Dear Sam: I’m returning to Columbus after living in a small Southern town for several years, so I’m gearing up my resume and cover letters. One thing I’ve noticed is that companies occasionally ask for salary history and/or salary requirements. I’ve always found this awkward to answer. As far as salary history, I’ve spent the last few years self-employed, so my income has fluctuated. I don’t quite know how to word it. And for those newspaper ads that ask for salary requirements, I’m never comfortable. In the past, I’ve said something about “in the range of…” but then stated that everything was negotiable. I’m afraid of pricing myself too high and thereby pushing me out of the running, or stating a figure so low that I’d have a hard time living on it. I also don’t want to sound like I’m not worth it…my skills and experience have value. I’m sure you’ll suggest that I research a company or industry, but that’s not always possible, particularly with a blind ad or for small companies. Thanks for your help. – Pat in South Carolina

Dear Pat: Having been self-employed does present a more difficult situation due to your varied income. You can certainly use the approach to simply state that your requirements are flexible, but of course you risk elimination, as you haven’t really answered the employer’s question. I’d try to avoid providing a salary history if at all possible, solely due to your self-employment and your salary fluctuations. If you have to provide a salary history you might want to present that information in your cover letter instead of the traditional technique, which is to list it on your resume. In your case, this would allow you to provide your history while not self-employed, along with a statement explaining that your salary history while self-employed varied greatly and is not indicative of your current needs.

When asked for a salary requirement however, there are a few standard approaches, five of which I have detailed below along with their associated risks. Remember to include this information on your cover letter, usually towards the end so to minimize any negative impact it may have. Of course, never offer this information unless specifically requested.

First and foremost, you need to know what you want to be paid, what you are worth, and what the trends are within the industry, employer, and geographic location to which you are applying. You can use websites like and to find some of this information. As you are relocating, you’ll also have to do some research on whether the cost of living differs from your current location. You can use the CNN Money Cost of Living Calculator ( to compare. Do as much research as you can in order to make an informed decision as to what to place on your cover letter. There are several ways to respond (or not respond) to this question each with their own levels of risk.

Response One: Tell the hiring manager what you want to earn. If you have a base salary requirement state it as such so to tell the hiring manager that you probably expect a little more. The risk in using this approach is that you will be immediately disqualified because your amount is too low or too high.

Response Two: Give the hiring manager a wide range. Most employers have a range for each position, and the hope when using this strategy is that your ranges overlap at some point. You can either state that you want compensation in the “Mid 50’s” or are seeking compensation from “$50-60K.” The challenge here is not presenting a range where your lowest amount is their highest available compensation or vice versa. You could secure a job earning $50K instead of $56K, just because you put your range as $50-60K. Hence the second strategy of “Mid 50’s” might work more to your favor.

Response Three: Avoid the question by stating that you are seeking competitive compensation for someone in your field, or are flexible as to your total compensation package. By doing this you avoid answering the question and disqualifying yourself because of a number, yet you answer the question to a certain degree. You also tell the hiring manager, by using the second approach, that you realize that there is more to a compensation package than just your salary. Attractive benefit programs, great working environments, flexible work arrangements, etc., also contribute to your total compensation package. The risk here is that you will be eliminated anyway because you didn’t give the hiring manager a hard number.

Response Four: Communicate that you would love to discuss your salary requirement once a mutual interest has been established. This gives you the opportunity to assess the functions of the position to which you are applying, and fairly evaluate what you should be compensated for such an engagement. Again, the risk is that you will be eliminated for avoiding the question.

Response Five: Don’t respond. A lot of candidates take this approach and hope their experiences, accomplishments, and skills pull them through despite avoiding the question entirely. After all, if you sing on paper shouldn’t that be enough regardless of what you want to be paid? Well, sometimes not. Unfortunately, if you disregard their request, you résumé might also be disregarded.

At the end of the day, you have to make an educated decision on which strategy you want to employ, and whether the risk involved it worth taking. All the best!