5 myths about negotiating salary

Job seekers get more nervous about negotiating salary than seemingly any other part of the job application process. Negotiation doesn’t come naturally to most people, and they’re often not sure how hard to push for more money, or whether to push at all.

Here are five myths you might believe about negotiating salary, and why they’re wrong.

1. You should always negotiate, no matter what. While you should usually try to negotiate, there are some cases where you shouldn’t. For instance, if you tell an employer the salary range you’re looking for and they offer you something at the high end of your range — or even higher than your range — asking for more would look make you look like you were playing games or not operating in good faith. Similarly, if an employer discusses salary with you earlier in the process and you agree to a range, you can’t really ask for more at the offer stage; you already agreed. In general, anything that makes you look like you’re operating in bad faith will turn off an employer.

2. Never name a number first. Negotiating advice generally says that whoever names a number first loses. But the reality is that many employers will insist that you discuss your salary expectations before they’ll allow you to move forward in their hiring process. Refusing or pushing too hard to hear a number from them first can make you look overly coy or like you’re playing games.

3. One good strategy is to take a lower salary now with the understanding that it will be revisited in a few months. Candidates sometimes suggest this, figuring it’s a compromise that will allow them to prove themselves once on the job, and then get rewarded for it later. However, it often backfires. Your negotiating power is strongest before you’ve accepted a job – it’s far easier to negotiate more money before you start than it is to get a raise once you’re already employed there. Don’t count on a hefty raise down the road; do your negotiations now, before you accept the offer.

4. Employers will be put off if you try to negotiate. Job applicants sometimes worry that simply asking for more money will cause the employer to pull the job offer altogether. But as long as you handle the discussion in a pleasant, professional, and non-adversarial way, and as long as you’re not asking for an unrealistic amount, no reasonable employer will pull an offer. That said, some employers do bristle when a candidate tries to negotiate – but that’s the sign of an unreasonable, dysfunctional employer, and you probably would have encountered plenty more dysfunction if you worked there. In other words, don’t worry about turning off an employer by reasonable negotiation – you won’t be losing any employer worth worrying about.

5. You can lie about your current salary in order to get a higher salary offer. Candidates sometimes figure that by claiming they’re currently earning more than they really are, they’ll get a higher offer from a new employer. But this is dangerous to do, because plenty of employers verify salary history, either by asking to see a recent pay stub or a W-2, or by checking with the previous employer directly. And they often do this after you’ve already accepted a job offer as part of their new hire paperwork, which means that you risk having the offer pulled over the lie – after you’ve already accepted it and resigned your current job.

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

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. BCW*

    Question for people pertaining to #1. If an employer gives a solid number, not a range, is there any negotiating that can be done? A job I’m looking at gave me a number in the first interview and asked if that was in my range, and I said yes. It was, but more in the middle of that range. I’d be content with that number, but would prefer more if I can get it. Does it look bad if I would try to negotiate after that?

    1. Jamie*

      IMO it never looks bad to negotiate – it’s expected. As long as you’re negotiating in a reasonable range and if you will accept what’s already thrown out there know when to stop. You don’t want to nickle and dime yourself out of an offer you’d accept anyway, but IME it’s totally expected that there will be some discussion and not just blank acceptance.

    2. KarenT*

      I think it depends on the job and how much experience it requires. It never hurts to try though (as long as you are professional and non-adversarial as Alison says in her article). I know at my company entry-level and intern starting salaries are non-negotiable just because we hire so many entry-level employees/interns.

      1. Jamie*

        Right – I’d like to amend my post by saying it’s totally different if they come out and say that the number is non-negotiable. Then it is a take it or leave it scenario.

        IME the closer you are to entry level the less room you have to negotiate. Also – don’t forget to really do the math about what you’re asking for.

        I’m a big believer in coming in strong as your future raises and stuff all build on your starting salary (as Alison wisely noted) but if you really like the job and it’s a good career move for you it’s important to figure out if the couple thousand your asking for – divided by pay periods after taxes – is worth losing an opportunity over.

        i.e. The difference between 80 and 85 k works out to about $72 per week after taxes. So – about a tank of gas. Breaking down the numbers is crucial in determining what’s fighting over and what isn’t.

    3. KellyK*

      I think you’re done negotiating at that point. If they asked if it was in your range and you said yes, it’s going to look bad if you now go for more. Also, if they gave you a number in the first interview, before they even know they want *you,* that sounds pretty fixed.

      In general, I don’t think getting a number means you can’t negotiate.

    4. fposte*

      I also think it helps if you can articulate a specific reason why you’re worth more than that–if that’s a number that was based on a standard candidate and you’re bringing in something extra, or if the position has expanded.

  2. Joey*

    You can still negotiate as long as its not far off the initial number. If they’re reasonable it won’t look bad since you didn’t yet have a full grasp of what the job entails.

    1. KellyK*

      That’s a good point, especially if the job entails more responsibility than the ad or phone interview indicated.

    2. Steve in TO*

      I received an offer that basically amounts to minimum wage. It’s a contracting gig, and I don’t think they took into account the benefits a regular employee receives when making the offer. It’s hard when the initial number is off like that.

      1. Anonymous*

        Turned around, that’s another caution with respect to contracting – the hourly rates may sound good, but your benefits have to come out of them.

  3. EJ*

    For #5, out of curiosity – why would I be expected to prove a prior salary (by way of old pay stubs, etc.)? I was surprised to read that one. I can’t think of any legitimate reason why I would feel compelled to provide that information to a new employer – either we can agree on a salary for the new position or we can’t, but my old salary should have little to do with it.

    This is not to say I’ve lied, but I have never encountered this before. Is this a US thing? (I’m in Canada).

    1. Chinook*

      Working in various industries around Canada, I can say that I have never been asked to prove previous salaries before either (in fact, I could only give you a ballpark figure for most of them now). That being said, there is nothing stopping an interviewer, in a reference check, from asking a previous employer for my previous salary. If the number didn’t match what I said, then it would show a lack of integrity on my part.

      1. EJ*

        I suppose that makes sense. I think it was the ‘you may be asked to provide it’ part that caught me off guard. I can’t imagine doing that.

        But I can see how if they ask a reference, and it contradicts the figure I gave, it would show a lack of integrity.

    2. Blinx*

      I was asked to provide a W2 form once, but that was to verify that I actually worked at the company, which was no longer in business.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Some companies, usually but not always larger ones, do indeed ask for W2s to verify salary. I think it’s BS because I think your salary is no one’s business, but if they’ve used your old salary to set your new one (a dumb but common practice), they want to ensure you didn’t lie to them.

  4. Liz in the City*

    What timing! I just accepted a new position (which I’m going to write you a longer email about, Alison), and as part of the 1st (and only) interview, the person asked me my salary expectations. It was the single most nerve-wracking question. But I stuck to my range, which I had researched as much as possible and didn’t want to accept something lower. I left the interview really excited about the job but afraid I had priced myself out of contention. But guess what? They met me on the lower end of my range (which still meant a pay increase for me) when they offered me the job. I didn’t negotiate further since they knew my range and met me, and I knew it was a stretch for them. (Wow, that was a lot of pronouns.)

  5. Christina*

    Question about #1–I applied for a position within my company and the posted minimum to mid-range salary was slightly lower than I’d like (lower than my current salary), but I figured it couldn’t hurt to apply.

    I had a very brief 10 minute phone interview, then they called me a few days later to say that they’d love to have me come in for an in-person interview, but since I’m internal, the max they could offer me was X (slightly lower than the midpoint) based on some formula HR applies to my current salary and the pay grade of the other position, and she asked if that would be a deal-breaker for me. I said, honestly, that while I’d like to stay around my current salary, I did know it would be a bit of a paycut, but I’d be willing to move forward in the process to learn more about the position if they were still willing to interview me.

    The in-person was great and I learned that the position is brand new on their team. But the more I think about it, the less possible it is for me to take what is essentially a 15% paycut. Should I call them back and tell them now, or wait to see if they even make an offer, and see if there is any room for negotiation at that point?

    1. BCW*

      For a position in your company they are going to pay you less than you currently make, and less than an outside applicant? That sounds absolutely ridiculous. I would take myself out of the running unless you really think its better for you long term. I can understand taking a pay cut for a position at a new company, but not at one you are already at.

      1. Christina*

        It’s in higher education, if that helps clarify the nonsensical nature of the issue :-) Also, for what it’s worth, it’s also a move from salary to hourly (really don’t care about this), with similar responsibilities to my current role. I am only considering taking a (slight) paycut because I am desperate to get out of my current dysfunctional team.

        1. blu*

          The fact that you would be switching from salary to hourly and that the pay grade of the new position is driving the salary down makes it sounds like this position would be a step down from your current job level. It’s possible that even though the duties sound similar, this position is technically a lower level for a reason (like less autonomy or a lower level of responsibility/decision making). I say go for the interview and ask lots of questions to make sure you understand what the new position is. It may be different than what you think. You can make a more informed decision once you have that info.

    2. COT*

      If I’m understanding this correctly, the salary they tentatively “offered” to you is less than the top end of their stated range, right? So there’s possibly more budgeted for the position than they are willing to give to you?

      I would usually say that it’s classy to remove yourself from the running when it becomes clear that the two parties are never going to meet on salary. But it seems like there could still be a possibility of negotiation if you receive an offer. If you’re a great candidate you might find the right ally in the hiring team, someone who can help bust through that dumb HR “policy.”

      If you’re also actively looking elsewhere, consider the other benefits of staying within the same company (accrued vacation, retirement match, whatever else) versus having to rebuild to that point again elsewhere. It might overcome a salary cut, but it’s worth keeping in mind.

    3. Joey*

      You need to find out if the job is a demotion (it sounds like it could be.). If that’s the case there is typically a method for determining how big/small the salary reduction should be. If it is a demotion it’s nonsensical to expect higher or the same pay. The only thing you’d reasonably be able to negotiate is how large the pay cut should be.

      1. Christina*

        I wasn’t expecting a higher or even the same salary, but based on the min- to mid- range, I was expecting to be in the higher end of the range (based on experience and skill level), not below the mid-range.

        1. Joey*

          Typically the number of pay grades you will drop, your current salary, qualifications and where you will fall in relation to others with the new title are typically the main factors that help decide the demotion amount.

    4. Canuck*

      Organizations with rules that make it so that internal promotions make less than outside hires are ridiculous. I know this is common practice in many companies, I just can’t seem to figure out a valid reason as to why.

      An internal hire is a known asset, obviously fits well with the culture, and knows the business well. So why should they be paid less?? At a minimum, they should be allowed to make whatever the current market rate is for the position – just like an outside candidate.

      I always find this funny. I’ve actually had a friend who ran into this, and even though his prospective new boss wanted to give him an appropriate salary, it was denied by HR. So my friend and new boss arranged to have my friend “quit” (on paper), with appropriate notice, and then get “hired as an outside applicant”. This was all just done on paper to get around the policy, and it worked. But still, I would never recommend anyone do that normally – just too many things that can backfire or go wrong.

  6. Kelly*

    I just accepted an offer that I’m fairly happy with. YAY! I didn’t negotiate because they offered me slightly more than the number I had said in the initial phone interview, so I didn’t think I had much wiggle room to ask for more. Also the position originally had been asking for more experience than I currently have, and I am unemployed, so I was VERY nervous about putting them off. I’m very excited about the job, and to be honest, it is a 15K raise from my previous job, so I can’t really complain!

    1. fposte*

      I think you did the right thing–if you ask for $X and they give you $X+$500, you can’t negotiate without making it seem like your initial statement was a sham.

  7. Anonymous*

    I had a curious experience once, apply for a position in the middle of Ohio (the only major attraction being the presence of a minor league NFL team). At my interview, I discovered that HR and the hiring manager had disjoint ideas as to the salary range.

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