A candidate’s salary expectations are much lower than what the role pays—is this a red flag? Elaine Varelas weighs in

Candidates frequently expect a higher salary than a company is prepared to offer, but what about when their expectations are way off base—on the low end? Elaine Varelas addresses whether this is a serious red flag.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I’m screening candidates and was surprised by one candidate’s answer around salary. They didn’t expect more than we were prepared to offer—they expected about $25-30K less. Does this reveal a misunderstanding of the role responsibilities and expectations? What other red flags should I look for in phone screens?

A: A discrepancy in compensation range expectations of this much might reveal a crucial misunderstanding—or it might simply reveal an underprepared candidate. Before writing this candidate off, I would look at the type of industry he or she is coming from. Was their previous work in a higher education, non-profit, or government organization? In sectors like this, it is not uncommon for someone to have very similar responsibilities or level of expectations as your role but be consistently paid less than a successful, for-profit organization might pay. A response like this should cue you to dig a little deeper to determine the candidate’s fit for the role.


It’s quite possible that this candidate just needs a crash course on appropriate job search and interview preparation. Most job seekers know to do their homework ahead of time, especially around compensation, whether it’s through Glassdoor, networking, or some other resource. This individual should have learned what an accurate range would be for the role or probed for that information in the interview: “Tell me a little bit more about your compensation at this level.” A generous reading of the situation would be that the candidate didn’t provide a very savvy answer to the question—it does not necessarily mean he or she is unqualified, just that they didn’t quite prepare appropriately.

This answer should prompt you to look deeper into the candidate’s real responsibilities on their resume. Resumes can be a source of confusion when titles mean different things at different organizations, or when the scope of someone’s responsibility isn’t immediately evident. For example, being the Assistant Client Services Director versus the Assistant to the Client Services Director is a very different role. Ask more specific probing questions to gain a full picture of their experience—“How many people were you responsible for? How many dollars?” Quantify as much as possible so you can see if there is some confusion about what the role is or if they are simply coming from a lower paying industry or company. In a related matter, under the Massachusetts equal-pay law that went into effect July 1st, it is now prohibited to ask employees about salary history, so keep that important factor in mind as you do this probing.


It’s also worth considering if this is a misguided negotiation tactic. The candidate might badly need the job and may be trying to position themselves competitively by showing that they could be hired for less. Lastly, consider the percent of the compensation discrepancy. A $25K difference for a senior-level job isn’t as significant as it might be for an administrative position. Is it a 2% discrepancy or a 25% discrepancy? This can help you determine the extent of the misunderstanding as well.

There are additional potential red flags to look out for and examine in a phone screen. A major concern for most hiring managers is seeing multiple jobs in under a year or two. But again, this does not have to mean that the person is unreliable or a bad hire. Ask how and why they left. Depending on the time frame or the industry, you can expect blocks of years where there were numerous layoffs that might impact someone’s work history. If you work in biotech, for example, maybe the candidate worked on numerous drugs that didn’t get the needed results or approvals, so they moved around a lot. There was also a whole era where banks were being acquired and combined, so people may have lost their jobs three times in a row. Always dig a little deeper when potentially alarming details arise.

You are right to pause at this answer and question the suitability of the candidate, but my guess is that this is a case of being unprepared for an interview. Anyone preparing for an interview needs to be knowledgeable on the industry itself as well as the appropriate salary range for the role. It impacts long-term earnings as well as a candidate’s competitive edge.