Ask Annie

Job hunting? What kind of pay hike to expect

January 18, 2013: 10:41 AM ET

Starting pay has yet to bounce back from the recession.130118032633-pay-raise-gallery-horizontal

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I read your column about finding a job in a different industry, but I'm looking for a new position in the same business I'm in now, and I have two main concerns. First, you mentioned that candidates should be prepared with intelligent questions. I wish I had asked more probing questions before I took my current job (I'd probably have turned it down.), and I don't want to make the same mistake again, so what do you suggest?

I'm also wondering what kind of pay increase to ask for, when I get to that stage in the process. Years ago, the rule of thumb was that companies were willing to offer starting pay that was at least 10% higher than a new hire was already making. Is that still generally true? — Moving On

Dear M.O.: To take your second question first, you're right. A 10% bump in compensation used to be considered the bare minimum for new hires, and candidates whose skills were in particular demand often commanded twice that much or more, especially when the economy was booming. But alas, those days are gone, even for senior executives.

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"The financial meltdown quashed the boosts in pay that managers moving into new roles had come to expect," says John Touey, a principal at recruiters Salveson Stetson. "As the demand for talent dried up in 2008 and 2009, so did the premiums companies were willing to pay."

An analysis by Salveson Stetson of compensation data from the past six years found that job-switching senior managers' starting pay plummeted by 56% during the downturn. It's edging back up, but on average, managers are getting offers 34% lower than in 2006 and 2007.

You don't say what field you're in, but it can make a big difference. Executives in general management took the biggest hit during the downturn, according to the study, with starting pay dropping by 70% between 2006 and 2009. These days, newly hired general managers are offered premiums averaging about 14%, which the Salveson Stateson report notes "is still 50% lower than before the recession."

By contrast, sales and marketing executives were least affected by hard times. Their offers took a very slight recessionary dip, from an average 17% jump in pay in 2006 to 16% three years later. Today, the average pay hike for these execs when they start a new gig is 19%. Salveson Stetson also studied human resources and finance pay jumps, which are seeing average increases of 16% and 26% respectively.

Good to know, but none of this changes the basic drill for any job seeker: Use sites like Salary.com and PayScale.com, as well as job boards with postings that provide salary ranges, to get an idea of what kind of salary you can reasonably negotiate for. And don't forget that salary isn't everything. Perks and benefits can sometimes make up for so-so base pay.

Of course, before you get to the stage where you're talking money, you need to make sure you even want the job. Executive recruiters at global headhunting firm MRINetwork recently came up with this list of 10 queries they wish more candidates would pose:

1. If, on my one-year anniversary in this role, you were giving me an excellent review, what specifically would I have accomplished?
2. What do you see as the biggest opportunities or challenges facing this position (or department)?
3. What particular skill set would be most valuable in performing this job?
4. What are the current critical issues that need to be addressed by the person you hire for this position? Within what time frame?
5. Assuming I do an exceptional job in this role, what would be my next step within the company?
6. I noticed in my research on your company that [insert interesting fact, like a major new product launch]. How will that affect this position and the company as a whole?
7. Can you tell me why the last person who held this job left it?
8. Could you give me an example of something that person did very well?
9. Could you give me an idea of the organizational structure of your company, so I can see where this position fits in?
10. What attracted you (the interviewer) to this company?

You may not get candid answers to some of these (No. 7, for instance, may be especially fraught). But even if you only cover half of them, you'll be showing more forethought than most of your competition.

MORE: Want to hire great people? Hire consciously.

"Many of these questions might not have been put to the employer before," notes Gary Miller, president of MRINetwork's Oak Brook, Ill., affiliate Miller Resource Group. "You may even be perceived as helping the employer define what top performance in this role would look like, which adds value -- and adding value is usually rewarded." Here's hoping.

Talkback: What was the most enlightening question you ever asked a job interviewer? If you're a hiring manager, what are the best (or worst) question candidates ask you? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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