When’s the right time to ask that pesky pay question?

Tamyka Bell
Mar 8, 2016 · 4 min read

I recently derailed a conversation with a small business owner by asking why he felt so strongly about that pesky pay question.

He said, ‘I don’t want people who are only in it for the money. Asking about pay up front, with their application, indicates a lack of interest in the company and the role. I’ve hired people like that before and I won’t make the same mistake again.’

There are a lot of myths about ‘the right person for the job’, and I suspect this is one of them.

The right person for any job probably knows how much they’re worth. They know the minimum salary they need to earn for financial security. They know that if you’re offering a lot more than they were anticipating, it’s probably a much bigger job than they first thought — and maybe more than they can handle.

As a contractor myself, I always have the pay discussion up front — especially if the job advertisement doesn’t give me a clear guide. I don’t want to spend hours discussing a project only to be told I’m ‘clearly worth that rate, but it’s just more than the business can afford to pay, especially when other contractors are charging significantly less.’ (Do I sound bitter? That’s a recent quote: they strung me along for several conversations before trying to persuade me to charge less. No, when I said that was the lowest I could go, I meant it was the lowest I could go.)

So long as you’re the sort of business owner who offers fair salary packages, you really have nothing to fear from the pesky pay question. In this company’s case, they were offering genuinely competitive market rates. (I later verified this by tweaking the salary filters on SEEK until the job disappeared, a neat trick the site tells you about.) They also offer good conditions and work–life balance.

But they were also hiring for a part-time job, and I’d argue that people seeking part-time roles have already elected to manage their own work–life balance. They usually have specific salary requirements and time constraints, making that pesky pay question a perfectly reasonable one to ask at an early stage.

Now the small business owner conceded I had a point about candidates trying to filter for the right jobs. He still didn’t agree with me, though. Instead, he clarified that his complaint was more specific: ‘They didn’t even wait until the interview. They sent the question with their application.’

I’ll confess, that sounded a little odd. I’ve always been most comfortable with phoning the listed recruitment consultant, who can tell me more about the job and set a realistic salary expectation before I choose to apply. It’s a little more awkward when the company is handling its own recruitment, so if their application process isn’t arduous, I’ll take my chances and wait for clarification in the interview. So I was intrigued by this behaviour.

But when I checked his job ad, the small business owner had only listed an email address for applications. Sure, candidates could look up the company’s phone number online — but he had specifically requested contact by email only, so wouldn’t a cold call be frowned upon? And, once they’re asking the question via email, shouldn’t they just attach their application as well?

It’s a difficult situation created by a lack of precision in the job ad, and traced back to the misconception that people are ‘only in it for the money’. But what do you think?

  • How do you feel about the pesky pay question?
  • When do you think it should it be raised?
  • Should employers be more open about it so candidates don’t need to ask?

Avoid ambiguity: it’s not enough to just check that your words make sense. Consider other ways your audience might interpret what you’ve written, and think about the implications of a misunderstanding.

Keep it simple: wherever possible, replace long words with short ones — even if it means using a few in a row. And if you’re writing for a general audience, skip the jargon.

Trim the fat: be on the watch for extra words that don’t pull their weight, like really, very, and that. (And maybe avoid clichés like trim the fat…)


Keep a list of your go-to words and phrases so you can find and replace them before you ask anyone for feedback.


Originally published at www.linkedin.com.

Tamyka Bell

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writes. runs. drinks coffee. doesn’t go in for that whole sleep thing. @AltraRunning Red Team