Young female job candidate smiling across from interviewer holding her resume

“So…how much does this job pay?” 

For a professional recruiter, a question like this is commonplace. It’s not awkward or uncomfortable. In fact, It’s a necessary part of the conversation when it comes to the job search process.

For everyone else who doesn’t spend their days openly discussing salaries and other confidential, personal career details, it can be an intimidating subject.

However, knowing how to ask difficult questions in an interview is vital to determining if the role is right for you.

When you’ve made it to the interview stage with a company, pay is a question that’s undoubtedly at the top of your mind. If the job description included a pay range, you’re likely wondering how to ask about salary in a way that narrows it down to an exact figure. If there was no range provided in the job post, it’s even more paramount to find out how much it pays sooner rather than later, lest you waste your time or that of the company.  

In every candidate’s journey, there are a few need-to-know pieces of information that will factor into whether they will accept a job offer, from salary to vacation time to relocation expenses. Asking about them, however, can feel awkward and, when done incorrectly, can position you in a bad light. In this article, I’ll cover the tough questions to ask during job offer negotiation, like how to ask about salary, and share some tips for navigating the conversation with poise and tact. 

What questions should you ask in an interview about the role and company? Check out these questions to ask a hiring manager checklist.

How to ask about salary

Conventional wisdom advises against asking about salary during the first interview; the idea is that you should focus on the problems you can solve for the employer, not what the employer can do for you. This isn’t necessarily a bad approach, provided you at least know the range upfront. If you’ve already covered salary numbers at a high level, great. You can wait to negotiate toward the end of the hiring process.

On the other hand, if you’re still completely in the dark by the end of your initial interview, I recommend broaching the subject of compensation.

Asking about pay tactfully involves two things: your timing and your wording. Regarding timing, leave the subject for the end of the interview when it’s your turn for questions (unless the interviewer brings it up first). 

Tips for wording the money question

If the position included a range and you’re trying to narrow down a number: “The job posting listed a salary range between X and Y. Can you give me an idea of where my skills and background might put me within this range?”

If no range was given: “I’m very excited about the opportunity and what I could bring to the position. Can you give me an idea of the salary range you have in mind for the right candidate?”

Depending on the position, you might also wonder about bonuses and other monetary incentives. If the hiring manager doesn’t cover that in your initial conversation about salary, it’s appropriate to ask for more details in the final round of interviews or once you’ve secured an offer.

Looking for a higher salary, more vacation days, or the ability to work remotely? Learn how to negotiate a job offer here!

How to ask about benefits

Benefits, such as health insurance and retirement contribution matching, are frequently cited as the most important factors other than salary when deciding whether to take a job. It’s only practical that they’re among the top questions to ask during job offer negotiation.

A company’s benefits—or lack thereof—indirectly impact your finances (if the company has poor insurance options, it could cost you more out of pocket to pay for healthcare). Whether or not a company chooses to invest in these things can also tell you a lot about how they view their employees. 

Most employers that offer standard benefits like health, dental, vision, and a 401(k) plan will advertise as much in the job listing, so you should have a good idea of what they generally offer. For more granular details, like information on deductibles and open enrollment periods, the time to ask about those things is after you’ve received an offer. 

If you haven’t already been in contact with the company’s HR manager, your best bet is to ask to be connected to that person. In most companies, they are the best source to make sure you get a full summary of the company’s benefits package and answer any specific questions you have. 

How to ask about work hours

Just because a company’s business hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. doesn’t mean those are the same hours employees work. At some companies, everyone clocks out at 5 on the dot, while at others, you’re expected to be at your desk into the evening. These are the two extremes, of course. For most companies, the norm will fall somewhere in between. 

Tips for bringing up hours

“What does a typical schedule look like for someone in this role?” This should prompt the interviewer to talk more about the day-to-day duties that will be expected of you, which should give you an idea about the length of the work day and the office norms around things like working overtime. 

Enroll in Coursera’s free class: Advanced Interviewing Techniques, for additional interview guidance on negotiating your offer and asking questions about the position.

How to ask about upcoming vacation time

It’s unreasonable to put your personal life on hold for the entire time you’re job searching. After all, you never know if finding the perfect role will take a month or a year. 

Even if you’re excited about a new job opportunity, you’ll probably still be thinking about getting the time off to be a groomsman in your cousin’s upcoming wedding or taking that beach vacation you’ve been looking forward to for months. It’s perfectly normal and something you can and should bring up before accepting an offer. 

The best time to check in on whether your upcoming plans will be a conflict for your employer is when you begin to discuss your potential start date.

Tips for phrasing PTO questions

Phrase it this way: “I was planning on taking a few days off the week of [Date]. Would this be feasible if I were to start on the day we discussed?”

It’s important to note that while asking about a few days off within the next few months is fine, it will come off as out of touch if you’re hoping to take, say, a two-week European vacation right after starting a new job. You may need to postpone your more elaborate vacation plans or shift them from a multi-week trip to a long weekend.  

How to ask about work-life balance

Candidates value work-life balance more than ever, but this can be a challenging aspect of a company to decode, even if you pointedly ask about it during your interview. You are unlikely to get all the information you need from the interviewer’s response.

One of the best ways to get an accurate read on work-life balance during the interview process is to chat with current employees who aren’t involved in the hiring process. You can do this by making connections on LinkedIn, asking for introductions from mutual acquaintances, or even asking the hiring manager to connect you with a few people you could speak with in the department. 

Techniques for wording and evaluating this question

When you ask this question, pay attention not just to what employees say but how they say it and the body language that goes along with it. For example, a laugh and a “What work-life balance?!” is probably a red flag.

Another super-stealth technique for getting a read on work-life balance is to schedule your interview around the lunch hour. If you have a say in scheduling, it’s a great way to observe whether employees are casually strolling out for lunch or gobbling down food while glued to their computer screens.

How to ask about company culture

Like work-life balance, company culture is one of those things about an organization that tends to become clear only after you work there. Still, you can piece together a pretty solid picture of a company’s culture based on how employees describe working there and through your own research. 

Advice for wording workplace culture questions

You can be direct when asking about culture, like this: “How would you describe the culture of [Company name]?” 

Also, look at the company’s social media channels to see what types of content they post and what kind of tone they use. Use Google News to search for recent headlines about the company. Read their Glassdoor reviews, but remember – anonymous social media posts typically highlight only the extremes, both good and bad.

In conclusion, you may not be completely comfortable asking some of the questions discussed here, but force yourself to ask anyway! As I mentioned above, it’s a necessary and expected part of the interview and hiring process. As always, best wishes in your search for finding career zen!

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn