bad career advice and salary negotiation

Prepare yourself for a rant.

I’m frequently annoyed by some of the bad job advice that’s out there, and there’s one thing in particular really irking me right now:  “career advisors” who write long articles blithely telling you how to avoid discussing your salary requirements in a job search, with absolutely no acknowledgement of the fact that many, many employers use online application processes that require you to input this number before you can proceed. As in, your application literally won’t be accepted if you don’t enter something in the salary field — and it’s got to be numbers, not text saying you’re “flexible” or “will discuss later” or any of the other strategies they recommend.

It’s all well and good to tell job-seekers that they should delay salary discussions until they have a clearer understanding of the job, or to turn the salary question back around on the employer, but these advice-givers are being lazy and a little inept by not addressing what to do in situations where that’s not an option. It reeks of old-school job-hunting advice given by someone who hasn’t updated their knowledge in the last decade. And the reason this really irks me is because job-hunters deserve something better than the generic, unnuanced, non-reality-based pabulum that passes for career advice in some corners of the web.

For the record, here’s how I think you should handle requests for salary expectations:

1. If you can avoid giving a number up-front when you’re first applying, do.

2. If you can’t avoid it because the company is using an electronic application process that requires it, then you need to decide whether you’re willing to answer or walk away. Does this suck? Yes. Is it the reality of the situation? Yes.  However…

3. One path for potentially avoiding the electronic application problem is to find a way to get the employer interested in you without using the electronic application at all — e.g., network your way into their process and deal with the hiring manager directly, rather than coming in through their application system. But not everyone can do this, so a lot of people are stuck back at #2.

4. Even if you manage to avoid the salary question in the application, there’s a good chance you’ll be asked in the phone interview. You can try to turn it around on them (“what range did you have in mind?”) and sometimes you’ll get an answer, but sometimes you won’t and in that case, if you continue to refuse to talk about it, you’ll risk coming across as obnoxious. That’s your prerogative, but it’s a choice you should make knowingly. (By the way, I’m not defending employers who push you for your range while refusing to state their own — I think they’re silly — but you’ve got to deal with reality, not how stuff should be.)

5. So at some point, you might need to choose between walking away or answering the question. And since most people don’t have the luxury of walking away every time this happens, at some point you’re probably going to need to talk numbers. Therefore, you should be prepared with a range based on research about what comparable positions pay in your geographic area (with the caveat that this advice is borderline-useless for nonprofits, where pay ranges vary wildly).

Please note that there’s nothing in the above about answering salary questions by talking about what you’ll bring to the table (like that would distract them from noticing you didn’t answer the question), or leaving questions blank (as if we’re still using paper applications rather than electronic ones with required fields), or saying that you’d like to defer salary discussions until later in the process, or any of the other crappy advice out there. And when you see that type of thing being pushed by people holding themselves up as experts, I hope you will weigh in with loud disapproval and make it clear that you want real advice on how to handle real situations, not simplistic BS that ignores reality.

– end rant –

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I very much appreciate your acknowledgement of reality. But, you do realize the irony in your “rant”? The overwhelming focus of your advice was on how to avoid discussing salary requirements, negative advice on what not to do, with the presumption that applicants have options which you admit in your introduction that they generally won’t. There’s only one sentence about the relevant case:

    “Therefore, you should be prepared with a range based on research about what comparable positions pay in your geographic area (with the caveat that this advice is borderline-useless for nonprofits, where pay ranges vary wildly).”

    So, could you elaborate on this sentence? How does an applicant research this? How wide or narrow should the range be? What could an applicant do for nonprofits?

    (Sorry to be critical, but I hope you see my point? I got very excited at the introduction of this post, and was disappointed to not have more.)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not sure why you read this as me presuming applicants have options that they often won’t — I gave advice that applies for times when you might have those options (because sometimes you will), with the caveat that they often won’t be applicable, and info on what to do when they’re not. And when you don’t have those options, you’ll need to deal with the fact that yeah, you’re going to need to name a salary range. I didn’t offer more on that, because there isn’t more: either you have options to let you get around the requirement (i.e., networking or an interviewer who’s willing to share information) or you don’t. That’s the point.

      *How* you can research salary ranges is a different topic beyond the scope of this post (and would double its length if included here), but I’ll try to write on it at some point soon.

  2. tami*

    hey there – just a little hint for non-profit job seekers: when thinking about salary for any non-profit position, the best place to start is with where you can see any non-profit’s 990, which will show you the salaries of the 5 highest paid individuals at the organization. that can definitely help you get an idea of the pay range for the position you are looking at. hope that helps! :)

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yes! Absolutely the #1 hint for nonprofit job-seekers! (Although factor in that what the top 5 leaders are being paid may not tell you much about what junior staffers are earning — for example, you may see that senior leadership makes around $150K, but that won’t help you figure out that their more junior positions are in the $40-50K range… something a friend of mine applying at a large nonprofit just realized. So make sure you look at the job titles of those top 5 positions!)

    2. Anonymous*

      It’s important to know that the new 990 (effective for calendar year 2009 and fiscal years starting in 2009) no longer requires the top 5 highest paid positions unless they exceed $100,000 (although it does require information on “key employees”). Unfortunately, this means this avenue is quickly becoming outdated in many cases.

      I often rely on government salary information (since it’s public) to help determine a range for some nonprofit positions. It’s not an exact parallel but many nonprofits operate in a similar environment and it’s probably a better comparison than the private sector.

  3. Shawn*

    I have actually been wanting to ask about the appropriate way to “research” what a proper/competitive salary would be. Most professional jobs don’t post salary ranges and I’ve personally found most salary websites to be too high (or everyone at my company is extremely underpaid). I’m thinking in terms of when I search for my next job. I can base what I’d like to make in the future off what I make now, but I have no idea if that’s over or under-pricing myself.

    1. Talyssa*

      Payscale, glassdoor, sites like that are OK (although the sample sizes can be weird). Do you know anyone else in your field or industry who you could just ask for an opinion? Especially if you know someone that is a hiring manager, even if its not your exact industry or position, they can probably give you a pretty good rough estimate. Pay can actually vary pretty widely because its just a number – there are a LOT of plusses and minuses that come with jobs that you can’t really see in the pay numbers. Which is why companies should tell US what they want to pay and not the other way around. They have a lot more information on the non-monetary benefits of the work environment than you do.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’ll try to write on this soon. I agree with Talyssa that one of the best things to do is to talk to people in your field and ask what they’d expect a job like that to pay.

      I haven’t found the big salary sites likes to be very accurate. Professional niche surveys can be more reliable, but even then, you’re more likely to get the right range by talking to people in your field.

      1. Jamie*

        I am really looking forward to that post – because I have also found that to be inaccurate as well as too general for more specialized fields.

        IT is as tricky as non-profits in it’s own way, because a titles almost never translate to the same job across companies…it really is all about scope of responsibility and specific skill sets. A system admin position in one ad can have very little in common with a system admin in another…so I would love resources where one can get empirical data on the market value of various positions.

  4. Anonymous*

    I am curious where folks go to search out salary info, particularly IT salaries. I use: Dice, SQLServerCentral, and dba-oracle. Any others?

    As an aside, and for Alison, in the IT world, certificates actually do increase your marketability. I know in general you are not a fan of them, but in IT it’s all about the continued education. Snooze a bit and you are out. I try to read a book a month, at the very least. Plus blogs/tweets/etc. I tried LinkedIn for a while but it’s all recruiters and alma mater folks, and I just don’t have the time for that!

    1. Jamie*

      Anonymous is making a great point in that you snooze and you can lose your place in the market very quickly in IT. Our skill sets can become outdated quickly if one isn’t keeping up with the new technology.

      However, I’ve found that while certifications in IT can increase your marketability – that tends to be the case in which the hiring manager doesn’t have the technical expertise to vet a candidate properly on the job requirements. The certifications give them something to cling to.

      Personally, I really don’t want to work for a company where they either have no one on staff to properly evaluate someone for a tech spot, or they aren’t using the people they do have in the hiring process.

      Certifications don’t hurt, and can help…don’t get me wrong. But for me they are an indication that you took the cert test(s) and nothing more. I am much more impressed by someone who, like you, is reading a book a month or keeping up on blogs – etc. and can demonstrate practical know-how than by any certification.

      There are plenty of certified whatevers who can’t put their knowledge into practice and a lot of first rate IT people who are too busy working 60+ hour weeks honing their skills to bother getting the piece of paper.

      I think IT and all it’s sub-specialties are so specific that the criteria really varies from job to job more than most fields, imo.

      1. Anonymous*

        [Orig anon here] Jamie, you are right in that certs don’t really indicate ability to code, but they do get you in the door, and in some subspeciaties they are almost required. That said, I think documenting your work in a blog is a better personal marketing, especially if you are brave enough to put some code samples out there.

    2. Anonymous*

      I don’t place much value on IT certs as many are very easy to obtain but they make a lot of difference when job hunting. I was recently in the market and was almost harassed by recruiters solely based on my certs. It wasn’t unusual to get a dozen calls a day. Other friends of mine with no certs went months with only a few calls. The one-two punch of course is certs backed by experiance in that area. But those that say IT certs don’t matter to hiring managers are simply wrong.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In the interests of not talking about what I don’t know, I’m going to stick with not opining on this outside of my own field (as per what I wrote in the original post — which is here for anyone confused by what what we’re talking about: ) … but I wouldn’t be surprised if Jamie is right that GOOD hiring managers don’t care much about them.

        1. Talyssa*

          A cert can be a nice way to show that you picked up on a new technology – but they’re mostly worthless if they are in a technology you already have experience in except to the kind of hiring managers you DON’T want to work for. But if you’re say, a server admin, and your relevant experience is all on SuperServer 2005 and Superserver 2011 just came out that lets people know in an easy one-glance way that you keep up to date on things in at least a rudimentary way. Its hard to convey that in a resume and IT is an area where people are more likely to just tear off your cover letter and toss it or look at it much later for specific technical positions.

          But its about getting the RIGHT certificate – the right certificates are valuable (and usually expensive as hell like PMP and ITIL). Others look like resume filler. And certificates outside of your specific area can look like resume filler – I know a project manager with a MSCE certificate but I doubt she puts it on her resume when she’s applying to project management jobs unless someone in the job description suggests they would find that valuable. But in certain parts of the country (not all I’m told) if you want to be a PM you’d better have a PMP.

          That probably applies to any industry – the right certificate might be a boost but the wrong certificate makes you look out of touch and like you don’t even know how to research what is valuable in this career that you supposedly want.

          1. Jamie*

            I love the idea of seeing at a glance the applications/languages/etc. I’ve often wished I could submit a spreadsheet instead of a resume – years experience and a rating system to indicate skill level.

            That would dispense with all the actual words and human element of the whole resume process that I personally dread.

            Alison – if anyone has the power to mainstream replacing a resume with a spreadsheet for IT people it would be you!

            I was kidding – but actually I would love to get something like that. I think that would move someone right to the top of the pile if I were hiring. Maybe someday the world will be ready for that!


          2. Chris*

            Yeah, you really have to watch those certificates. I am also trying to find a way to put it delicately. If you have a cert and no experience, it is referred to as a “paper cert”. It is a derogatory term meaning the cert is only worth as much as the paper it is printed. You usually seem them when the requirements for the cert are dropped and the market becomes flooded. The MCSE was the notorious “paper cert” back a few years ago. It may have helped if the company was a MS gold partner, but not so much at other companies. If you have a few certs, please use care when placing them after your name. It works in some cases, but makes you look pompous in others.

      2. Jamie*

        I agree that they matter to some hiring managers – and I’m sure recruiters dog people about them because it’s something they can check off on the requirements. I don’t doubt that can help get your foot in the door in some cases.

        I’ve just found them completely irrelevant in judging someone’s expertise – I put no weight in them and this is an opinion shared by most of my colleagues (not speaking for all IT – just ones I’ve worked with personally).

        Personally if they are required that’s a red flag for me, because I really don’t want to work for a company who can’t vet me properly – but I’m not looking right now. If I were back on the market I would probably start updating my credentials for the very reason you state – recruiters and hiring managers.

        But in a perfect world I would rather work for a company that finds them irrelevant as that indicates that perhaps someone, somewhere, amongst potential co-workers there is someone who speaks the language.

        1. Louis*

          Required cert are not necessarly a red flag. Sometime the employer actually need you to have them in order to keep their own cert.

          My previous employer was a Microsoft gold partner, which brought us a lot of business. In order to maintain our partnership, we had to have a specified number of MCSE, … on board.

  5. AnnaMaison*

    Ah, Allison – thank you for writing the words to the music in my head!

    So many sources out there offer advice that amounts to “expose to heat until done”. You tell us how to bake the cake.

  6. Anonymous*

    This has always frustrated me, too…but I could have guessed that I had to go look up a salary range and hope it didn’t end up disqualifying me or cheating me out of a larger one.

    I’m a bit confused that you recently gave advice not to include Social Security numbers on applications–you said it’s not necessary until you’ve been hired and they’re processing your paperwork and all. The problem with that is that a lot of places need it for background checks, etc, plus you’ve also told us that people who don’t follow application or resume/cover letter instructions to the…well, letter…are annoying because they obviously can’t be bothered to do what’s asked of them. And just like this situation, with online apps you either put it in or don’t apply.

    I came too late to comment on that thread, but it seems odd to say that and then suddenly address the mandatory field thing with salary, which can be a useful weeding tool. I can sort of sympathize with an employer wanting to know if someone’s salary expectation is way out of the ballpark, and with all the applicants they must have right now they can’t interview a ton of people and then find this out later because it said “Negotiable.” (Frankly, I wish they’d pick one salary and stick to it, though).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually said don’t include your SSN unsolicited, something I’ve seen some people do on their resumes.

      (That said, I maintain that employers have no business asking you for it before they’ve hired you, but like other things they have no business asking you for, you take your chances if you decide not to comply. Although with this one, a reasonable employer shouldn’t object to you politely explaining your concern, something that isn’t typically true if you try to evade salary questions.)

  7. Anne*

    As I see it, asking for salary history is a way for a company to low-ball your salary as much as possible. They most certainly DO have a range in mind, and where you fall in that range should be based on your abilities and experience.

    You’re right…many people don’t have the option of walking away from an obnoxious employer in this economy. And that sucks. But if you have several options on the table, I actually think walking away is a great idea. And heck, maybe [politely] explain WHY to this employer so that they realize that their off-putting tactics are scaring away potentially great employees.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Oh, I think salary history is different. With salary expectations, you’ve got to accept that at some point you just might have to be the first one who throws out a number. But salary history is a bit different, and I could see taking more of a stand on principle (whereas it’s harder to argue for the principle of not saying how much you’d like them to pay you). Although even then, you may end up needing to decide if you’re willing to walk away over it.

      I’ve written about requests for salary history here, including some links to some good stuff by Nick Corcodilos on it:

  8. Helena*

    Early in my job search, I asked a career expert on hiring PhD-level scientists about how to handle the required salary number. He said about half of the applications he got put a zero in the field, and that was the best way to satisfy the online form. I’ve put a zero there in all the jobs I’ve interviewed for, and in each case the HR rep either didn’t bring it up or said that field was built into the software and they didn’t actually look at it. I don’t know how applicable this is to other fields, but give the big zero one positive data point!

  9. Ann*

    I ask for the range to make sure we’re in the same ballpark. If I have a position open at 110k and the candidate being interviewed made 160k at his previous job then we need to discuss whether he/she would be interested in the range we’re offering. Positions are budgeted at a certain range before they’re opened so I don’t have much latitude. Another concern I have in a situation where the candidate made much more money in his former position, is that as soon as a position closer to their former range becomes available they will walk out on me.
    As for lowballing I disagree with the other poster; I see no advantages to lowballing a new hire. For a measly few bucks saved you eventually end up with a disgruntled employee you then need to catch up on the salary ranges, with the budget envelope you’ve been handed for raises – that means the others won’t get the raises they deserve since the money is being funneled to catch up the new hire to where they should be. It’s much, much easier when you onboard a new hire at the proper salary.

  10. Eivind Kjørstad*

    I never got the point of giving a “salary range” – if I tell you I expect to be paid $100K to $150K/year, depending on job-responsibilities and other factors, what exactly does the higher limit tell you ?

    Does it mean I’d decline a $175K/year job ?

    Practically, the lower number I mention is going to be the only one relevant, because the *real* reason for asking tends to be some variant of “how low can I make my first offer, without offending you.”

    I thus try to name only a single number – in those circumstances where I can’t avoid it, or can’t avoid it without being rude. I expect this number too to be negotiated downwards.

    It’s not as if it’ll go like this: “What compensation are you expecting?” “I was hoping for something around $120K/year” “How about $145K?”

    Thus, the number needs to be high enough that I don’t get it. (if they immediately say “yes!” then it’s a pretty sure sign I was asking for not-enough), yet realistic enough not to cause offense.

    I generally go with mentioning a number aproximately 125% of my best-guess as to what a position “should” pay for someone with my qualifications.

    1. Anonymous*

      I agree with this. I have NEVER been offered more than the lowest end of the range I gave (ok except one that offered me a whopping $1500 more).

  11. Anonymous*

    One good way to get salary info is to work with a recruiter. When I got out of grad school, I used this technique, and it gave me a good place to start.

    At my current job, during the interview, when my manager asked what my salary expectations were, I hemmed and hawed for awhile. He then came to me and said that we just need to make sure we’re in the same ball park. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Oh, I think $80k is a bit out of my league.” He chuckled for a moment and said that this was the first time he had ever heard someone give a “maximum” number — everyone always gives a “minimum”. I told him that for a minimum, I could spout off the national averages for my technical skills, but that averages don’t take into account my domain-specific knowledge nor the above-average cost of living for this area, so there was no way I was going to throw out a lower number and be held to it.

    He responded by saying that the company has its payscales, and they don’t lowball people for the sake of it. They pay what they pay, and if it happens to be more than what we state, they’ll still pay us more. I never did have to give a lower number, and they paid me closer to the “max” than I thought they would.

  12. anonymous*

    The advice I give to people on salary negotiations — and this is CRITICAL – never allow yourself to be low-balled.

    I once worked with a guy who took an $8000 pay cut to jump jobs. His thinking = “I’ll get it back.” HOW?

    Example = you want to start at $80,000. Employer offers $72k. You jump. Now, in April 2011 you are making $72,000, not $80,000. If review time comes in April 2012, they give you 4 percent. So instead of making $83,000 in April 2012, your salary is $75,000. Add in inflation – you never catch-up.

    Going one step beyond this – you have planted an evil seed in management’s head. “Ho HO! We got him for less money! Whoo-hoo! Now, we can dump on him for the rest of his career!”

    You set yourself up for negotiation by counter-offer down the road, and not through respect for you or the job you’re doing. Going in at a lower salary than you expect brings on problems now and later.

    It also is a dumb method to manage by, I might add. When you low-ball someone, you’re setting up the guy or gal to continually seek out his or her true market value.

  13. ellen*

    I find myself having to answer the question about salary requirements frequently during phone screens.
    My problem is that in my previous job, I was living in working in an area with historically very low wages and cost of living. The jobs I am applying for now are in higher wage areas. I’ve also been told since I’ve been out of work for 2 years, I should take less than my last salary, even in a higher wage area.

    What should I do?

  14. Ron C*

    How do you find a salary range? Ask when you do the informational interviews you set up thru LinkedIn, or your own network. Have a range in mind before applying for any job. Non profit salary ranges? Know if you are applying at a 501(c)6 or 3. Charities, the 3, pay less but they are consistent. Applying at a 6? Check out ASAE for info. There is no mystery to salary ranges if you do the homework

  15. Joe*

    What you forgot to mention is the fact that the ONLY reason a company would ever need one’s salary is to benefit them financially, not you. There is an old saying, ” He who speaks of money first is the one that loses.” In the last 8 years, I stopped giving my salary to perspective employers and have essentially given myself a $20K raise—all because I did not disclose salary!! Keep in mind, most employers now will only verify whether or not you worked at a company and dates. With an online application, all you have to do is put $0.00 in the salary field.

    The REALITY is this: If a company won’t hire you because you won’t disclose what you’ve made at previous jobs, then they really aren’t that interested in you! So, do you really want to work for someone like that? I don’t. Just my 2 cents worth, but hey, it’s worked for me. :-) BTW: I’ve worked in HR and Background Employment screening companies.

  16. Eva*

    AAM, I just re-read this post including the comments, and two commenters mention that they’ve had smooth sailing after just entering a zero in the online form. Maybe that’s an option to highlight in the post itself?

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