can you ask about salary at a job fair?

A reader writes:

I was looking at a flyer for the upcoming job/internship fair hosted by my university. It included tips for job-seekers navigating the fair. One of them advised not to ask about salary or benefits. Is it just me, or does this seem really weird and even inappropriate? It’s a job. The whole point is to earn money. Do companies (at job fairs or otherwise) really expect job-seekers to pretend that the job-seekers are just prostrate with the desire to work for them to the point that compensation doesn’t matter?

This is one of the weirder fictions of job searching, but yeah, the general advice about this is not to ask about salary until you’re at the offer stage, or at least until you’ve had a serious expression of interest from the employer.

Is this dumb? Yes. Does it fly in the face of the reality of the situation, which is that most people work for money? Yes. But is it the convention that you probably want to play by? Yep.

In fact, most people will actually tell you never to raise money at all — to wait and see what kind of offer the employer makes you. I wouldn’t go that far; I think that if you have reason to fear that the salary won’t be in line with what the market’s paying (for instance, if you’re interviewing with a cash-strapped nonprofit or a notoriously stingy for-profit), it’s fine to ask about it once you’re invited in for an interview, saying something like, “Can you give me an idea of the salary range for this position so we can make sure we’re in the same ballpark?”  (Of course, if you do that, you need to be prepared for the typical you-first silliness that often accompanies salary talk — the awkward pauses and the coy “well, what are you looking for?”)

But not at a job fair. Because the reality is that if you’re asking about salary before an employer has expressed any serious interest in you, you’re fairly likely to make a negative impression. I can’t defend this. I can only tell you that that’s how this stuff works.

Now, that’s not to say that you should act like you’re “prostrate with the desire to work for them.” In fact, you definitely shouldn’t do that. You want to seem like someone with options and someone who’s evaluating whether or not the role and employer would be right for you, just as much as they’re evaluating whether you’d be right for them. And yes, obviously money is going to be a part of that — but not at this stage.

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