10 salary negotiating mistakes you need to avoid

Not much makes job seekers more anxious than negotiating – or even talking about –salary. After all, you might ask for too much, or ask for too little, or otherwise sabotage your own chances of getting the best possible salary. But salary negotiation will go more smoothly if you know what landmines to avoid.

When it comes time to negotiate salary for a new job, make sure that you don’t make these 10 key errors.

1. Being unprepared. Employers are likely to ask at some point what salary range you’re looking for, possibly as soon as in their first contact with you. If you’re caught off-guard, you risk low-balling yourself or otherwise saying something that will harm you in salary negotiations later. So it’s crucial to do your homework ahead of time so that you’re ready when the question comes up.

2. Negotiating before you have an offer. There’s no point in trying to negotiate before you have a job offer; after all, the employer still haven’t even decided if they want to hire you yet. Your leverage will be far stronger once someone is certain that you’re the one they want.

3. Relying on online salary sites to give you accurate information. While salary sites might seem like the most obvious way to figure out what to ask for, these sites are frequently unreliable, in part because the job titles they list often represent wildly different scopes of responsibility. Professional associations in your industry might do more reliable salary surveys, but even then, you’re more likely to get the right range by talking to people in your field.

4. Discussing salary in your cover letter. Some candidates announce their salary requirements in their cover letters without being asked for it, and some even include their salary history on their resumes! There’s no reason to talk money at this stage, and doing it unprompted at the application stage can come across as naïve.

5. Citing your own finances. Salary conversations should be solely about your value to the company, not about your own finances. Employers don’t pay people based on financial need, so don’t cite your mortgage or your kid’s college tuition as a reason for asking for more money.

6. Asking for too long to respond to an offer. It’s normal to ask for a few days to consider an offer, and sometimes employers will give you a week or so. But if you ask for much time beyond that, you risk signaling that you’re not excited about the job but might settle for it if you don’t get any other offers. That’s a good way to lessen the hiring manager’s enthusiasm and bring into question your own.

7. Not factoring in the benefits package. Salary is only one part of a compensation package; you also need to factor in benefits like health care, retirement contributions, and paid leave. After all, if you’ll be paying significantly more for health care or receiving fewer paid vacation days than you’re used to, that might cancel out part of any salary gains you hope to make. On the other hand, being able to work from home or having an on-site day care might be benefits that make it worth it to you to take a slightly lower salary.

8. Underestimating happiness as a factor. A higher salary generally won’t make up for a job that you’ll be miserable at, so think carefully about factors other than money: the work you’ll be doing, the people you’ll be working with, the company culture, and even the length of your commute. It might be worth giving up a bit of extra pay to ensure that you’re happy going to work every day.

9. Listening to bad advice. Negotiation advice that worked a few decades ago isn’t always effective now. In fact, some of it can hurt your chances. For instance, delaying the salary conversation as long as you can or refusing to name a figure first – common advice in previous generations – can backfire today by turning the employer off and making you look like you’re playing games.

10. Not negotiating. Whatever you do, do negotiate. If you simply take the first salary you’re offered, you’ll never know if you could have received more simply by asking.

I originally published this column at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. AD

    Great list! I know we’ve also talked here before about candidates who somehow thought they could get way more than the posted salary range, and why that’s really just wasting everyone’s time.

  2. Anonymous

    Thanks for posting this! This list is really helpful.

    Could you also provide some recommendations and tips on how to negotiate a salary after an offer has been made? How to approach the issue, how to phrase things in the negotiation, etc.

    If an employer were to make an offer that was within my salary range (exactly halfway within my range), is it reasonable to negotiate toward the higher end? What’s the most professional way to tackle this?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You know, I tend not to get into the specifics of how to do the negotiation, because my tips are entirely around the lines of: Just be straightforward. Which no one really finds helpful, but it’s all I’ve got.

      Just be straightforward: “I was hoping for something around $X.” “If you can offer $X, I’d be thrilled to accept.” Etc.

      I know there are tons of articles out there with advice on game strategy for negotiations and so forth, but honestly, this is what I’ve found works.

      1. Susanna- From fair chance post

        I saw on your facebook page wanting suggestions for U.S. News post. You received some very good ones. I was wondering “What to say in an interview when someone ask about how long you have been looking for a job?” I have been looking for 5 months now and I know that after some point it looks different to employers. Also, is there anyway you can follow-up when you submit a resume online to a website? Is there a way to get a result and not seem pushy? It seems to go into a blackhole never to be seen again. I printed out How to prepare for an interview. I have read this and love it. I also listened to you last night on this but I really wish I could use this in a real interview. Thank you Alison.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          Thanks, Susanna! One thing you can do in that situation, since you’re looking for work after a period of staying home to take care of your kids, is that you don’t need to mention it’s been five months! You can say that you started looking recently and are taking your time to find the right fit, or something like that — no need to tell them anything beyond that!

          1. Susanna- From fair chance post

            Thank you. How can I explain the year and half I worked when my youngest was in high school? I really need to use this for a reference because if not then gosh it is really going to look like I have zero experience. I also think I just might go cold calling. Someone I know from school told me that was how she got her job working for a doctor. She just walked in and ask could she leave her resume. She told me that she always got some responses after doing this several places. If I can just get up the nerve to walk in like that.

            1. class factotum

              Susanna, I have gotten two interviews recently after five years of unemployment. I addressed the matter straight on in my cover letter: I was laid off, I met my husband, he works long hours and travels so we decided that for the sake of actually getting to see each other occasionally, I wouldn’t get another job, but now he wants to change careers (to something that pays a lot less), so I need to go back to work. It doesn’t seem to have been a problem.

              1. Susanna- From fair chance post

                Thank you for posting this. I am trying to get my confidence back up and right now it has been a challenge.

            2. Anonymous

              Not all companies respond well to cold calling or walk ins. It depends on the company. We’ve experienced this at my current firm, and it’s generally viewed as a frustrating interruption.

  3. Dana

    I understand why you shouldn’t cite personal finances, like children’s tuition… but what about cost of living adjustments, particularly when they ask what your current salary is? To maintain my current standard of living in the place I’m going to move, I’ll need to earn about 70% more. Is this irrelevant?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Cost of living is relevant, but it’s not as much about maintaining your current standard of living as it is about the fact that the going rate for a particular job is often different in one area than in another. You want to figure out what the market rate is for that work in the area you’re moving to. Sometimes that’s enough to maintain your same standard of living, but other times (like in NYC, for instance) it might not be.

      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        Oh, but if they ask what your current salary is and you choose to tell them (something I maintain is none of their business), you should absolutely say, “This is in North Carolina, where the cost of living is significantly lower. The same work in New York (or wherever they’re located) obviously pays differently.”

          1. AD

            Salary.com has a calculator that shows the cost of living and salary adjustments when you move from city A to city B. While it is obviously a very rough cut, you can get an idea of how both adjust, and note that they are not well-correlated in a lot of places. For example, if you are moving to NYC from virtually anywhere else in the country, your cost of living is going to go up way more than your salary will.

            1. Dana

              Huh, that’s pretty interesting- thanks!

              I know I shouldn’t expect an equivalent standard of living necessarily (at least I’m not planning a move to NYC…) but I think I might have lowballed myself when I moved here because the cost of living is lower. Oh well, live and learn- it’s good to have a ballpark idea of what I can expect.

            2. Michael

              Always be weary of those cost of living calculators, because of how they calculate the overall adjustment is skewed. Look at the percent differences for each category and make your own decision.

              As an example: They will show an overall increase of 14%, but you’ll see that housing is 250% more. If you have a large family and want to maintain the same square footage, you’ll need to make 250% more or stay where you are.

        1. ChristineH

          “if they ask what your current salary is and you choose to tell them (something I maintain is none of their business)”

          Even on a job application – a legal document? I guess I always took salary history questions to mean that they want to see your track record; that is, you’re not all over the place (for example, I earned $24K in Job A, then went up to $45K in Job B).

          (sorry for the tangent)

          1. Joe

            Out of curiosity, what makes a job application “a legal document”? I agree that you shouldn’t lie (I would leave it blank, myself), but that’s because the employer will probably reject you if they find out. There’s no particular legal weight to a job application, any more than there would be to scribbling, “I make $1,000,000 per year” in crayon on your napkin at Denny’s. Even if there is boilerplate at the bottom of the application like, “I certify that the above is true to the best of my knowledge, blah blah blah”, my understanding is that there is no legal consequence to false claims there, it just gives them better grounds for dismissal/whatever if they find you lied. A job application is not a contract, so there’s a lot less legal weight to it.

            (Disclaimer: IANAL, this is my layman’s understanding.)

            1. Ellen M.

              Sometimes at the end of the form there is a sentence or two to the effect of: “To the best of my knowledge, the information I have given here is accurate.” And then you date and sign it. So if you lie, you just signed your name to a lie.

              At the very least it’ll cost you the job if/when the employer finds out – you won’t get offered the job, or the offer will be rescinded, or if you’ve been hired you’ll be forced to resign.

              I advise my students not to lie on any document or verbally or online in any way when job hunting. It will likely cause you long-lasting regret. It’s just not worth the risk.

            2. anon-2

              Well, it depends if you actually lied, or listed things by an approximate recollection. Example – if your salary at a place was $55,000, and you put $56,000 down … or,

              If your tenure at XYZ corporation was from January 1990 to October 1990 and you said it was January-November, that would not be lying but to the “best of my recollection”.

              On the other hand – if you were a convicted felon, and were asked if you “were ever convicted of a crime” and said “no” — well, folks, that’s a “big whopper” and grounds for termination. Another issue that’s hot these days – claiming to be a military veteran, when you weren’t.

      2. anon-2

        “Cost of living” should not be confused with MODE OF LIVING.

        Living costs are higher in, say, New York City versus Columbia, South Carolina.

        And for many professionals, the opportunities are greater in New York as well.

        If you want to live in an apartment, use public transportation, and take advantage of everything an urban area like NYC offers, your mode of living would differ greatly. You won’t be able to afford his’n’hers’ monster trucks, but you won’t need them or even want them in Gotham. The 4000 square foot house? No, it won’t be there, but you have theatres, sports teams, museums, universities, different recreational opportunities, and so forth.

  4. Anon this time

    I did one of these yesterday. I was prepared: I’ve picked myself out an awesome mentor and she’s been giving me some great advice (plus, y’know, I read AAM every day!)

    I’d looked up the position level in the company and in my city on Glassdoor and it was double my salary: I spoke to my mentor and we agreed a strategy to get to the (wishful thinking) figure I had in mind. It was to ask for slightly more and expect a bit less, basically.

    The conversation I had with the HR person was hilarious. She pretended not to know the salary range for the position, which I did not believe for a second. I didn’t actually reveal my current salary, instead I told her it was a completely different situation and bore no relation to the new position – which was true, by the way.

    I asked her the band, which she didn’t tell me, so just I named my figure. She made a show of saying it was way too high and went lower, I ‘reluctantly’ agreed in principle, and she added on a perk which would bring the salary in line with my original request.

    So – I got what I wanted. Could I have pushed for more? Hmmm… maybe, but I had already worked out what I wanted and got it after a bit of haggling. Alison makes such a good point – you have to be prepared, and maybe work out what success looks like for you first.

    Good luck…

    1. AD

      Well done! And don’t worry for a second about whether you could have gotten more, the bottom line is that you got a salary you are happy with, and hopefully you are excited for your new position.

  5. Joy

    #10 – what if the salary (not the range, but one figure) is posted on the job announcement or at the interview you are handed the salary scale and benefits package. I’m searching/interviewing in the public interest sector and have encountered both frequently. Doesn’t that mean salary negotiation isn’t an option?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You can try for a bit over that, but usually not much beyond. (And exception would be if you’re bringing so much to the table beyond their initial vision for the position that you’re essentially changing the job they’re hiring for.)

      1. ChristineH

        I had the same question as Joy did. So, if an interviewer says, “This position pays $x/year or $x/hour, is this okay?”, is it acceptable to say “yes”?

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          If you want to preserve your power to negotiate for a bit more later, you can try saying something like “It sounds like we’re in the same ballpark” (assuming that you are).

  6. Tasha

    Great tips! Does anyone have any tips for/experience with requesting/negotiating a HAM (hiring above minimum) for a civil service job? I am currently a civil service employee and have been at the max pay for a couple of years. I’ve been interested in a job change for some time. I recently had a panel interview for a civil service position in different public sector org, but the position is related to my current position. The starting pay for this position is only $36 more a month than my current pay. I’d like to earn more at the next job I have. I have not received a job offer; just thinking ahead in case I do. If I’m offered the position, I’m pretty sure I’d accept it (even at the starting salary) because it’s in a field in which I really want to work. Thanks.

    1. Malissa

      If you are on a step system ask to be put in at step 2 or 3 based upon previous experience. If it’s with-in the same organization this is usually very do able. Anywhere else there’ usually no argument on getting to step two if they think you are worth it.

      1. Tasha

        Thanks. The job is in a completely different organization and industry than my current one, but my work experience is the same.

        1. Malissa

          I say try for at least a step two. Also I would ask, after getting an offer, if the pay scale is frozen. Many government entities have done this in the last few years. If it is frozen shoot for a step that is at least half-way up the scale as you may be making that for a while.

  7. ChristineH

    #9 – A ha! No wonder the temp agency I interviewed at a few years ago was so insistent on getting me to name a hourly wage figure! I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I was probably going by the “say that you’re open to negotiation” type of advice.

  8. Anonymous

    And is it true that you should always go back with a specific amount? I read somewhere that if they give you an amount and you just ask for something higher (rather than naming a $$ amount), some HR people will just go maybe $1K higher than their original offer. Basically, that unless you come back with a number, you’re only going to get a really small increase.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Yeah. You can’t just say “I want more” or they don’t know how much you mean — you need to say “I was expecting more in the X range.”

  9. Shane

    “can backfire today by turning the employer off and making you look like you’re playing games.”

    It doesn’t just looks like it. This kind of “No you go first” mentality IS playing games. To be perfectally fair the interviewer is also playing the game but at some point one of you has to crack.

    If it were me interviewing and I noticed the conversation start going around in circles I would concede with a (researched and honest) broad range that I would be comfortable working within. Keep playing and both sides will just end up frustrated and if I want the position I am not going to do myself too many favours by being stubborn.

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