photo illustration of increasingly tall (from left to right) stacks of dollar bills against a yellow and blue background
Bailey Zelena; PM Images/Getty Images

As a recruiter and job search strategist who’s read roughly 10,000 job descriptions (probably more) over the last decade, I will tell you this: You can figure out a lot about a company by what they say in there. I am both blessed and cursed in my ability to spot the red flags a mile away.

Oh, you “work hard and play hard,” do you? Could you not have just said, “You’ll literally have no life outside of this job”? Or how about “must have a good sense of humor”? More like, “Welcome to the land of inappropriate ‘jokes.’”

The list goes on, believe me. Given the seemingly endless number of ways employers find to “say it without saying it” in job descriptions, it should come as no surprise that we’re now seeing similar shenanigans play out with posted salary ranges.

Wait, what salary ranges?

As you may already know, pay transparency laws are rolling out in many U.S. states and cities (Colorado was first in 2021). These laws require employers to share minimum and maximum salary estimates directly on the job description. And on the whole, this is a great thing. Pay transparency stands to narrow the persistent pay gap between white men and women and people of color, and help companies improve employee satisfaction and retention by providing much-needed clarity around compensation.

But change, as you know, doesn’t always come easily. And we’re seeing this play out quite spectacularly with some absurdly unhelpful salary ranges that have emerged since New York City’s pay transparency law—which requires most employers to post “good faith” estimates of minimum and maximum salary for any given position—went into effect on November 1, 2022.

Citigroup, for instance, posted a New York City–based role with a breathtaking salary range of $0 to $2 million. When the job ad went viral, Citi quickly chalked the vast range up to a computer glitch and modified it to a more modest $61,710 to $155,290. (Yes, this $93,580 spread was Citi’s version of a “good faith” estimate.) And it’s not an isolated example. A five-minute search on any job board will offer you a clear glimpse of how companies—who’ve enjoyed for so many years the power to keep numbers close to the vest—are settling in with these new requirements.

As more and more companies begin posting salary information on their job descriptions, we’ll likely see a domino effect. This means if you’re in a major job market, chances are high that you’ll see similar laws coming your way in the near future. (In fact, if you’re in California or Washington, your state’s transparency laws go into effect on January 1, 2023.)

So if you’re a job seeker—or you’re thinking about starting a job search soon—you’ll be wise to learn how to interpret salary ranges, how to ask thoughtful questions about compensation, and what to do if something about the stated pay range feels, well, off.

Here are a few quick tips to help you navigate this new pay transparency frontier:

1.
Ask: “What numbers am I looking for?” and “How big should the range be?”

If you’ve ever been asked to share your salary requirements at a job interview, you’ve surely experienced that momentary panic over what range to offer up. You want to honor your own goals and aspirations, but not throw out numbers that could make you look indecisive, insecure, or simply unrealistic.

Companies are now the “you” in this equation. They’re scrambling to post salary ranges that will keep them on the right side of the law, represent reality, and entice a range of qualified candidates—without handing all the negotiating power over to the job seeker.

And, sure, for them, a broader range may be helpful to hold onto the bargaining chips. However, there’s a line of reasonableness. So how do you decide what numbers and range sizes are reasonable?

Your first step should be to make sure any potential job’s salary range includes the numbers you’re looking for. That’s your baseline.

Assuming that matches up, now you’ll want to consider the span between the low and high number and evaluate if it feels reasonable. Do a bit of salary research on sites like Payscale or Salary.com. Review similar job postings in the same market, paying particular attention to the posted salary range. (Yes, I am saying, “Do your research,” which may feel cliché, but it’s more important than ever in this new landscape.)

Then, based on your research, decide if the stated range seems fair given all of the variables at play (role, industry, market trends, geography, etc.). Since pay transparency is so new in the U.S., there are few established best practices. But I’ll suggest that if the high end of the range is twice that of the low end (or more), it should raise an eyebrow.

2.
Create filters for your search.

Some job boards will allow you to create salary filters for your search as well as for job alerts, which means you can likely narrow the search criteria so that you only see roles that fall within your target range.

This will be particularly useful if you’re looking for work in a state or city that requires pay transparency because now every job description will (or should) have a posted salary range, not just a few. And while this doesn’t prevent companies from sharing wildly swinging salary ranges, it can filter out jobs that simply don’t match up with your needs and expectations. (No more wasting time going through one or more rounds of interviews only to discover the salary is thousands of dollars beneath your minimum!)

3.
Tune in to see if something feels off.

I mean, what would you do if your target salary is $145,000 and you found an interesting role with a posted range of $50,000 to $150,000, for instance? Would you assume the company is trying to find someone at the lower end of this range (and that you may be too expensive)? Would you wonder how one job could possibly have so much pay variability? Would you suspect the company doesn’t really understand what this type of job entails, or is maybe even playing games with the law?

Bear in mind, because pay transparency is uncharted territory for employers, not every company is moving gracefully into this new way of recruiting talent.But they may have a reasonable explanation. For instance, maybe they’re considering both junior-level and senior-level candidates (and don’t want to miss out on someone great). Perhaps it’s a new role within the organization and they’re testing the market or attempting to take into account cost-of-living differences in various geographies.

It could all be completely above-board. Read the job description closely to see if you can find hints and cues as to what, exactly, this employer is looking for. More importantly, look for wording that might help explain the pay variability or shed light on the factors they’ll use to determine where a candidate falls within that range.

If you can’t find any other clues, it could be that this isn’t just a rookie mistake. The company may be trying to get away with underpaying for a role (planning to offer the real salary at the low end of the posted range) without advertising that to the world (hence the never-gonna-happen number at the high end of the posted range). Or maybe the organization’s top leaders just don’t believe in pay transparency and this is their passive-aggressive way of showing it. (And if a company doesn’t believe in doing their part to close the pay gap, are you going to be happy there?)

via GIPHY

4.
Raise your hand with questions.

Now, assuming you’ve evaluated the situation, decided to apply, landed an interview (great job, by the way!), and are still scratching your head over the range posted in the job description, don’t be afraid to raise your hand and ask questions.

“Can you help me understand how you came to this salary range?” is an entirely fair question and one I’d ask pretty soon after you enter into conversation with a recruiter or hiring manager.

But I’d go about your inquiry carefully. You probably don’t want to jeopardize your candidacy before you’re 10 minutes into the process. I’d ask it toward the end of a phone screen or first conversation, and do it with genuine curiosity vs. suspicion. For example, you might say something like, “I’m fascinated by the pay ranges I’m now seeing on job descriptions. What’s the process your company uses when deciding what ranges to offer for your open positions?” or, “Can you help me understand what factors might go into determining where a new hire might fall in this range?”

5.
If it still feels off, decide if it’s worth your time and attention.

Now, asking for clarification on posted pay ranges doesn’t mean you’ll find the answer all that helpful. Case in point, a recent client of mine asked what was behind the posted range and got, “Truthfully? I have no idea” from her interviewer! Suffice it to say it’ll probably take some time for organizations to find their groove with this new requirement.

But if you’re getting a weird vibe that the company isn’t being forthcoming (“We want to keep all options open”), is a bit clueless (“Uh, we’re working on fine-tuning the ranges but haven’t gotten to it yet”), or even trying to circumvent the law altogether, this could be a strong indicator of how the organization treats people (both candidates and employees).

Make a thoughtful decision about whether you’ll pursue the role and, if you decide to keep going, proceed with caution (and be ready to bust out your A-game when it comes time to negotiate!)

Updated 12/7/2022