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"So What Are Your Salary Expectations?" – Navigating the Uncomfortable Conversation – Wendy Ferguson – BHRLR, CPHR






By Wendy Ferguson – BHRLR, CPHR – Ferguson HR Consulting

In the current oil patch job market there are a number of companies hiring and some are even having challenges hiring enough qualified personnel. For job seekers, that’s the good news. For those fortunate enough to get to the interview process, the most uncomfortable part of the conversation still is usually the ever-dreaded question…”So, what are your salary expectations?”  Answering that… is a challenge for most.

The problem lies in the fact that the interviewee is looking for top dollar and, more often than not, the employer wants to pay the lowest salary possible.  It is always driven by the current market and basic economics – supply and demand.

I liken the interaction to the practice of bartering at the Turkish Grand Bazaar.  Sure, the seller (think job candidate) has the upper hand when the market is thriving and there are plenty of buyers and limited supply of what they are selling.  However, when things are slow and the competition is fierce, the seller is at a major disadvantage.  Thus, the buyer (think employer) tries not to appear too interested and shops around for the best deal…the best quality at the lowest price.  Both buyers and sellers might ask each other to name their best price, but how would an expert advise you to handle the bartering process?  The buyer is cautioned NEVER to name their best price at that point, because once they do they are unable to lessen it.  Instead an expert would advise the buyer to force the seller to take the first step and state the opening bid (there’s the dreaded question).  At the market, if the seller names their price, buyers often will appear shocked, even set down the product and walk towards the door in hopes of a better deal.  If the seller names a reasonably fair price to begin with, the bargaining may begin.  Bargaining experts recommend that both sides keep playing the game until they reach a price that is acceptable to both parties, but they caution that the minute you show emotion it will not help and may end the bargaining process entirely.

Does any of that seem familiar to you in the recruiting process?

As a recruiter, we generally want to know if the company can afford you before we invest any more time and resources into attracting you to work for us.  We usually have a precise compensation range in mind, but won’t often share it.  Some of us are bargain hunting, especially in the current economic situation.  Understand that the directive is from the company.  We may conduct compensation research and provide recommendations, but ultimately the company makes the decision in terms of what they are willing to pay.

So how should you respond to this question, especially given the current state of our job market?

Indicating your salary expectations too early in the interview process can cost you an offer, especially if you are unprepared. Over-pricing yourself compared to others could immediately bump you out of the running.  On the other hand, selling yourself short in order to move ahead in the process and pricing yourself too low also can remove you from the running because it may appear you are desperate or something is wrong with you and you could appear less confident by undervaluing your previous work.


Always try to convince the recruiter or employer of your value BEFORE you reach negotiations.  Show real data such as your sales results, previous cost savings, projects completed, business generated, glowing reference letters or anything you can quantify in terms of your past accomplishments.

Before you interview, you MUST research compensation data for your industry and job.

  • Review current job postings that indicate salary ranges (often lower paying jobs or government jobs will include ranges for transparency purposes)
  • If that option is not available to you, dig deeper. Use or or Hays Salary Centre to obtain current salary data.
  • Ask around amongst your professional network, but be sure to consider educational background and years of experience before you conclude your fair compensation range.
  • Consider other benefits in trade for more compensation such as future pay increases, bonuses, more vacation days, company stock or flexible work hours.

I am still advising a job candidate to deflect the question as long as possible, but if you are speaking to someone like me, I am going to get the information out of you whether you like it or not…so be prepared.

You may find yourself in a further conundrum…what if you are asked what your current salary is or what your salary was at your previous job?  This is also a difficult question because perhaps you were making top dollar in boom time and the last thing you want to do is label yourself as too pricey or overqualified.  You have to answer this honestly because your employer could potentially contact your existing/former employer.  But here’s what I know right now…many friends and colleagues have either lost their jobs or taken a minimum 20% compensation rollback in Alberta.  We have been in a recession, so have a candid conversation with the interviewer and tell them you understand the current market as such.

Above all, keep things positive.  Everyone you are competing with is having this same conversation with the recruiter so you will be at an advantage if you stand out from the rest in your attitude and your preparedness.   However, you must be willing to walk away if the offer or company isn’t right for you.  This is difficult to do in a competitive job market, but it may be better in the long run to wait for the right opportunity and company.

Sometimes you need to ask yourself ‘Do I want to work for a company that makes me feel like they are after the cheapest most advantageous deal or one that values my experience, education and individual qualities for the job?’

About Wendy Ferguson

Wendy Ferguson is an Alberta based Human Resources Generalist and Consultant with over 15 years of combined experience in the areas of HR, Business Administrative Management and Marketing.

She has worked within a broad range of industries, including: oil & gas, architecture, law, information technology, engineering, accounting and business consulting firms.  She works with companies on both a full time and part time consulting basis to help them address their HR management, recruitment and policy needs.

She is also a Chartered Professional in Human Resources (CPHR).  CPHRs are uniquely qualified to help you achieve your business goals. With proven expertise across nine key business metrics, a CPHR has the knowledge and the experience to address the factors that underpin the degree of your immediate and long term success.

For your HR requirements contact Wendy at 

Wendy’s Specialties:
HR Management
Employee Relations
Administrative Management
Senior Management HR Advisory
Alberta Employment Standards
Conflict Resolution
Team Building

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