There is one interview question that seems to cause job candidates more anxiety than any other: “What are your salary expectations?” If your answer is too high, you risk being eliminated from consideration. If your answer is too low, you risk negatively impacting your compensation trajectory for years to come. As we all know, this proverbial tide has been turning. As of early 2024, ten states have passed pay transparency laws: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington. In many ways, this is great news for job seekers—a published pay range eliminates the need for candidates to guess at what is reasonable—but complexities remain.

I recently spoke with two compensation experts from the Darden alumni community: Marina Peddy (EMBA’22, MSBA’24), Senior Director of Compensation and Compliance for Amentum, and Susan Brown (MBA’96), who currently serves as the Senior Director of Compensation for the Americas Region of Siemens, to shed light on how to best navigate these complexities.

Beware the wide range.

For companies, determining what ranges to publish can be complex. Some companies use wide ranges to attract more candidates and to be stealthier with competitors about their compensation, but these ranges can lead to unrealistic salary expectations, not to mention internal unrest. Marina shared her experience recruiting in Silicon Valley when these laws were first passed. “The first thought was to go with very wide ranges because there was so much competition for tech talent. Pay ranges could have a 70% spread or even more. These ranges don’t work for candidates because they are confusing and don’t work for companies because all the candidates want to be at the top end of the range.” She adds that a wide range may be a “red flag” signaling to candidates that the company is obeying the law but avoiding true transparency. A more traditional range would be 50%, 25% below and 25% above.

Where do you fit within the range?

Even a reasonable range can seem wide, and it isn’t just about attracting new talent. Wide ranges for roles exist internally as well. Says Susan, “The range exists for a reason—to accommodate different profiles of people and their contributions, from someone newly promoted who is learning and growing, to someone who is fully proficient and maybe to a superstar from a direct competitor who has a decade of experience. I think a good question for a candidate would be, what does it take to get to the top end of the range.” Candidates should consider carefully how their experience matches up with the job description and what growth they can expect in the role.

Should you pursue a job if you think the range is too low?

On occasion, you might see a job that looks great, but the salary range is below what you are looking to make. Should you still apply? Susan shares some advice: “The short answer is sure, if the company is truly of interest. Recruiting departments are not just looking to fill that one job; they’re looking to create a pipeline of talent. If you’re not a fit for that role, you’ll still be part of that pipeline.” If you are truly interested in a company, you want to approach the organization from multiple angles—build relationships and learn what will be your best entry points.

Can you negotiate above the range?

Maybe. “There’s always the opportunity to negotiate beyond the range,” shares Marina. “Some companies may have adjusted [the range] down, because you don’t want to put the amounts that you reserve for superstars. If a candidate has some special skill set, they should leverage it as much as they can.”

“If you don’t ask, you never get, but the range is telling you what the company thinks the job is worth,” says Susan. “If I interview five candidates and one wants to be above the range, I probably wouldn’t offer the job to that person, because either they won’t be content or they think they are too senior for the job. It tells me that we’re not going to meet their expectations. Think about why you are asking, and maybe you really want to be considered for other, more senior jobs.”

What about remote work?

Pay transparency, which is mandated by state, can be further complicated by remote work.  Susan suggests, “Look at the job posting—is it listing a specific location? Or is it multiple locations? If it’s a specific location and it’s a high-cost area, like Boston or Silicon Valley, then I think you might see a change if you negotiate remote work. But a lot of them will say multiple locations and in that case, the company probably has nationalized the number.”

As more states continue to pass pay transparency laws, and as companies navigate how to comply, this landscape will continue to evolve, hopefully for the better, by closing pay gaps and promoting pay equity. Even with better transparency, job candidates and employees ultimately need to keep themselves informed about their value. This can be done by maintaining open dialogues with one’s manager, human resources, recruiters, and industry peers.

As always, if you are a Darden alum experiencing challenges negotiating your compensation for a new role, or for the role you have, talk to us! Scheule an appointment with an Alumni Career Services consultant.