How to handle salary discussions before you have a job offer?
July 22, 2008 4:50 PM   Subscribe

Help with salary negotiations? The standard wisdom -- which I've been trying to follow -- is that you aren’t supposed to talk about salary until after you get a job offer. But the organization began talking about it when they called to schedule the first interview. Suggestions?

I applied for a job. They required a salary history. I sent mine, stating that I make, let’s say, $60k (the details are changed here; it’s less than that). An assistant called, saying they wanted to schedule an interview with me, “but [boss] wanted to flag the fact that the salary for this position is in the mid-40s. Would you still be interested?” I paused (a bit surprised, really) and said something noncommittal, like “it would certainly be worth us having more discussion about the position.”

Next, I had a phone interview with the supervisor. The discussion had very few questions about my qualifications (one question). The call’s purpose seemed to be to explain the position and allow me to ask questions. She brought up the salary, and said that they have “authorization” to offer up to $48k, what did I think? I said something like “I would want to consider the salary in light of the full package, including benefits and the opportunities for professional growth.” She explained the benefits package (including a matching donation to a retirement account, which I admitted would close some of the gap).

The job offers a lot of opportunity for professional growth; I'd be really passionate about the work; they’re a great organization; and I could still live on the lower salary (though my ability to save would go way down). If offered the job, I would like to take it. But a 20% salary cut is still hard to take. It’s a much tougher decision than it would be if they could close that gap a bit more.

How should I handle this? Should I start to openly admit that it would be a tough decision for me at their current budget? Should I continue trying to wait until they actually offer me the job (or not)? I’d rather discuss salary once we've decided if I'd be a good fit for the job. But if so, how do I field the question? I think they may have the impression I would consider taking the job at the current salary, because I’ve typically changed the subject to how I’d be very excited to contribute to the organization. I don’t want them to think I’m agreeing to it and then seem to change my mind later. Since they keep trying to get me to say that salary is okay, they may not have much flexibility, but they must have some, right?

How would you handle this?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Is this an entry level position, a mid-level move, or (it seems unlikely) a senior-level management role?

Assuming one of the first two, I suggest being honest with them. Say something like, "This looks like a great role, and I think I could offer a lot to the organization based on what I have heard so far. However, it would be a tough decision for me, given the compensation we have discussed versus my current salary. Would you be willing to consider $someNumber?"

They've been honest and open with you, from the beginning - which suggests that they're aware that you probably would expect more given your background and/or experience, or that they know that they are underpaying the position. Personally, I would never take a pay cut to move within my industry, but maybe you would. Consider it, be honest, and go from there.
posted by ellF at 5:15 PM on July 22, 2008

Is their offer a fair one for the position? and is it good enough?

If you're having this much of a conundrum about compensation at this stage of the process, how do you think it will be when it comes time for a review and/or raise. Going only by what you have posted I would tell you to pass on it. If it doesn't feel right, it doesn't feel right.

The real question is whether the "sacrifice" (ie salary cut) is worth it. Only you know that. You can try to negotiate the gap if, again, *IF* they offer you the job. If they do, I personally would tell them that I would love, love, love to work for them but they are asking me to make a difficult decision by not coming close to my requirements.

It's tempting to go for an opportunity you've been waiting to present itself but at the same time you need to make sure it's right for you.

Lastly, this is business. Don't take it personally. Ask for what you need otherwise they won't know and they're not just going to give it to you.
posted by eatcake at 5:36 PM on July 22, 2008

They're being up-front with you, and they've upped from "a number-ish" to "a bit higher and more specific number-ish", so they're feeling you out.

If I were you, I'd say that you should be equally honest, and say that their benefits et al as described would certainly offset some of the salary discrepancy, but that the gap is still larger than you want it to be -- but that you hate to walk away given what you've learned about the company and what a good fit you think it might be, so you'd like a bit more time to consider it, and you'd like to meet some of the people you're going to be working with.

And then follow up on that. Of course, if after taking that time and meeting those people you still can't come to grips with the salary difference, say so and move on. It's been said, this is just business, and so you should be businesslike about it and avoid wasting their time (by being up-front about the salary available, they're not wasting yours.)

Oh, and there's no guarantee there's more money; it's possible they do, but it's also possible they have three candidates they like, and they like you best, but HR doesn't want to pay the premium for you...and with two other candidates on the table at a lower price, they won't. Or that their system simply caps the salary and that's that, no flexibility. So don't take it personally, and know that you should be aiming for a package you will be happy with, not trying to stick it to them or milk them dry.
posted by davejay at 5:47 PM on July 22, 2008

I don't think you should discuss salary any further until they have offered you the job.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 6:18 PM on July 22, 2008

I think davejay gives good advice here. I frequently hire for grant funded positions, for which the salary range is very limited. I open interviews (on the phone), particularly with people on the high end of the qualifications spectrum, with describing the salary. There really is no more money to offer even the most qualified applicants, so it seems worth everyone's while to be up front about it.
posted by OmieWise at 6:21 PM on July 22, 2008

In addition to salary, you may want to consider bringing into the negotiation other parts of the compensation package. For instance, is there a performance bonus that can be negotiated? Also think about non-cash benefits that you value, including vacation time, schedule flexibility, training & education, etc. Hiring managers sometimes have more flexibility on non-salary benefits. The more options you can introduce into the negotiation, the more likely it is that you reach a happy agreement.
posted by blue mustard at 7:02 PM on July 22, 2008

The single best bargaining tactic is to walk away (not literally... don't be rude or anything like that). If they really want you, and know they won't get you unless they bump the salary, I think you'll find it amazing how money can be "found" a few weeks later. Like ellF, I wouldn't take such a large pay cut, either. Just make sure they understand that, except for the money issue, you'd be thrilled to work there. But also keep in mind that sometimes there's simply nothing the hiring person can do about it, and move on until you find a better financial match.

Either way, you definitely need to bring this up ASAP since they've been so up-front about their position from the beginning.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 7:15 PM on July 22, 2008

You don't mention how you feel about your current job. If you hate the job
you have now and this job seems to have high potential for growth, the pay
cut might be worth it. Have you asked about their schedule for pay raises? Are
they annual? Do they have standard raises or merit raises or a combination of the two?
could between their matching retirement contributions and a couple of raises you
would quickly match your current salary.

Good luck! (And let us know what you decide!)
posted by knolan at 7:55 PM on July 22, 2008

It's unlikely they'll actually offer you this job at a large pay cut, as they know you'll fly the coop as soon as you find something else that pays better. If you do decide to take this job, do as blue mustard says and negotiate additional time off. If they generally give new hires 10 days vacation a year, ask for 15. Time, as they say, is money.
posted by Joleta at 9:11 PM on July 22, 2008

But a 20% salary cut is still hard to take. It’s a much tougher decision than it would be if they could close that gap a bit more.

Just as a data point: I work in nonprofits. In January I accepted a new job (which I love) at an 18% salary cut from my old job (which I hated, and was making me nuts). Now, because of the economy (our heating oil price has doubled, increasing food prices, etc.) I'm once again looking for a new job (probably returning to the corporate world) because budget decisions that worked in January no longer work in July and really won't work in November.

This is a tough economy to be taking a pay cut in, especially if the cut is that big and will possibly bring your finances down to a more borderline status.
posted by anastasiav at 5:27 AM on July 23, 2008

How would I handle it? Walk away. Never, ever change jobs to a pay cut. The reason for this isn't so much about how much you're being paid now, it's about the fact that at most places, your salary is computed from your prior salary.

Also, it will be something that you will have to explain to prospective employers for a long time. A lot of people will look at a salary history with a pay cut, and think one of two things: a) "This person was forced out of their better paying job - why?" or b) "This person doesn't seem to look at higher salary as a big enough incentive, so what can I do to retain him/her if compensation doesn't work?" You don't want anyone thinking either of these things.

In summary: It's not about your next job, it's about your career as a whole. Pay cuts just look bad.
posted by Citrus at 6:40 AM on July 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

OP here. Thank you for all the help so far. It has given me a lot to think about.

I forgot to mention one key fact, that I have an in-person interview coming up soon. Then if that goes well, they may or may not make an offer.

I am receiving the message that I need to be more upfront about it. With the interview scheduled, should I wait, or should I contact my would-be supervisor in advance and talk about it more?

To answer some questions --

It is a permanent position, not grant funded. (Though I do realize your main point was that their flexibility could be limited.)

The position is a mid-level position (3-5 years experience). (More on this in a second.)

I don't have a set bottom line, so I'm not wasting people's time. Even at the current level, I would consider the job, depending on other factors I'll find out more about at the interview. But I have not decided. I do sometimes I think like Citrus ("every future salary will depend on this one") and I'm not convinced I have to take a salary cut to achieve my goals.

My real hope is that they would make an attempt to boost the authorization enough that after their higher retirement contribution, I would not be going down (in this example, that would mean to $54k). That would make my decision easy. But I don't want to price myself out of the conversation by insisting on that number before they have a chance to get to decide I'm the best candidate. Their number is not so far off that we should quit the conversation, but it is still a bit low for me. What if I say something like "It's within the ballpark of what I would consider, but it's still a bit low for me. Is there any flexibility in that number?" Then, if they there might be, I say "great." And if they say there isn't, but I'm not sure I'd walk at that point, since I'm still doing my research, what do I say?

I can handle the "is it worth it?" question myself, though I appreciate people's input. Without going into too many details, I'll just say that it's understandable that the salary would be lower (because I'm shifting from second-tier management to third-tier staff). But it might still be worth it to me, because I'm switching departments to get experience in an area that qualifies me for a wider variety of leadership positions -- at the moment, I'm in a nice position, but it doesn't lend itself well to advancement or job changes. (A pay cut is a cheaper way of making this shift than going back to school. And my research is mixed, so I don't yet know either way whether I could find a similar job that doesn't require taking a pay cut.)
posted by sockster at 8:54 AM on July 23, 2008

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