The Forbidden Question: Salary

It came up again on a listserv tonight–a frantic interviewee wondering when she could ask about the salary for a position. Immediately the responses poured in: You never ask.

Why is that? Explain this to me me. First of all, I have a serious issue with a job advertisement that doesn’t list at the minimum a range. But that’s for another time and place. Why does it make me the “loser” –as one person put it–to ask about money in an interview? While we all are coming to our professions for various reasons and while we would hope we are pursuing something we love–this is a job. We’re interviewing because we’d like to get paid so we can afford an apartment, food, and whatever your equivalent of yarn is. There’s an amount we can afford to work for and an amount we can’t. A few years ago I turned down an in person interview because it was a position in Manhattan and they wanted to offer me $26K. I couldn’t make rent on that–so, for me it wasn’t worth even wasting my time on an interview I wasn’t very sure about anyway.

I dislike the idea of waiting until getting a job offer to hear the salary. To me, that’s tacky and somewhat shady on the part of the employer. If you can’t give me an exact figure, that’s fine, but give me a range or a minimum. You expect me to come in and present myself, explain why I want to work for you, explain how I will benefit and aid your company/library etc. Do me the courtesy of addressing something that you know is on my mind–the size of the paycheck. If you get it out of the way, I’m a lot less likely to worry about it and more likely to be able to answer your other questions. If you don’t tell me, I’m going to sit through the next hour with you worrying that you’re going to offer me this job–which I want– and I’ll have to decline because it will never cover my financial needs. Many young librarians have heavy student loan debts–they need to find something to support them through paying them off. Why waste your time and mine by not being upfront?

The interviewee had the idea she might wait until the end when they asked if they had any more questions and inquire about a range. I agreed with this idea–but suggested she lead off with another question or two first so it wasn’t a sharp transition. I also gave the suggestion of waiting and calling the Human Resources Department/Business Manager after the interview. That way it’s not something you need to address that day. I know in most libraries it will get back to the interviewing panel that you called and asked but I don’t think it should be to the interviewee’s detriment. You can phrase it as “I was there interviewing the other day and when I got home, I realized I had forgotten to ask about the salary range for this position.”

Why is salary a forbidden question? Do employers not realize that a lack of salary in the job ad makes me automatically assume they’re not paying much? Why is it that when we’re spending it money is something to brag about, but when we’re earning it, it’s a filthy subject?