was I burned in this salary negotiation?

A reader writes:

I was contacted by the recruiter of a company about a position a few weeks back. Titles for what I do for a living are often arbitrary, so I expressed to her that I wasn’t sure the salary would be enough in that it was a “specialist” role — even though the job responsibilities were similar to my former position as a manager. She informed me that they were offering a base of “around X, with flexibility.” Since my former salary was about $3,000 more than X, and since I had moved to an area with a higher cost of living, I felt that I probably could get X plus $5,000 and still be within the position’s range. I was wrong. When I received their initial offer, it was $3,000 lower than my former salary. I was a little put off but tried to negotiate. They came up to my former salary and wouldn’t budge from there. I passed on the job, but am now a little burnt by their waste of my time.

So, my question is… did I do something wrong? If a recruiter tells you that they are looking at “around X” and state that they have flexibility, would $5,000 above X seem like too much to ask for similar work, but a higher cost of living (and the addition of travel)?

“Around X, with flexibility” doesn’t mean “it’ll definitely be more than X.” It means “we’d be open to going higher than X, but it might take a really great candidate who we don’t want to let get away.”

She told you the salary would be around X, and they offered you X. When you asked for more, they offered you X plus $3,000. They didn’t want you enough to go higher than that. I’m sorry.

I don’t think they burned you or wasted your time. In fact, if anything, it sounds like you weren’t entirely straightforward yourself; apparently you’d only consider X plus $5,000, but you didn’t mention that when that first salary discussion happened. And that’s totally your prerogative, but it doesn’t make sense to feel like they burned you or wasted your time.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. Ms Enthusiasm*

    Something I’ve always been curious about… Hom much does cost of living REALLY play into salary. I worked for a place here in the Midwest that had their corporate headquarters in San Diego. I heard people remark that when considering trying to get a job at corporate and move to San Diego that the increase in pay didn’t seem to cover moving to such an expensive area.

    1. Anonymous*

      Some things are less in big cities, some things are more. San Diego homes are freakishly expensive. To get anything under $300K, you can count on an hour commute, so, more gas, you’ll need a car sooner, and auto insurance will be higher. Does that help?

    2. Natalie*

      I wonder if it goes the other way, so to speak. I work for a company based in a more expensive city than my own, and our salaries are on the high end of market in my area. I imagine they are more in the middle of market for our company’s hometown.

  2. Brittany*

    I agree! I do not think you got burned, I think you just needed to be more clear about your salary requirements. I had an opportunity that would have been an extremely lateral move for me, and I decided to be very upfront about my salary needs. I told them straightforward, “I am not comfortable discussing my current salary because I do not feel it is an accurate representation of my duties or capabilities. In order to make this move a genuine growth opportunity, I was hoping to come in somewhere in the X range.” In the end, they thanked me for my honesty about my salary needs and said they would bring it to the Director for approval, which I never expected (I thought I would get a flat NO but I can try. right?) I didn’t end up taking it for other reasons, but I was still pleased with the result I got.

  3. Wilton Businessman*

    As soon as the conversation about money came up, you should have said that you were looking for X+5K. That gave them the option of passing right away or taking a risk that they waste everybody’s time and lose you for $2K. Regardless, it’s 2K and if you were the right candidate and that made you happy, I would find the 2K.

  4. Anonymous*

    Hm. These numbers are *so* close that we’re really splitting hairs trying to decipher the company’s and the OP’s intent.

    First, I never heard the OP say she “required” the extra $5k. She just said she felt she could get it. The way I read it, she rejected the job on principle (or emotion) not because the job didn’t meet her “salary requirements.”

    I’m not going to say she should have been more clear about her bottom line. When you’re haggling over a few grand, many factors come into play: commute, health insurance, 401k match, blah blah. I’d drop $2k off my bottom line for a better 401k match or extra week of vacation in a heart beat. (That $2k is pretax, so my net impact will be significantly less.)

    That said, I can’t believe this deal fell apart over $2k. It’s $2k! It’s nothing. Somebody might be eating a little crow back in the HR office.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      One explanation is that they felt like, “We told her we were going to offer X, which we did. When she asked for more, we went up by $3K. We’re not going up any further.” If they have other candidates they’d be happy to hire, I could see holding firm at that point.

      It also matters what X is. If X is $100k, then another $2k isn’t a big deal. But if X is $35k, then it’s a bigger percentage jump.

  5. Jamie*

    ITA that if there is a definite number you need for them to hit for you to consider the job, being upfront about that will save you time.

    I hate the salary negotiation dance, and I think 5k is typically within the range which is negotiable (it’s certainly not uncommon) – but sometimes the deal breakers can be as little as 2k – for either party.

    Although 2k is only 38.46 per week pre-taxes…after taxes it’s under $30. Areas with significant differences in cost of living are typically discrepant by more than that – so I’m not sure how the additional money would have closed that gap anyway.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I so wish more people would consider what salary increases break down into per week — sometimes people are really agitating for a number that is barely going to be noticeable in a weekly paycheck.

        1. Jamie*

          It isn’t as cut and dried both ways, though.

          Employers (and departments within the organization) have budgets and parameters (like pay ranges).

          If the top of the pay range for position X is 50k and you want 52k the financial impact for you is less than $30 per week. The impact for the employer for hiring someone in outside the range is much greater…because it would be $x per week * employees affected. If there are 10 employees in that pay grade 2k*20 = 40k which they may or may not need to negotiate at some point.

          The same applies to the number of employees being hired. Let’s say a company is hiring for 5 open positions: if you flex up on 2k for everyone (staying with the monetary example) you just increased your hiring budget by 10k. Is that money coming out of merit raises for current employees? Would you eliminate one position in order to raise the range for the others…so one less person would be hired?

          There is a myriad of factors which figure into an employer’s offer – and they go far beyond the employee.

          If those don’t come into play and you’re an employer who doesn’t use policy based pay grades and you’re hiring for 1-2 positions…you have more leeway (generally) for a great candidate. If that’s the case and there is still reluctance over 2k…it’s good to know before you get in. A company which will low ball you for the sake of it isn’t somewhere I want to work. Can you imagine what merit raise negotiations are like in places like that? I’d just as soon know up front.

          1. Mike C.*

            Uh, employees have budgets and parameters as well. Is taking pay cut or bargaining for a smaller raise going to cut into the ability to raise children, pay down debts or save for the future?

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Of course. I think the point here (originally) was just that it’s worth looking at what that pay increase will actually mean for you in your paycheck. I’ve seen people thrilled to get a raise of $X, and then after the negotiation is over and they get their first paycheck at the higher rate, they realize it’s not at all the difference they thought it would be. It’s worth doing the math!

            2. Jamie*

              Of course not – we all have financial concerns…and for an employee (or candidate) I would wager that our financial interests mean more to us than the employer’s interested do to them.

              An employer saving 10k on a salary is a business move. 10k for me is immediately translated in my head as to paying off this semesters tuition for two kids in college. It’s absolutely more personal to me.

              I don’t think anyone should take a dime less than what they feel they are worth. I was just pointing out that the candidate is dealing with balancing the money only against their own needs…where employers may not have that kind of latitude.

      1. Mike C.*

        The other issue with a number is that for many, the only time they will ever see a significant rise in wages is when they change jobs, so combined with all the literature out there telling people to negotiate, I think that’s why you see this sort of behavior.

        It doesn’t help when you alos have employers that demand full wage histories, but you’ve ranted about that practice plenty. :)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Totally agree. In my experience, there are only 2 ways to get a significant increase: (1) be a total super-star at your current job (and be working somewhere capable of recognizing that) or (2) change jobs.

          1. Anonymous*

            Option 2b….get a job offer and use that as leverage to get a pay increase…of course you better be willing to take the other offer if you try this. I’ve successfully accomplished this twice over a 15 year career at my employer. Definitely not something you can pull every other year though.

            My office is definitely not somewhere that recognizes the talent that they have, until the threat of them leaving is staring them in the face.

          2. Anda T*

            And (3) don’t work in the higher education field as anything BUT a teacher. No raises in 3 years , no matter how awesome you are at your job.

            1. Liz in a Library*

              Or many state governments. Our state employees haven’t even had a cost of living in four years…

              (Not a state employee here, just sympathetic.)

        2. Jamie*

          I was just discussing this with my boss the other day – about how some people leave jobs they like because sometimes it’s the only way to get the big leaps in salary.

          I know it happens all over – but it’s very predominant in IT.

          With corporate IT it seems to be a vicious cycle (at least in SMB):
          -Many are hired in as technology is expanding in business, or to solve a problem. Very visible and very necessary.
          – Do a good job and downtime is minimized, things running fairly smoothly…after a while some start to wonder if IT is a necessary expense. Raises aren’t as forthcoming as they once were.
          – IT moves on to another company who is in an upward swing or crisis mode commanding a lot more money than they made at company A.
          – Company A figures out the smooth running system didn’t happen in a vacuum and 100% outsourced tech support is financially crippling.
          – Company A hires in another IT at more than the previous, because now they see the need….until the need is less visible
          – repeat ad nauseum.

          And of course everyone jumping jobs (regardless of field) wants as much as they can get coming in the door. Part of it is logic – that’s the negotiation which sets the tone for your financial future there (often). Part of it is ego – many of us have some of our self worth wrapped up in the size of our salaries. So we have an emotional investment in having our value set as high as possible.

      2. jmkenrick*

        Not entirely relevant, but this reminds me of an article I read a year or two back about how even though people tend to be very opinionated on the issue, most of us don’t actually notice their tax breaks or increases when applied.

        Just to be clear (I know it’s a contentious issue right now) the article wasn’t advocating for less or more taxes, just reflecting on how people actually look at their fiances versus how they THINK they look at their fiances. I wish I could find it again…

        1. Natalie*

          That rings true for me. I follow politics fairly closely, but I barely noticed when the payroll tax cut went through last year. I don’t make that much, either, so you’d think it’d have jumped out at me.

  6. Aaron*

    It seems like the OP thinks you can always negotiate your way to the very highest point in the salary range. Allison, I know you bring this up a lot, but that’s not usually how it works–ideally the upper end of the salary range should be for those who bring more to the table, not those who are great negotiators.

    The fact that the new job is in a higher-cost-of-living area and involves travel may be relevant to prevent the OP from getting low-balled (it convinces the company you’re not desperate to take the job), but it doesn’t demonstrate why the OP is the best person they could hope to hire for the role.

  7. Joey*

    When negotiating it helps to show some hard stats of the cost of living differences. Most people and companies I see rely on their own anecdotal knowledge. Just telling someone that the place you would move to is x dollars more than your current rent/mortgage isn’t very compelling. You can usually find reputable national reports on the cost of living indexes for most US cities at your local library. Just make sure the data actually supports your position. As an employer I always have it handy when I’m looking at a salary offer for someone from another city or state.

        1. Mike C.*

          Where do they get their info? I’m a bit of a stats geek and I generally head to the Census or BLS for data, so if there’s something better I’m all ears.

  8. anonymous*

    For the record — I’m the reader that wrote in… a few points for clarification…

    No. 1) They came after me. I didn’t apply to a listing; they saw my resume online and contacted me. They had interviewed 12 candidates before me and no one had gone as far through the process.
    No. 2) The $2,000 difference isn’t much after taxes, true, but the commute to the office added an expensive toll road to my route and extended my commute considerably. The difference of 2 grand was to cover the increased cost of work.
    No. 3) What upset me was that the HR person was intending for it to be “around X” not “up to x” and they were fully aware of what my former salary was. The issue was that she hadn’t confirmed her range with the higher ups at her company in HR. They looked at the position and determined it was a firm X, then acted offended that I asked for the aforementioned flexibility.
    No 4) I didn’t know I wanted “X plus five” until I interviewed for the position. We discussed salary before my first real interview (as she had reached out and I was concerned that it was a specialist role).

    All in all, I just felt low balled and a little burnt over her lack of homework on the salary. If she had known that he company would only offer X, she should have told me up front. I wouldn’t have even taken the suit to the dry cleaners for that.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But they didn’t only offer X. They offered X plus $3k.

      Again, “X with flexibility” means “X but maybe more for the right candidate.” You just might not have been the candidate they were willing to pay more than X (+ 3k) for, and they might not have known that definitively until after the interview.

  9. anonymous*

    But, what employer offers you your former salary (which is X plus 3k) and calls that flexing??

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Your former salary isn’t as relevant to them as what they’ve judged the market value of the position to be. They’ve decided the market value of the position is X. They’re not going to pay you more than they think the job is worth.

  10. anonymous*

    I see your point. And, I do hear what you are saying. But, a simple “the job pays x” would have kept me from wasting time. They know what they want to pay. Just come out with it. Don’t say you are flexible if you really have capped it and aren’t willing to pay much more.

    In any case, thanks for your thoughts. Nice to have someone to whom one can go in order to talk about this type of stuff anonymously, and your advice is sound.

    I will stop feeling burnt now.

    1. anonymous*

      I think the point being made is that they might have been willing to pay more if they decided you were worth it but they had to interview you to decide that.

  11. Bob G*

    To the OP, I feel your pain. I recently went through a 3 month interview cycle with an employer that I really wanted to work for. They advertised in a national job bank due to the specialized nature of the work I do. I had multiple phone interviews with HR, the hiring manager, several other executives. I asked about relocation since I’d be moving several states away and was told they “understood they’d have to pay relocation”. After a couple months I was informed that they narrowed their field down to myself and 1 other candidate. They flew me in for a full day of interviews with the same people I had interviewed over the phone. Finally a week later they decided they were going to “find a local candidate without any industry experience and train them”.

    I felt burnt just like you did due to the time investment I made (and taking the suit to the cleaners). I do feel your pain.

    After all of that I simply added three of them to my Linkedin connections and emailed them to “thank them for their time and wished them luck and to keep me in mind in the future”. I think you should do the same because like you said they initially reached out to you so there is no reason to think they may not do so again in the future.

    1. Anonymous*

      Thanks for posting your experience. I know how it feels to have interviewed mulitple times out of state and not get the job. Been there, done that, although I thought I was the one with the bad ordeal!

  12. Vicki*

    When salary has come up for me in a job interview, I have always said “This is what I am making at the current job. I want at least this much and would prefer a little more.”

    In OP’s case, X was below her current salary. She should have said “I am making X+3K; this area is more pricey, I would like a bump.”

    You can’t assume. I “assumed” once when I was converting from contractor to ft employee that they’d convert the hourly directly to salary. They didn’t. I didn’t know any of this until I was given the acceptance form.

    That company never treated me well and let me go (surprise!) along with two dozen other people a year later.

  13. Nikki*

    This post and the discussion in the comments is priceless. I’ve learned so much just viewing others’ experiences with negotiating salary.

    I’m interviewing with an out-of-state company on Monday morning (fingers crossed). These points will help me if the interview moves into a salary negotiation. :)

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