourself what you can do to avoid answering with your salary.

If you are filling out an application on paper, or if the online form allows you to type in whatever characters you want in that field, then leave an open-ended response that defers the answer until later. For example, you could write “Negotiable.” or “To be discussed during interview.”

You might be asking, “Couldn’t I just put in a range?” Putting a range comes in a distant second. Let’s say you currently make $50,000 and are hoping for a decent increase, so you enter a range of $55,000–$65,000. The problem here is that you broke one of the golden rules by providing a number first. What if the number the employer had in mind was $57,000, or worse, $67,000?  Either way, you might be screened out for having too high a range, or you might leave a lot of money on the
table if you “settle” for a number less than the mid-$60s.

But what if the “desired salary” field on an online application requires you to enter a number, and it won’t let you proceed without your entering something? There are a number of ways you can handle this:
1)      You can take your best guess and enter a number you’re aiming for. Again, the risk here is that you will be screened out or undersell yourself.
2)      You can enter $0.00. By doing so, the interviewer will know you are trying to avoid giving a number, but might think you’re willing to work for free.
3)      You can enter $1,000,000 (or the highest amount listed on the form). Believe it or not, I feel that option C—if played correctly—can be a useful way to approach this situation. If there is a “notes” or other free-form field in another part of the application, refer to the salary question and say that you’d like to discuss it in person.

What happens if you then get the interview and the evil HR person gets right to the point and says, “Um, you really don’t think you’re going to get paid a million dollars here, do you?” This is an opportunity to show your negotiation prowess and address the question head on.  Be prepared with a response like this:

Well, clearly I understand that the starting salary for this position isn’t seven figures, but let me explain why I answered that way on the form. For me, there are many things that go into the perfect job.

First, there should be a good fit between the individual and the company. Next, having a supportive manager is very important. And finally, coming to the office every day to work on projects that I am truly passionate about is very, very important. Without having gone through the whole interviewing process yet, it’s hard to tell if that’s the case. But if it does work out where everyone is happy, in essence it feels like a million-dollar job for me, and we can work out the details of what the realistic salary would be that we can both agree on. So, would it be OK if we talk about the other items first?

Sure it’s a bit of a stretch, but what you’ve done here is show that the job and people you work with have to be a priority first, not the money, and it’s hard for a manager to dispute that. Still skeptical or worried that the company will just move on past your application because you didn’t take it seriously? OK, fine.

Here’s the best way to answer a job application with a salary field: Don’t be in that position in the first place. Studies show that upwards of 80% of jobs are secured through networking. Eighty percent!

When you spend your time networking instead of filling out random applications on job boards, you build relationships and get direct connections to hiring managers. When that is the case, and you have a personal connection at a company, often you avoid having to fill out an online form in the first place. Thus, you avoid competition with hundreds or thousands of other candidates and most important, avoid the salary field question completely.

By using the steps above, you can remove another hurdle between you and your job—and do so leaving your desired salary intact.

About this Gun

Jim Hopkinson

Jim Hopkinson

is an author, blogger, runner, and digital media guy living in New York City. Salary Tutor, his book about salary negotiation secrets, has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance, and the New York Post. He hosts The Hopkinson Report, a podcast about new media, technology, branding, and helping people pursue their ideal career and lifestyle. His energetic approach has been called "audible caffeine." The former marketing director for Wired.com, Jim teaches a social media class at NYU. Believing that every job-seeker should own their own domain name, Jim created GetYourNameToday.com, a step-by-step tutorial that shows how to create a website in 7 minutes.Follow @salarytutor.