When employers and candidates first meet, there are usually a few unknowns. Salary isn't one of them. Both parties have a number in mind, but neither wants to be the first one to put it on the table, lest they come out on the short end of the deal. While it's unlikely pay will be the first thing discussed during an interview, talk about compensation shouldn't become into a game of chicken.

You know chicken. That's the game where you and a friend, say, ride your bikes at each other as fast as you can, and see who turns out of the way first. It's a bad idea to play it on your bikes, and it's a bad idea to play it during job discussions.

Managers and recruiters should know how to assess your value and elicit your salary expectations during interviews, then explore the topic so if you ultimately get an offer, you'll probably accept it. For job seekers, an interviewer's probes provide the perfect opportunity to open up the compensation discussion, and maybe even make the case for a higher salary. Ultimately, the talk could lessen the need to haggle later on.

When an interviewer asks these questions, seize the opportunity to get compensation issue on the table.

  • What's your current salary? As soon as you quote your current compensation, ask how it compares with the company's salary for a similar position. Here's the chance to find out if your current salary is too low, too high or in the ballpark, and if the company has a formal salary administration plan. Don't let the interviewer pass over your answer. Try to get some feedback.

  • Why do you want to change jobs? If your present package is below market, say it's one of the reasons you're seeking a change. Then ask how the new company is positioned relative to its peers. Understanding the firm's employment value proposition and compensation philosophy will provide insight into whether your salary expectations will be met.

  • What questions do you have? Ask about the job, the work environment and the performance expectations. Then ask what steps the company has taken to survive the downturn. This will open the door to discussions about layoffs, salary freezes or wage and benefits reductions, and how those changes are impacting new offers and salary increases going forward.
Remember: An open conversation about compensation means there should be no surprises come offer time.

--Leslie Stevens-Huffman