Negotiation expert Jim Hopkinson gives us a serious primer on how to handle the “Desired Salary:____” question– whether you’re applying at a massive multinational corporation or a totally unknown startup.

Fill in the blank.

When it’s time to negotiate salary, I feel ____________________.
What answer came to mind– nervous? Unprepared? Empowered? Nauseous?
People go through a range of feelings when it’s time to talk money. While some know their value and confidently view an interview as a chance to prove their worth and get paid what they deserve, many others feel intimidated and don’t know exactly what to say. The goal of this column will be to cover the tips and tricks around salary talk.
Today we’ll talk about what to write in the blank when asked about salary on an application form.

First, imagine an experience interviewing for positions within a large corporation. It’s easy to picture the scene: you’re wearing your best suit and sitting in the lobby of Human Resources. Someone hands you a clipboard with an application and says “fill this out.” You fly through the basics such as personal information, work history, and special skills, but then you see it:
Desired salary: ________________
At a startup, things might be more casual. Perhaps the question appears at the end of an email:
Let me know what you were thinking in terms of salary: ________________________
Most people have an idea of what they want to earn, but before you start writing, understand that this is a very critical question. If you put a number that is too high or too low, you risk immediately being screened out before you even get to a second or third interview. Additionally, the number you write could form the basis for which all future salary discussions are based.
We’ll cover specific negotiation techniques in future articles, but one of the most effective tactics is to allow the employer to reveal their number first. Obviously completing this fill-in-the-blank question would put you at a disadvantage. So what to do?

To be discussed

The best thing to write at this time is “To be discussed during interview.”
The reason you should write this is because you haven’t even started the interview process and don’t know all the details of what the job entails. The reason you should believe this is because it is true.
Negotiating salary is a tactical game, but it is also a mental game, meaning you have to believe in what you are saying. Sure, you might have read a job description online, but there are so many things that could become apparent during the interview.
What is the company like? What exactly would I be responsible for? Who would I report to? What are the hours? And so forth.
At a corporate job, you might find out that there is more responsibility and more travel than expected, and you’d want a higher salary to reflect that. At a startup, you could learn that the average person works at least 12 hours per day, including some weekends. If you’re expected to do that as well, the money better be worth it. If you write your desired salary as $50,000 based on a 40 hour week, that works out to about $25 an hour. However, if the workload creeps into 70 hour per week territory, suddenly your rate is closer to $14.
But you won’t know that until it is “discussed during the interview.”
On the other hand, you could find out that the corporate job has amazing benefits worth thousands of dollars, and you’d be working for a fantastic boss who could serve as your career mentor. At a startup, there may be stock options with huge potential, and after seeing a demo, you realize this is your dream job. In both cases, you might be willing to take a lower salary because of the additional benefits.
Again, you won’t know that until it is “discussed during the interview.”
When discussing this topic, two concerns invariably come up. The first is from people that are afraid that the hiring person will be angry with them if they don’t fill out the form. The second is from people who are filling out these applications online, and the field requires them to enter a specific number, forbidding them from typing in any text.

The ideal answer

The best way to get around these forms is to avoid them in the first place.
Studies have shown that upward of 80% of jobs are secured through networking. Eighty percent! When you apply for jobs online or through job boards, you are often competing against hundreds or thousands of other candidates, so companies use this formal application process, including salary requirements, to weed people out.
However, when you spend your time seeking out companies that you really want to work for, then find a direct connection to someone that works there through a friend, family member, or co-worker, you build relationships and can often skip the screening process altogether, including filling in the blanks.