Ask Tami #5: Salary Expectations When Returning to Work

Barbara asks: What is realistic regarding salary expectations when we are trying to re-enter the workforce? Aside from one’s own financial considerations, how much is too much when you are asked to go significantly below your previous level?

Tami: Salary questions are tricky because there are so many factors that go into salary offers. And it tends to be an emotional topic, which can further complicate things. 

Figure out what types of roles you are qualified for based on both your past experience and the current needs of the market: This is definitely where some people get tripped up. You may have had a certain salary in your prior career but if the same job requires new skills that you don’t yet have you may need to take a step back. This is not always true — you can certainly apply for jobs at or even above the level you were at before your break, but you need to be realistic about whether your skills truly match up to that position. If you are making a pivot in your career you will almost certainly need to apply for jobs a level or two below where you were — more if your pivot is dramatic. The longer you’ve been out of the paid workforce the more likely you will have a skill gap.

Do your research: Ideally you want to know what the market rate salary is for the position you are applying for. This gives you the strongest negotiating position. Resources like, and Glassdoor offer good insights into what positions pay. None of these sources is perfect but by combining them you can get pretty accurate. Remember to compare apples to apples — a “manager” level job at a small company will generally pay less, all other factors being equal, than the same level of job at a larger company. 

Ask what to expect: I’ve talked to scores of recruiters and they all say the same thing — it’s perfectly acceptable to ask what the company has budgeted for the position. They may ask you for your requirements first. That’s where having that research will be so helpful. You can say something like “My research suggests that this position should pay between $XX and $XX. Is that in line with your budget?” If you are giving the number first, go up a bit on your estimate. Unless you say a number that is double or triple what they plan to offer a good recruiter will keep you talking. For returnships the hourly rate paid during the program is usually a bit lower than the salary for a full-time job. This reflects the nature of the program which generally includes mentoring, opportunities for training and more. Understanding what program offers is one part of evaluating the pay. You can also ask for a range of what the full-time job, if offered, would pay. 

Keep your long-term goals in mind. For many returners the highest hurdle is the first one. Getting back into the paid workforce can be tough and you may need to make some tradeoffs. But once you are back in you can accelerate your career, if you choose, quickly. It’s much easier to negotiate for higher pay when you are employed. Once you are inside a company and have shown what you are capable of you can apply for higher level positions. 

At the end of the day only you know what you are willing to accept based on your family’s financial needs and the type of work you want to be doing.

Good luck (and remember to keep going!),

Returning to the paid workforce can be both an exciting and daunting challenge. My work as Executive Director of Path Forward has given me a unique perspective on both sides of the employment equation. I’ve answered questions for thousands of job seekers and I understand their worries. And I have gained insights from HR and talent executives at the more than 75 companies we’ve partnered with. I’m eager to help you leverage this insider advice to help you get back to a fulfilling career. If you’ve got a burning question you’d like me to answer in an upcoming edition of “Ask Tami”, you can ask it using this form.