how to overcome your fear of negotiating salary

Most job-seekers are thrilled to get a job offer but dread the salary negotiation that comes along with it. Especially for people who don’t do much negotiating in their daily lives, negotiating salary can be intimidating and many people would rather simply accept an employer’s first offer than push for more.

But overcoming your fears about negotiation can lead you to increase your starting salary significantly. Here are some of the most common fears about negotiating, and how you can overcome them.

1. “The employer’s goal is to lowball me.” Well, that might be their goal, but if they’re a good employer, their goal is probably to get you for a fair-market salary that’s in line with their salary structure and which you’ll be happy with. Smart employers want to ensure that their employees feel fairly compensated, because they want to retain them. If they manage to hire you for below the market rate for your work, you’re more likely to leave as soon as you find something that pays more. If you’re dealing with a decent employer, assume that you both want a fair and reasonable salary agreement. (Of course, that’s a big caveat. If you’re dealing with a shady employer, this doesn’t apply.)

2. “If I try to negotiate, they might pull the offer entirely.” This is probably the biggest fear of job-seekers when it comes to negotiating. Fortunately, it’s pretty baseless, as long as you handle the negotiation in a pleasant and professional manner – without being too pushy or adversarial about it – and as long as you don’t ask for an amount so unrealistic that it calls into question your sanity. That’s not to say that no one has ever lost a job offer by trying to negotiate – some people have. But that only happens with highly dysfunctional employers, and you’re generally better off not working for them – because if they react so bizarrely to such a normal move on your part, imagine how they handle requests for time off, raises, or new projects.

3. “If I ask for more and don’t get it, I’ll look silly accepting their lower offer.” You might worry that if you ask for a higher salary and get turned down, you’ll lose face by accepting the initial offer. But employers won’t see it that way at all. If they tell you that their offer is firm and you ultimately decide to accept it, they won’t think any less of you for having asked if there was any flexibility.

4. “I don’t know what salary to ask for, so I might end up lowballing myself.” If this is your fear, do some information-gathering so that you’re not coming into negotiations blind. Before you reach the offer stage with any job, you want to have researched the market rate for this type of work in your geographic area. That way, you’re not just guessing what an appropriate salary would be; you’ll have some data to base your thinking on.

5. “I’ll look foolish if I don’t negotiate, but I’m happy with the initial offer.” While in most cases it makes sense to try to negotiate an initial offer for at least a little bit more – because you’ll often get it – sometimes you’re thrilled with the first offer and think it’s fair, or even more than fair. If you’re dealing with a generous company that has matched your expectations, don’t beat yourself up if you decide to simply relax and accept.

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

{ 33 comments… read them below }

  1. Work It*

    My biggest fear is that I’ll look foolish and presumptive to ask for more money than they offer. Like they’ll sit around later and laugh that I thought I deserved X amount more. It doesn’t really make sense, but I tend to be insecure about selling myself and evaluating my worth.

    1. Lulu*

      ++1 I also tend to feel like I’m lucky I’m being offered a job, and am afraid of jeopardizing that and looking unappreciative/uncooperative/greedy by attempting to change any of the offer details. I imagine part of this is due to having a lot of positions with limited/no positive feedback where I tended to feel like I was doing a crappy job because I didn’t like what I was doing. It’s easy to fall into assuming that if I WERE truly worth more, I’d have been praised/promoted/given a raise or award, so the absence thereof indicates I don’t deserve it… even though many of us have witnessed situations where lack of reward is not really a reflection of someone’s value or abilities. I’m still feeling bad for turning down an opportunity to interview for a $14/hr job, and wondering whether that’s my true worth in today’s marketplace (which would be truly depressing).

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Oh this is so totally me. I’m always afraid if I say “Well, I was thinking I’d like to get this..” that the hiring manager will turn green, smoke will come out of her ears, her pen will turn into a broom and she’ll screech, “I don’t think so, dearie! We’re pulling this offer! Better luck next time! EEEEE HEE HEE HEE HEEEEEEEEEEEE!!”

  2. Anonymous*

    I’m currently reading “Ask for It: how women can use the power of negotiation to get what they really want” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. While I’m tragically not currently in negotiations with anyone, the book is addressing many of these fears and insecurities. I’m their target demographic (female) but I think if anyone is wrestling with this kind of negotiating insecurity and is looking for ways to turn that inner voice off and be a more successful negotiator this book can be helpful.

    1. Sascha*

      I’m going to check that out. I’m not looking for a new job, but I’m about to talk with my managers about my career, with the hope of getting a raise/promotion, and I’m terrified. It sounds like it would be good for me. Thanks!

      1. Lore*

        It’s a really terrific book, as is its slightly more scholarly precursor, Women Don’t Ask, which is more of an analysis of existing gendered attitudes and subconscious beliefs about negotiating, where Ask for It is more of a primer on negotiating. I found both really useful in adjusting my perspective away from some deep-rooted feelings that negotiation was an adversarial process as opposed to a beneficial one that enables all parties to get closer to what they want.

        1. fposte*

          Of course, when you say “slightly more scholarly” I get all excited. Actually, these both sound really interesting and also relevant for my students, so I’ll have a look–thanks for the recommendation.

        2. twentymilehike*

          Yes, thank you for the recommendation! More fodder for the book club …

          In all honestly, though, I need a new job or a raise and I wish I’d have read these already!

  3. JP*

    I am hopefully going into a situation where I might be about to receive an offer. They asked me to disclose my preferred salary range in the cover letter. Since then, I found out that they usually pay higher than I wrote. Also, they asked me to interview for a job that has far more technical skills than the one I previously applied for. If they offer me something at the high end of what I put in my cover letter, can I still negotiate? How would I jump off from this?

    I’ve always been the person who just takes the first offer for fear of having them pull it off the table–I really don’t want to short-change myself this time! I’m wondering if I doomed myself with the cover letter, though.

    1. The IT Manager*

      Yes, I think can neogiate above your original range. Because you submitted your salary range before you had all the information about the job you are allowed to change your range based on the new information like its a highly technical job.

      I understand your fear about neogotiating though. I hate it myself.

      1. Jamie*

        This. You had limited information when you wrote the cover letter – so you’re tweaking your requirement range based on additional information you now have.

    2. Josh S*

      You haven’t ‘doomed’ yourself. You did what they asked before you had all the information. Now that you’ve interviewed, understand the company, its culture, and the role you’ll be doing, you have a much, MUCH better idea of the value you can bring and what it’s worth. And that’s the way you frame your request for a higher salary.

      Say you put in your cover letter a salary of $40-45k. After everything you describe above they come to you with an offer of $45k. Based on the description of the *different* job they’ve offered to you and their reputation for paying more, it would be entirely reasonable to say something like, “Thank you for the offer. I’m really excited to be the candidate you’ve selected. After hearing about the position more fully and understanding Responsibility1 and Responsibility2, and knowing the ways my Experience1 and Skill2 can really help with those things, can you bring the salary up to $55k?”

      Then, be quiet. Let the silence hang until they respond. $55k might be a stretch for them, or it might be entirely within their budget and they’ll be happy to pay it. In either case, listen for their response. Consider it. Decide whether it’s worth it to you to do X work for Y compensation. Feel free to take a day to think it over.

      Now, if you had expressed a range of $40-45k and you’re all of a sudden asking for 90k, they’re going to be put off — and rightly so. But feel free to negotiate. You’re in the best position to do so when they’ve offered (They just said they want YOU! Use that to your advantage!).

      Good luck!

      1. JP*

        Thanks! This is great advice! I was wondering exactly what I needed to say and really appreciate the feedback!

  4. HL*

    So, you respond to an initial salary offer with your counter offer, only to hear “Sorry, this is what this job pays”. What does one do then?

    1. Jamie*

      Sometimes the number is firm on their end. You either accept it or reject it – but while most things are negotiable if they say it isn’t that closes that door.

    2. EG*

      When that happened to me, I did have success negotiation a one time payment (I think we had to call it a “moving allowance” even though I wasn’t really moving). It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing.

      1. Sam*

        Yep, that’s a good idea. I’ve also heard that asking for extra PTO is a smart tactic when the offered salary is non-negotiable.

    3. moss*

      I said, “Any room to move on the salary?” and they said “Nope.” (it was for an internal promotion so we all knew each other already.) And I said, ok, I accept. Not being able to negotiate on the salary was NOT a dealbreaker for me. It may be for others or for me in a different situation.

  5. saf*

    I have had very little luck negotiating salary. I have had more luck negotiating benefits – vacation days are important to me.

    What really makes me nuts is places that have a policy that your offer MUST be related to your pay at your prior job, even when the jobs are not the same, or when you are moving from nonprofit to private industry.

  6. Sam*

    What if you have an uncommon job? During my last job search, it was very difficult to find good salary information for my job, especially at the local level. The majority of those free salary websites don’t even include my job title.

    I was able to cobble together a few related job titles and find a salary range in the middle. I ended up with three very different offers – one APPALLINGLY low with HORRIFIC working hours, one in the middle, and one shockingly high. The high offer was more than double the low offer. For the same job in the same town.

    1. fposte*

      You can see if you can find a civil service equivalent and find a metric for converting to private sector salaries. You can look for an analog across the country and run it through a comparative cost of living calculator. But ultimately, with an uncommon job (I have one of those myself) you’re not going to be able to make claims about going rates and industry standards, and the pay will be wildly variable because the job will have wildly different values. Most of the time those are just covers for “I want this and I think I’m worth it” anyway; you’ll just end up being more direct about that.

  7. Anon*

    Why does it seem like the companies that are “firm” about a salary and won’t negotiate always tend to pay below market…and that “firm” salary is the salary you will be making five years down the line…

    1. tangoecho5*

      No sh*t! And/or the company/department has horrible turnover at the position and employee reviews say they feel underpaid for what they do but management disregards the feedback. So being the brainiacs they are they’d rather just pay new hire costs over and over and over than raise the pay of current employees!

  8. jesicka309*

    I just had an interview (it went awesomely by the way! They loved my cover letter and CV, which I’d cleaned up/written with AAM’s advice!)
    The interviewer asked what my salary expectations were, as she didn’t want to go on with the process if we had wildly different expectations. I said that I was basing my expectations on what my company current pays this position (not my own role mind) and said 45k plus.
    She said that was spot on…does this mean that if they offer me 45k on the dot now, I can’t negotiate higher? I did emphasise the ‘plus’ part, as 45 is the lowest I’d agree to, but I’d definitely prefer more…
    I don’t want them turning around and saying “but you said you expected 45!” when that was really my guess at what the market rate was for that role – I definitely bring skills and knowledge that I can use in negotiating a higher salary, and will do if necessary, but I don’t want them getting peeved if I try to get higher than 45!

    1. Chris Hogg*

      There is an old, old, old saying: He who mentions a number first, loses. Let’s hope you get the job. Let’s hope they don’t forget the “plus” part – but they probably will.

      Also, while you may “prefer” more (who wouldn’t?) we don’t get paid on what we prefer, we get paid based on our perceived value to the employer.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      The problem with answers like “45k plus” is that it tells them that you’re willing to accept 45k. So it can be hard to get them go over that once you’ve said it.

      1. jesicka309*

        Okay, I’ll try to remember that when I speak to them next.

        Would it be advisable to bring up that I’m currently earning more than that? I’m currently on a 52 package, yet I know that the role is a step down from where I am now. Hopefully I can convince them that while an entry level kid off the street would be fine with 45, I’m bringing a whole lot more knowledge (as they know, would else would they interview me?), and would like to see something a little higher.
        I don’t even expect 52 k a year, just something closer to it so it doesn’t hurt my bank account so much.

  9. Anonymouse*

    Any different suggestions on negotiation at promotion? I’ve been told to expect a promotion in my mid-year review next week. I received a 7.5% merit salary bump + 190% of target bonus about 6 months ago at my annual review. I’ve been at my company a little more than a year.

    I work in a large organization, so there is a standard process to our reviews. I meet with my manager, he proposes a title/salary $ to his manager and HR approves. Do I negotiate in my review with him, or wait until he pitches something to HR and comes to me with the amount?

    1. Josh S*

      It sounds like once HR signs off it’s pretty well set. Probably quite difficult to get it changed after that point. The time to make your case is before your manager goes to HR with the number-to-be-approved.

    2. Jamie*

      Large companies often have pay grades for each position – is there any way to know what these are ahead of time so if the opportunity to help sway in one direction or another is presented that you’re ready?

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