How do I handle the salary negotiation discussion to my advantage without blowing it?
September 14, 2012 12:57 PM   Subscribe

AskMeFi and other say to never throw out the first number in salary discussions, yet this has backfired repeatedly. Stick to the oft-repeated advice or rework based on experience?

Should I keep following the advice of not being the first to throw out a number in salary discussions, when this has repeatedly gone poorly, particularly in HR screening calls?

This is by far the biggest sticking point I have when going through an interview process. Everything I read online, here, here, as well as lots of advice I have read on AskMeFi, states that when the question comes up about compensation, you should never be the first one to say a number because this puts you at a distinct negotiation disadvantage.

I think this is good advice and have tried following it, and have told those close to me to follow it as well. Repeatedly, it has backfired.

This has most often come up with HR screening calls (i.e., prior to speaking to a hiring manager or actual interview committee). The question comes up about compensation, to which the reply of "I'd like to discuss the position further before we discuss salary" or "Can you tell me a hiring range?" or "I will consider any reasonable offer" is met with anything from dismissal to outright disdain. My wife recently did not make it past an HR screen, and she later got some inside knowledge that the reason was "her salary requirements were too vague".

I guess the follow-up question is whether an HR screening call where salary is discussed, prior to any substantive discussion of the work, should be answered in a different manner than an actual salary negotiation. Is it necessary to stick to this advice when speaking to an HR screener?
posted by mcstayinskool to Work & Money (16 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Depending on your industry and positions, giving a range might ensure that both parties are looking for approximately the same thing.

You can always give a 30k range (do some research to sort out what other people are making in the industry and area) and then include the caveat that pending the benefits package your needs may grow.

It hasn't hurt me, but I started at 10k above my current salary and go 30k up, and haven't been looking from a position of unemployment. YMMV.
posted by larthegreat at 1:10 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've never been able to wriggle around it, so I don't try.

I usually go for the local industry standard as based on what's online (unless I'm already at a comparable salary and really want to go higher).

During the super crazy lean years, I took a sniff of wind direction for a smaller company, then took the industry standard and went down 10k (VERY LEAN YEARS). I turned out to be just about in their sweet spot (though they of course negotiated it down but we agreed to a review within six months).
posted by tilde at 1:17 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's lovely advice except when one smashes into the real world, and there is a procedure being followed on the other end that requires HR to fill in the box labelled 'desired salary' before your package is sent to the hiring manager. Frankly I sympathize with the company as the point of the screen is to make sure moving forward is not a waste of everyone's time (e.g. you want 200K and the budget is 70K, and yes that happens). Give a nice high number that's not outrageous so it is clear to everyone that there is a chance of finding common ground, and things will move forward.
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:18 PM on September 14, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: When I talk to recruiters/staffing firms/HR screeners, I give a range. They almost immediately tell me that I'm within range or a little high and I can choose to move forward or not. I have a pretty good idea of what the pay range is for my profession and where I'd like to be on it. You have to get past the gatekeeper.

It's more difficult when it's a job that's in an unfamiliar industry or that's different from you normally do, but you think you have the skills for it. I think the examples you're following are for those situations where you go straight to the hiring manager and have an interview, i.e. boss sees your resume and calls for an interview; it goes well and they ask about salary.

In the situations you're experiencing, there's a gatekeeper determining whether you get to interview. Give them a range and most will agree or say you're high. (I've never had anyone tell me I was too low.) This is not a salary negotiation; they just don't want to bother interviewing someone whose expectations are out of bounds.
posted by shoesietart at 1:24 PM on September 14, 2012 [4 favorites]

I sympathize with the company as the point of the screen is to make sure moving forward is not a waste of everyone's time

The company could also accomplish this by stating their salary range.
posted by grouse at 1:25 PM on September 14, 2012 [25 favorites]

My understanding is that, on an HR screening call, they want to make sure your expectations line up with the position rather than be any part of the salary negotiations. My wife was involved in the hiring process at her office and they had one candidate who seemed a little over qualified. When they asked about salary, the candidate told them they were looking for about $80k/year. The position paid about $45k per year. It was a lot easier to find that out early on than for it to be a big surprise when the candidate is getting the official answer.

Additionally, there was a study done that showed whoever makes the first offer creates an anchor point and the end result is usually closer to whatever that first offer was (I think it might have been an FPP on the blue, I can dig up a link if you really need one). That jives with my experience as a car salesman. The dealer always makes the first offer and, on new cars, it was always pretty close to MSRP.

When I was in your shoes and I got that question on an HR screening call, I tried to give them something in the range that my research showed the position should pay (IE: "Somewhere around $43k/year). Then, you can sometimes ask (you have to feel it out a little), "Is that realistic for this position?"
posted by VTX at 1:26 PM on September 14, 2012

grouse: I sympathize with the company as the point of the screen is to make sure moving forward is not a waste of everyone's time

The company could also accomplish this by stating their salary range.
Should, but they run the interview as though they hold all the power. IOW: the first one to talk, loses. (Standard negotiation practices)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:27 PM on September 14, 2012

"you should never be the first one to say a number because this puts you at a distinct negotiation disadvantage."

This "negotiation ninjitsu" attitude about "never make the first offer" assumes you're in an adversarial sort of negotiation where you're jockeying for position and making power displays, as much as seeking an actual outcome. Most hiring processes are not that! You're seeking a mutual good fit, there are bounded parameters to what HR can offer you (most of the time), and if it is a negotiation ninjitsu situation, the HR person has way more power than you do and can just refuse forever to state a number.

In some more competitive industries, or if you are a superstar, or if the position's pay is pretty strictly controlled (it's union, or government), it's normal to make the company make the first bid in negotiations. But in most situations you're doing a dance of expectations to find out if you're a good fit for a collegial environment, and by refusing to name a range you may be putting off potential employers who don't like your adversarial approach. Sometimes refusing to offer a number makes it seem like you have no idea what the industry range is for your experience, your area, and this company. If you know what sort of range they offer for someone like you, pick a number you'd be happy with near the top of the range or a little above.

I'm not saying roll over and play dead for the HR people to kick you around. I'm saying those advice books about adversarial dealmaking are usually written by bankers and lawyers who engage in the sorts of negotiations that make people dislike each other. Which is why they have bankers or lawyers do it for them.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:48 PM on September 14, 2012 [7 favorites]

I give a range, starting as far above my current as I feel is wise plus 5-10k. That will give you some wiggle room without shutting everything down.

The advice about not quoting a number really only works when you're in a very high level position or are talking directly to the person you'd be working for, not HR.

And yeah, it's about power. If it were about logic jobs would list their proposed salary in the ad and no one would apply who wanted more. A few still do.
posted by emjaybee at 1:51 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I give a range - market value (if I know it)/current salary, plus as much above that as I feel comfortable. I do make it clear this is very dependent on other factors, such as the whole of the compensation package, my responsibilities, etc.

The other "rookie mistake" that They say you shouldn't do, is to ask about compensation in the first interview. I've done that twice in a row, and I got both jobs. I wouldn't necessarily advise it, but I got about as tired of getting offers I couldn't afford to take as companies get courting people they can't afford to hire.
posted by sm1tten at 2:04 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've been in this situation repeatedly, currently trying to rebound from a layoff so I know this game all too well. If the HR person is stonewalling you and demanding a number, you can say you need to do some quick research and call them back. Then, hit the internet and look through the job openings for all the HR firms in your area. There's a non-zero chance that one of the other agencies is also recruiting for this same job, and another non-zero chance that the other company has listed their range in the job listing. Presto, you know now what the client is offering. Sounds hinky, but it has saved my bacon before. If you know a recruiter will be calling you (i.e. they emailed you to set up a call), do the research in advance.
posted by chaff at 2:08 PM on September 14, 2012

Slate do a series of 10 podcasts on negotiation skills that might be of some use to you. They recommend leading with a figure, kind of creating a reality about a high figure.
posted by biffa at 2:43 PM on September 14, 2012 [1 favorite]

grouse: I sympathize with the company as the point of the screen is to make sure moving forward is not a waste of everyone's time

The company could also accomplish this by stating their salary range.

I have found that frequently companies are more willing to go over their range than people are willing to go under their range. That is my experience at least and why the company never wants me to give our range.
posted by magnetsphere at 5:19 PM on September 14, 2012

I've been on both sides of this. I'm actually looking to fill two positions on my team right now. The vast majority of resumes I'm getting are from people with way more experience than I listed in the job description, like 10-25 more years of experience in some cases! So this is why I push my HR person to ask about salary expectations up front. I don't want to waste anyone's time, including my own, by bringing someone in for an interview who probably won't even consider an offer at the very top of my allocated budget for that position. Sure, the company could reveal the range, but why should they? The company wants to get the most value for their dollar just like you want to get the most dollars for your time. The company gets tons of applicants for any given opening, so if you won't play the game the way they want, the person behind you will. It is highly unlikely that you are anything special warranting an exception to this policy. Even if you are, there is no real way for the company to know that aside from a candid recommendation from someone already in the company.
posted by stoffer at 7:32 PM on September 14, 2012

Best answer: I'm a hiring manager and have been hiring people for maybe 15 or so years. Here is my perspective. This is based on working in a couple of U.S. companies with between 100 and 1000 employees and hiring technology roles (developers, DBAs, BAs, PMs and the like). Even the small companies had pre-defined job descriptions and salary ranges. More on this later. There are two things going on here:

1. HR people trying to pre-qual. If I'm conducting a search, I'm looking to do a face-to-face interview maybe three to five candidates out of anywhere from 30 to 100 applicants. The job HR does for me is to slim that stack of applicants down to the strongest candidates, then I or someone on my team will pick the shortlist we want to interview. The most experienced, qualified applicants are invariably also the most expensive. If I spend time sending a candidate around to interview with a bunch of people or a panel, maybe bring them back for a second interview, and then find out that I've got a $30K gap between their minimum and my maximum, I'm going to be upset with the HR person for letting that person through the screen: we've just wasted everyone's time and I've cut my pool of "possibles" down by one. The HR person is trying to make an up-or-down assessment in this case: is your range "close enough" to pass you along in the process? They probably aren't even going to tell me what you said; I'm just going to get some resumes and if I'm lucky, a few notes on you. If I'm in a small company w/o HR support to do screening, that means I'll be the one to ask that "what is your range" question; I'll do that early in the process, especially if you look like a strong candidate and I am worried that I won't be able to afford you.

2. If I am at the end of the process and I am ready to make an offer, I've already got a range in mind. In fact, I had a range in mind before I even advertised the job -- we all have budgets. The bigger the company, the more likely that the range is set in stone and the more hoops I have to jump through to go outside of that range. I want to get a good deal for my company, but there is no percentage in low-balling you. Even if you are willing to take the job below my minimum range, I'm just creating problems for myself later. On the other hand, I want to make sure that I have enough cushion that I have the possibility of giving you a raise later. Ideally, my final offer is going to be somewhere between the minimum and the mid-point of the range. If I make an offer at the high end of my range, the only way I'm going to be able to give you a raise is through a promotion. In the negotiation, I am going to ask you to go first in naming a salary, but if you don't, that is fine, I'm just going to start at the bottom of my range and see what happens from there.

Bottom line advice: going first in the salary negotiation only hurts you if you don't have a good grasp of what you are worth in that market. The risk is that if you are way off on the high side for whatever reason, you might get discounted immediately. If you are getting screened by HR or a recruiter, go ahead and give them a range. The HR person probably will not pass along whatever you said anyway, so you can be vague and say something like, "for the right position, I would be willing to accept $NNN" and leave yourself room to adjust upwards. Wait as late as possible in the process to discuss salary; if you are my top pick, the farther we go in the interview process, the more committed I am to hiring you. Mentally, I'm already thinking about the work I'm going to offload to you and when you can start. Finally, a hiring manager has flexibility around negotiating things like start date, vacation time (maybe), flex time, telecommuting days, bringing your dog to the office, that sort of thing. Have a list of non-monetary things you want in the back of your mind and when you stall out on negotiating money, try to get a concession or two on those other items.
posted by kovacs at 8:09 PM on September 14, 2012 [8 favorites]

Bottom line advice: going first in the salary negotiation only hurts you if you don't have a good grasp of what you are worth in that market.

Not really. It also hurts if you're being hired by people who have no idea what they want other than "some guy who can do this thing we can't any more" which is pretty much the position I've been in for a number of positions.

Once place I interviewed, they had no idea what they wanted or needed. Just "some guy" to do "that stuff we don't know how to but our customers want us to provide". After my interview, they never called me - instead rewrote the ad based on what I told them they needed, and put the rate up based on their conversation with me (we discussed it a few years later). It was still lower than market, so everyone else turned them down, I found out through an admin, but I reapplied and reinterviewed and got it.

Another time it was the same thing. They threw a low salary range on the wall (my internet spiders group jobs sent to me by salary range) which was low, when I went in they only kind of knew what they wanted, and I told them what they needed to do. They must have managed to scare everyone off (they never called me back, I had to track them down) because even now, three years later, I've not heard of anyone who applied there come back with the position, and even now I get emails reporting they are STILL looking for "a guy to do this stuff".

My most recent experience they were another group who ostensibly had an HR person but again, needed " a guy do do this thing we suck at " and picked a number at random that again was below market rate. I had an advantage in that I guessed their number kind of right, but even more in that the way/place they advertised the position, they got almost no useful candidates, when I know the surplus in my industry looms large around here and I have several colleagues who would have killed to end up here if they'd known, even at the crappy rate I'm at. They would have left after six months for a higher paying position, but that would have soured these guys even more on hiring people. Again, when we went looking for "more of me" HR bungled it so badly we only had one candidate to interview before the arbitrary hiring deadline.

It'd be nice to work at a company again that doesn't just look at guys in my position as being some kind of super secretary who dares demand a living wage and actually does more than type. But those companies are very very very few and far between. Doesn't help that the slackers in my industry make us look bad - former programmers and QA testers who wanted a job where they didn't "have to work too hard".
posted by tilde at 8:31 AM on September 15, 2012

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