Right now, I’m interviewing for a role at a company you know. You probably have one – or many – of their products. I’m not sure it’s the role for me – I turned down the interest initially – but I decided to take the interview out of respect for a friend of mine who is going to do amazing work for them.

On the first call, I was asked that great question we all love: how much do you make now?

As an independent, self-employed professional who manages communities, and engages in writing, speaking and the tiniest bit of consulting, my income varies wildly. I have unmatched freedom to do whatever I want, whenever I want. That’s not what a role at a company represents. It’s quite the opposite. Less freedom, consistent paycheck. I’m not going to tell you what I make now.

Focusing on What’s Reasonable

Instead, my answer always falls back on data. It falls back on compensation studies. This is why the work done by The Community Roundtable, on their compensation study, is important.

Given my experience, I am exploring roles at the director-level. The average director of community is paid $113,000. Because I don’t view myself as average, I expect to be paid higher than that. If I will be required to move to an area with a higher than average cost-of-living, I expect that to be factored in, as well.

I try to explain this delicately, so as to not sound like an egomaniac. But let’s be clear: if you don’t advocate for yourself in these discussions, no one else will.

How I Might Answer the Question

My answer might sound something like this: “Right now, I work independently on my own projects, in addition to writing and speaking. Because of this, my income varies. But, to provide a number, I’m comfortable being compensated in line with current compensation data for director-level community professionals. According to the most recent compensation study, the average salary at that level is $113,000. Having spent 17 years working in community, and having helped thousands to build stronger communities, I would look to be paid commensurate to my experience. Since I will be required to move to an area with a higher than average cost of living, that would also factor in as well.”

That’s a solid, defensible answer. I’m not asking for anything exorbitant or unfair. If they push me for an actual number, I’ll usually name a minimum figure that falls in line with what I described – at least $130,000 or higher – depending on where I’m moving, the benefits I expect the job will have and how aggressively I am pursuing the opportunity.

I have gone through several interviews over the past 18 months and haven’t had push back on this answer. If I ever do, I would take that as a hint that the job isn’t for me.

Anyone Can Use This Formula

This is a model that you can apply to your own negotiations. The argument always revolves around 3 things:

  1. The average compensation for the role.
  2. The cost of living in the area where you will have to live.
  3. Your experience and accomplishments.

For example, let’s say you are a community manager who only has a couple of years of experience at a smaller organization. The average community manager makes $70,000. At this stage of your career, you might not have the pedigree to demonstrate that you are substantially above average, even if you really nail the interview. You apply to a job offering a range of $45,000 to $60,000. Let’s say that you want to push for the high end of that range. You will probably be compelled to justify that figure.

You could say: “According to the most recent compensation study, the average community manager earns $70,000 a year. Given my experience, and the area where I will be relocating, I believe that $60,000 is a fair number.”

Don’t forget, this is a negotiation. There are many tactics one can employ in a negotiation, but just because you don’t have a major, highly-visible accomplishment to hang your hat on, that doesn’t mean you can’t negotiate. In this case, you are really putting the ball in their court. You’ve made a reasonable statement by saying you’ll accept below average compensation. Assuming they like you and want you, you have put them in a difficult spot. They may want to pay you less, but they also don’t want to lose you or get off to a terrible start. Do they really want to suggest that you are 25% or more below average?

No matter who you are, you can use this formula to provide a simple, reasonable answer to an uncomfortable question.