Part 1 of 2
Aside from "Why did you leave?" the question "What are your salary requirements?" is probably the one that causes job seekers the most discomfort. The company holds all the cards, and they're not letting you peek. You know that if they don't like your answer, you might easily kill any further discussion.
As if the question isn't awkward enough at any time, it's usually asked at the beginning of the process during a phone interview or a quick intro screen by HR to see if they want to bring you in for an interview. Worse yet is when you're told to put the number in your cover letter. You feel as if you're walking through a minefield, because you're tossed if you don't follow their directions, and you're tossed if they don't like your answer.
In actuality, the question isn't what's unreasonable, but rather when it's asked and how the answer is weighed. The purpose is to weed people out. Remember you're selling and the hiring company is buying. Give buyers a reason to say no and they will. People look for concerns, because that helps them believe they're eliminating problems.
So although it's not a problem question, the sooner it's asked, the more of one it becomes. What the company is attempting to determine is if you're realistic about what you're looking to make in relation to their range and your experience. But when your number is unrealistic, however they define that, they generally remove you from consideration. Unfortunately, especially when they require the number in your cover letter, the number isn't taken in context with your skills, so your resume rarely gets even a cursory glance.
To complicate that further, if a company were to glance at your resume to see if there might be a reason to set a phone interview and ask you if you're firm on that figure, almost every person's resume fails to communicate their skills as strongly as should be done. In those instances, the job seeker has further contributed to his own demise. Either way, the company ends up making a decision about you based on a number instead of your capabilities.
But with so many people applying for one position, especially in the last few months, a company feels they need some way to cull it down as much as possible. As a previous recruiter for 22 years, I know well there are other ways to do this more effectively, but in the meantime, let's discuss how you can handle the problem, which is a far easier task.
Since that question is going to continue to pop up frequently either too early in the process or without being put in context, you're going to have to handle it. When you're told to put it in your cover letter, ignoring it will only result in your being eliminated for not following directions. The best way to keep yourself in control of the outcome is by answering the question, but without answering the question.
Not only will this keep you from being pigeon-holed, but you have the opportunity to make a very sensible point, which one hopes will resonate with the hiring company. In any case, it's not a point with which they can argue and when your tone of voice is professional and respectful, you won't be viewed as contentious.
The best stock answer, both verbally and for your cover letter is, "I'm interested in a fair and equitable offer for the right opportunity," or your own equivalent of that message. Salary requirements are only a part of the total picture, as is the salary offered. No matter from which side it's being viewed, a number alone doesn't - and shouldn't - define the full scope of what's being discussed.
IN PART TWO: There's a catch to using that answer; something for which you must be prepared or it will backfire.