employer says I have to agree to a lower salary without negotiation in order to even interview

A reader writes:

I was originally working in Country A when I was hired by an ex-colleague at different company in Country B. After 18 months, I had to return to Country A for unforeseen family reasons. The job I had lined up for my return ended up falling through at the last minute, and I’ve now been job searching (and unemployed) for 6 months.

A friend of mine recently forwarded my resume to a company. After my first interview with HR and the hiring manager, HR called me back to say that the budget for this role was $X (HR already had my previous salary details), and that if I did not agree with that, they would not even consider moving forward with my application. We agreed that I would get back to them after a few days of reflection.

My dilemma is:

a) The salary of $X represents over a 20% pay cut for me, equivalent to the salary I had 5 years ago.

b) Given the tight job market, I feel I would be stupid to ignore an otherwise decent (potential) offer in a very reputable company, but I’m afraid that I would keep feeling short-changed and thinking that I just threw 5 years of work away (I could try to job search again in 2-3 years once the market improves, but I’m not sure I could recover the differential and it does matter to my finances).

c) I don’t have any other offers on the table, although I have been in contact with my old company (before I left for Country B) regarding an upcoming role that needs specific knowledge of the company’s processes (i.e., can only be filled by internal candidates or ex-employees like me). In other words, I have a very good chance of getting the job as long as there are no other suitable internal candidates. Still, you never know what can happen, and I really want to get back to work and all things equal, I would prefer this role with my old company.

How would you suggest I proceed? I was thinking of agreeing to the salary, and if I do end up getting an offer, to call my old company to see if the recruiting process could be expedited.

Is there any chance that you’d take the job for that salary? If so, then say so and proceed in their process.

Because here’s the thing: You’re not accepting the job right now. You’re just telling them that it makes sense to continue talking, that it’s not a waste of their time (or yours). That doesn’t obligate you to accept an offer from them later, if one is made. You’re never obligated to accept an offer. You can always turn it down.

So if you think it’s possible you might ultimately accept at that salary, say yes and keep talking to them, knowing that you can back out at any time.

And yes, if it looks like you’re getting close to an offer, definitely call your old company and let them know that they’re your first choice and ask if they can expedite things.

Now, is it fair for them to do this? I don’t see why not. They’re telling you that this is their bottom line, that they’re not going to budge on salary, and that they don’t want to spend time putting you through their process if that’s going to be a sticking point. They’re not obligated to invest time in candidates outside of their salary range, and they’re being clear about where they stand. I think that’s perfectly fair — not necessarily smart (because really, they won’t even budge a few thousand if they end up adoring you?), but it’s certainly fair.

{ 26 comments… read them below }

  1. The IT Manager*

    While the salary cut is very unfortunate for you, I do think it’s great that the company is so up front about their salary limitations.

    1. Sam*


      I once went through a lengthy interview process only to find that the salary was way, way lower than expected. It seemed like such a waste of everyone’s time. I’d rather have the company be up front about salary asap, especially since job applicants are told not to ask about it right away.

      1. dejavu2*

        +2. I had a similar experience, and it was awful for everyone. They ended up agreeing to pay me literally double their initial offer, but by that time (1) I had an identical offer from a better company, (2) I was really disturbed by how waaaay far below industry standard the first offer had been. It raised a lot of red flags. I also couldn’t believe they made such an extremely low offer when they were, apparently, perfectly capable of offering a normal salary.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    My company is very up front with candidates about our low salaries. We require ridiculous credentials, but once you work here for two years, you are set to make big money in the private sector or you will get into any grad school you want. Because we usually hire over-achieving Ivy League types, we have make sure they are prepared for the crap money. We used to not disclose it until the job offer stage, but more than half of people pulled out at the point because of the money. Doing it this way saves both sides lost time and disappointment.

    1. Joey*

      Isn’t that sort of like saying ” our best selling point is not what we can offer but the hope that someone else will pay you what you’re worth”?

      1. Thinking*

        I think it’s saying, “our best selling point is that we put resources into training recent graduates and the private sector recognizes the value of this training.” And that the public sector deserves to have Ivy League graduates too.

  3. Amanda*

    This was basically the precise scenario under which I accepted my current job. The first thing I was told during the phone interview was that the salary was $X, an amount 20% less than I was making at the time, and that I should let them know after the phone screening if that amount was acceptable to me. The salary was set by union negotiation and fixed in stone.

    I knew I’d take a hit when I left the big city, and it was worth it to me to do work that I love at a great organization. I agreed without hesitation and eventually got the job.

  4. Mike C.*

    The pay cut really sucks, but yeah they’re being up front and honest with you.

    One thing to consider – is there any possibility that if you receive an offer, you could negotiate for other things? Additional vacation, flexible work schedule/work from home, paid time for educational/certification activities, some freedom to choose your own projects, that sort of thing?

    While cold hard cash pays the rent, as long as your needs are met, there’s no harm in being creative with your benefits.

    1. OP*

      Hi, the OP here. I think the only area I could negotiate would be the bonus %, but probably not much flexibility there either. I’m in Europe, so things like vacation, work-education arrangements etc are based on collective conventions. Besides, I need the cold hard cash more than anything else (yeah, I know it’s not something I can tell employers…).

      I think I will ultimately accept the salary, since I don’t have much else on the table now. As AAM said, I can always turn down the offer IF something better comes along in the end.

      I have a call scheduled with the hiring manager tomorrow to close the loop on this (HR is on vacation!), so fingers crossed!

  5. BeenThere*

    I think you can only reject a position once you have all the information at offer time.

    I’m currently job hunting and have been enjoying talking to recruiters and managers about range up front. I always continue the conversation/process even if their range is lower IFF I think it’s a good opportunity. I always let them know that the whole package is taken into account, including job flexibility, benefits and culture.

    If I hadn’t done so with a current negotiation I would have never reached the face to face interview stage where the two technical senior females (rare in IT) both talked about the flexibility being a huge benefit. They also discussed their style of management is that they do not care when, where and how you work as long as the tasks are completed and clients are happy. The cost/time saving alone to me of not having to drive to the office everyday and dress up is significant enough alone for me to take the lower figure.

  6. AnotherAlison*

    I think it is nice that they were upfront with you AND let you make the decision, rather than weeding you out.

  7. Hello Vino*

    I agree that if there’s any change you might be okay with that salary, you should say so and continue with their process. They may not end up making you an offer. Or they might like you and decide to adjust the salary a bit.

    A few years ago, I had to leave a job that I loved because the business had slowed down due to factors beyond our control. I started applying for jobs, and the HR dept at one place reached out saying they were interested in bringing me in for an interview, but the salary they had in mind was about 15% lower than what I had listed in my application. They wanted to make sure I was okay with that salary. I was pretty desperate for a job, so I said yes and went ahead with the interview.

    Things went well, and they ended up offering a salary that was only 5% less than what I had asked for. During negotiation process, they also agreed to giving me an annual bonus. Ultimately, the total compensation was just shy of the original salary I had asked for.

  8. Dan*

    Well, when someone is unemployed, their job worth is based on whatever they can negotiate at a new employer, not based on what they made at their previous job. This isn’t a reflection of the person’s abilities, but an acknowledgement that the employer may have mistakenly assessed the person’s market value. This is true if the former employer went belly up (after all, if the company was making good business decisions, they’d likely still be around) or if the company laid the person off (company had a business problem in that they couldn’t make enough money.)

    But by and large, I don’t have a blanket bottom line. How much I want is rather flexible, based upon a number of factors that I can’t evaluate at the *application* stage. And those that I can, I’m not going to waste my time with (i.e., relocating and looking for a nice house in a good neighborhood.) As someone with a job, the next employer has to make it worth my while, and I know what that number is. If I was desperate to leave, or unemployed, the dynamics would totally be different.

  9. Spreadsheet Monkey*

    When I moved from California to Oregon, I took a 20% pay cut. I was being paid fairly for the job, the industry, and the location, but it was still a huge chunk of change to lose. On the other hand, my cost of living went down, too.

    I’m not familiar with Europe, but are salaries in Country A and Country B similar? If you had stayed in Country A the entire time, would you be making what you were in Country B? Do you think the job is underpaying, or is this just what the market will bear at this time?

  10. Long-term planner*

    I had been out of the job market for a few years, but had to return, thanks to a change in our financial circumstances. The only offer I got was with a company that told me at the very beginning what the salary was.

    It is less than half of what I used to make.

    But nobody else was beating down the door.

    So I took the job. I negotiated extra vacation days. And I am working hard to do a kick-ass job so once I’ve been there a year, I can move on.

    It is horribly demoralizing to work for this salary. But it is more than I was making when I wasn’t working. Sometimes, you have to do what needs to be done.

  11. Sara*

    I think a potential employer for my mum just called, however she wasnt home so i answered the phone. I was annoyed and tired and therefore, wasnt super polite. In the end, he just assumed I was here, I said nah i wasnt and she wasnt here so then he just said okay and hanged up. But once I realised it could be someone asking for a interview from my mum, i feel terribly guilty. They will call back right? I dont want to be the reason she doesnt get an interview!

    1. Elizabeth West*

      *hug* Aww, don’t worry too much about it. I’ve been caught off guard that way myself. Just remember while your mum is job-hunting, any call can be an employer. Pretend you’re a receptionist when you answer the phone. :)

  12. Long Time Admin*

    We all complain when employers don’t tell us the salary for a job when we interview, and now we’re going to complain when they do? OP, this is valuable information! If it’s not acceptable to you, decline it. As AAM says, you are only agreeing to continue talking to them, and you can decline the offer when and if it’s extended to you, if you’re not happy with everything.

    I’ve had to take jobs and temp assignments that paid a lot less than the job I had previously, and it’s better than collecting unemployment or asking the family & friends for money.

    1. Jamie*

      I also think it’s nice they are so upfront about the salary this early.

      I hate the dance and would much rather know up front if it’s even worth the time.

      And yes, like the other comments I think that if you wouldn’t rule out working at that salary, depending on the other factors, go ahead and see the process through. You’re not obligated to take it if it’s a bad fit in the end.

      Kind of like buying a car. I may have a budget for a new car, but it doesn’t mean I’d buy any new car within that price range. It’s only one criteria.

      I also agree with LTA in that a job making less than before is still bringing in more than nothing. It’s not optimal but if you don’t have other offers right now it’s better than UI. At least that’s how I look at it.

  13. SC in SC*

    I’d much rather have a company be upfront than what happened to me early in my career. I was looking for work and had a phone interview with a company located about 4 hours from where I was living at the time. The job seemed interesting and we made arrangements for a second interview. When I arrived they asked me to fill out an application which also included salary history. After a few minutes I got called back to meet with an HR rep. As she scans through the application the first words out of her mouth were “Oh…you’re making that much money right now” followed by “we can’t afford to pay nearly that much”. When I mentioned that I was flexible on salary and asked what range they had in mind it was about 60% of my current salary and completely out of line for the industry. Needless to say that was the end of the interview and a complete waste of time for both of us.

  14. Anonymous*

    What research have you done regarding salaries in your field? Five years ago is long enough (ie it could have been pre-2008 crash) that your skills and experience may no longer command the same salary. There may be a lot of factors (glut of workers available, new technology, etc) bringing down the amount companies would be willing to pay you.

  15. john*

    take a job to hold you over til you find an employer that is willing to satisfy your salary demands. no use being unemployed

  16. Rachel*

    You can’t really complain when a company is up-front with you about aspects of the job you may not like, or what their budget is (unless of course they presented a different proposition initially, in which case you’ve fallen victim to a classic “bait and switch”, and my advice is to run not walk when that happens). In this case, it sounds like the company has been open with you from the outset, which is fair enough. Only you can decide whether the prospective offer that’s on that table falls within your “lowest acceptable package” threshold. If it does, there’s no harm in proceeding. If it doesn’t, it’d only be wasting everyone involved’s time to take things any further.

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