don’t make these 8 mistakes when negotiating salary

Unless you’re different than 99.3% of the population, you love getting a job offer but hate negotiating salary. The process is fraught with worries that you’ll ask for a number that’s too low or too high, that the employer will try to lowball you in their offer, or that you won’t even know how to evaluate their offer effectively. But salary negotiation doesn’t have to be so tricky. Avoid these eight mistakes, and you’ll be significantly better off than most salary negotiators.

1. Being unprepared. At some point, nearly every employer will ask what salary range you’re looking for, and this could happen as soon as their very first phone call to you. You want to be prepared for this in advance, because if you’re caught off-guard, you risk low-balling yourself or otherwise saying something that will harm you in negotiations later. Be sure to do your homework ahead of time so that you’re ready with an answer when the question comes up.

2. Letting the employer base their offer on your past salary history. Your salary history is no one’s business,and employers are perfectly capable of figuring out what your that work would be worth to them without needing to know what you’ve been paid previously. To avoid having future offers tied to past one, consider declining to discuss your previous salary altogether. If you can’t do that, try pointing out that you took a lower salary previously because you were working for a mission you cared about, or learning new skills that would make you more marketable in the future, or whatever other context you can provide. Instead, keep the focus on what you want to earn now and why you think you’re worth that. But if ignore this piece of advice, don’t make the next mistake on our list.

3. Lying about your past salary. Job seekers sometimes claim that they’re currently earning more than they really are, figuring that that will help them get a higher offer from a new employer. But this can backfire because plenty of employers verify salary history, either by asking to see a recent pay stub or W-2, or by checking with the previous employer directly. And even worse, it’s common to do this after you’ve already accepted a job offer, which means that you risk having the offer pulled over the lie, even after you’ve already accepted it and resigned your previous job.

4. Not verifying your research. While online salary sites can seem like the most obvious way to figure out what to ask for, the reality is that these sites are often unreliable, partly because the job titles they list often represent vastly different scopes of responsibility – and besides, salary can vary widely by geography. Professional associations in your industry might do more reliable salary surveys, but an even better option is to talk to people in your field and bounce figures off of them.

5. Giving a salary range when you’ll be disappointed if you’re offered the lowest end of it. If you give a wide range like “$40,000 to $55,000,” don’t be surprised if you’re offered $40,000, because that’s what you told the employer you’d accept. Instead, choose your range carefully, realizing that the employer may only focus on the lower end of it. (This isn’t too different from candidates who focus only on the high end of a range given by an employer, and are then disappointed when they’re offered the lower end of it.)

6. Playing games. While job search experts used to advise absolutely refusing to name a salary figure first, even if pressed, that advice often doesn’t work today and can help hurt your chances. If an employer is asking you directly what salary range you’re looking for and you categorically refuse to answer, the employer is likely to just move on the next candidate, someone who might be willing to have a more open conversation.

7. Worrying that if you negotiate, the employer will pull the offer entirely. As long as you’re pleasant and professional and aren’t adversarial in your manner, a reasonable employer isn’t going to pull your offer just because you try to negotiate. That’s not to say that they’re aren’t unreasonable employers out there who do pull offers, but it’s rare and the sign of such a dysfunctional employer that you’re typically better off not working with them. Sane employers understand that people negotiate.

8. Not considering factors other than salary. Obviously everyone has a bottom-line number that they won’t go below, but it’s a mistake not to factor in things other than salary. A generous retirement or health care contribution might mean that less of your paycheck needs to go savings or health insurance. Conversely, a job where you’ll be miserable might not be worth even a significant bump in salary.

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

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Kevin*

    In my last job search I did a combination of a five and eight. When forced to give a salary I would give a range and say depending on benefits. I feel like that was solid enough to satisfy the hiring manager or HR but leave me enough room to still wiggle if need be.

  2. Ann Furthermore*

    From #8: “Conversely, a job where you’ll be miserable might not be worth even a significant bump in salary.”

    A great big amen to this point. I took a job years ago that I was completely unsuited for. I’d been waffling back and forth over whether or not to accept the offer, and then they laid the salary on me, which was about 45% more than what I was making at my current job. No brainer, I thought, so I resigned.

    Not so. About a month into the job, I knew it wasn’t for me. But I wanted to give it a year, because I’d been referred by a business acquaintance, who was also good friends with a close friend of mine. But it was just not a good fit for me, at all. In some respects I was in WAY over my head. Then the company was sold to a larger one in TX, and the owner, who had hired me, took his nice payout and retired, and I clashed with the other 2 managers who ran the place.

    Anyway, about 6 months into this gig, the parent acquired another HVAC company in our area, which resulted in some job duplication. So they used that as an excuse to let me go, and I was happy to take it. I’d been pretty miserable.

    It was one of the best career lessons I ever learned. Listen to your gut during the job interview process. Any time I’ve gone with the company that gave me a good vibe, it’s worked out well. This one time, I took a job when I knew deep down it wasn’t the right thing for me, and it ended badly.

    1. ThursdaysGeek*

      Those, plus add 8 and the killer of acknowledging that I was unemployed, and thus had very little leverage.

  3. Wilton Businessman*

    My response always is “I am looking for $X”. But I know what I want and I know what I am worth and I’d rather wait for the next opportunity than take something below $X.

  4. NP*

    I had an interviewer (HR person) ask me what’s the minimum salary I was looking for in three separate interviews. The first time was a phone screen, and I was able to deflect by saying it was negotiable and dependent on their benefits package. I was able to deflect with the same line during the phone interview, which included the HR person and the hiring manager. She provided the benefits package after the phone interview. During the in-person interview (attended by her, the hiring manager, and the hiring manager’s boss), this was practically the first question out of her mouth. Nervous to be the first one to give a number in case they tried to lowball me, I asked if they had a salary range in mind. Apparently they didn’t, because she insisted I give her an answer and would not let it drop. I ended up telling her that it wasn’t worth me changing jobs for less than 20% more than my current salary, which I ended up revealing.

    There were plenty of other things that were weird about that interview, but this was possibly the most aggravating.

    Anyone have advice on how else I should have approached this?

    1. Mimi*

      Why didn’t you just give a range?

      I wouldn’t have persisted in asking; I would have just moved on to the next candidate.

      1. NP*

        Because I didn’t want them to lowball me. If I had said that my minimum was $70k but the range they had in mind was $80-90k, what would stop them from just offering me $70k?

        1. Wilton Businessman*

          They’re not going to do that. Know what you are worth and be ready to walk if you don’t get it.

          1. NP*

            Really? I 100% believe that the reason she kept asking me about the minimum salary I would accept is that they planned to offer the successful candidate the minimum they would accept.

            If that weren’t the case, why wouldn’t they just say, “our projected starting salary for this position is between $X and $Y. Are you comfortable with a starting salary in this range?” Or just not say anything at all until the offer stage.

            1. Wilton Businessman*

              Know what you are worth and you’ll be happy when you get it. You can rest assured that they’re never going to pay you more than you think you are worth.

            2. CAA*

              Because often employers, especially small ones, don’t have a predetermined range. Not every position comes with a budget.

              If you know you need X and you don’t know what X costs in your area, then you go around and ask the people who do X how much they charge. Most people do that to hire plumbers, contractors, gardeners, etc. Employers do it as part of the interview process. A vendor who can’t say what his fee will be doesn’t get much business, same for a job seeker.

          2. Dan*

            Good ones won’t, bad ones will.

            But knowing what you’re worth? Depending on how exact you want to be, that can be rather difficult.

            I’ve been lucky — both times I’ve been on the market in the last 5 years, I’ve had two offers to choose from. It gives me a pretty good idea on what my market worth is.

    2. Canuck*

      I take the view that I will name a number that I would be comfortable accepting, regardless of if the budget is higher or lower for the position.

      If my number is out of their budget, then that’s the risk I take – but in my mind, I’m not willing to settle for less anyhow, so it shouldn’t matter.

      If my number is lower than their range, that also shouldn’t matter, because I was willing to accept the job for that stated number originally. My willingness to accept a job shouldn’t change just because I find out later that they could have paid me more. If I needed more money to take the job, my stated number should be higher.

    3. Brandy*

      Know what you’re worth. Here’s an example. I currently have an opening on my team for a product manager. We have some PMs that make $75k and some that make $125. They have varied titles and responsibilities. For the open role I have, I’d gladly hire someone for $125k in a more senior role. If they have the skills. I also want to know if I’m talking to a more senior person if they are looking for comp over, say, $140 , because that’s outside my budget.. If you asked me a range and I said $75-$125, and you have 4 years of only somewhat relevant experience and you tell me you’re looking for $120, you won’t get it. And you’ll give me the impression that you don’t know your worth.

    4. Anonymous*

      I had a (third party) recruiter once ask me what the minimum pay I would take. I came back with “what’s the minimum I’ll have to work?”. The conversation didn’t go much further after that.

  5. Dan*

    I think #5 depends on whether or not you are negotiating from a position of strength (having a job you’d continue to stay at) or weakness (no job, and need to pay the bills.)

    If a candidate has not job, I think it’s safe to say that he almost has to give a bottom end of a range that is livable. But is he ever going to be *happy* with that number? Probably not. My range was from “I can deal with it” to “I’d be really happy with it.

  6. Anon*

    How do you tactfully discuss your salary range when the position could be in two vastly different economic and geographic areas? I have a strong idea of what I’m worth skill-wise, but feel I’m flubbing the discussion by offering a range that is unrealistic to one or the other locations. I’ve found out through research that the company offers few (and small) raises typically, so negotiations now are quite important.

    Specifically, I’ve been interviewing with a company for a position that could be based in a medium-sized suburban community on the West Coast or downtown in an urban center on the East Coast. An acceptable market salary in the West Coast position is far less (meaning >=10K less) than on the East Coast.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      You’ve got to know the current market conditions and the cost of living differences.

      1. Anon*

        I’ve done that research, which is why the range I have in mind is so great. Frankly, I don’t even want to name ranges, but it’s required as a box on their application. My question is how to phrase the discussion:
        “Given the differences between the two markets and costs of living, I believe an equitable salary in Suburbia is $X-XX, but in Metro I am seeking $Y-YY.”

    2. Dan*

      You do the best you can. I live in a high cost of living area, and was recently laid off. I applied for local jobs and jobs outside the region. My initial range was based the fact I had no job.

      But truth is, *everything* is based on market conditions. And market conditions are constantly changing. No matter what range I gave that employer, my true number was $10k less than the best offer I could get locally, which I would consider very competitive.

      They can come back to me and tell me what I said my “range” was until they’re blue in the face, but they can’t make me accept an offer, no matter what.

  7. Christina*

    What do you do if you realize you’ve just done #5 on that list? I had an interview last week, they asked for a range, I gave them a $10,000 range, and my current salary is right in the middle of it. The person who asked was the HR rep at the very beginning of the process, after which I interviewed with 6 other people including the hiring manager and learned much more about what they’re expecting out of this role.

    If, on the off chance I actually get an offer, and it is the low end, is it possible to say “Based on what I’ve learned about the position and responsibilities after meeting everyone, and based on the skills I’m bringing to this role, is there any room for negotiation on this salary”?

    Honestly I’m pretty desperate to get out of my current position so I would probably take a small paycut if I absolutely had to but ugh. Hindsight.

    1. Christina*

      FWIW I also just realized their health benefits are twice what I pay now, and they don’t match as much for retirement.

    2. Dan*

      Here’s the thing with salary negotiations: You’ve promised nothing until you’ve signed an offer letter.

      Let me give you an example: I interview with company A and we talk about a fairly broad range, which is dependent on job responsibilities. They come through with an offer that’s at the very bottom of what I would like to take.

      Company B comes through with a better offer. I reject company A’s offer.

      Can company A rightfully come back to me and say “but we gave you a number in your range”? Sure, they can, but what’s the point? I haven’t committed to company A until I’ve signed the paperwork. They either pay up or I move on.

  8. Lia*

    I actually do know of a case where an attempt at salary negotiation led to the offer being revoked. While the person was (rightfully) very upset about it, it later came to light that this was just one example of the institution’s problems. The person asked for only a few thousand more than the (lowball) original offer when the offer came after the second interview. After not hearing from the org for a few days after the conversation, person called and was told “oh, uh, when you said you needed $x + a couple k, we went with another candidate.”. ACK.

    1. OfferPuller*

      Not the exact same situation, but it happened to me.

      They asked what I wanted in the initial screen, I deflected, and they ultimately gave me a range – which was right around what I made in my job at the time. Position seemed great and, depending on all the benefits, it could still have been a slight bump.

      Fast-forward to the offer stage. They offered around the top of the range they told me initially (3% over the job I already had) and I came back asking for 10-15% more. I explained it was due to total comp – their benefits turned out to be measurably worse (put into dollars and cents) than what I already had.

      Basically, they didn’t even get back to me directly. I called the next day and they told me they were going in another direction. The HR person actually said it was highly unusual (!!) for a candidate to try and negotiate.

      In the end, it probably worked out for the better. Definitely a learning experience.

  9. Laura*

    I did #2 in an interview recently. The interviewer asked for my salary history and what salary I was looking for, then lectured me about how it would be too large of an increase and how that wasn’t “standard.” However, they didn’t have a range in mind for the position when I asked, and said it was based on salary history. The attitude told me that not only would I not get what my work was worth, but that they’d probably be a pain to work for in other ways.

  10. Dorothy*

    Can you ask for more $ if you aren’t accepting benefits offered by the company? My husband has a great plan and we get healthcare through his company.

    1. CAA*

      You can ask. Some companies might agree to a higher salary, but it’s risky for them because they don’t want to have to cut your pay when your husband’s situation changes and you ask to be covered on their insurance after all.

      There are companies that give you the amount they would have paid as a separate line item in your paycheck or as an additional contribution to your 401K. These are preplanned benefits that apply to everyone though and you can’t negotiate for them as part of your offer. There are also companies that just expect x% of their employees don’t take the health insurance and budget accordingly with no kickback to those who don’t take it.

  11. Salary Giver*

    I don’t think I’ve ever had a problem giving my salary history, though I never put it in for an automated application. There I just put “negotiable” or something else neutral.

    When I’m talking to a person I will ask for the range that they’re expecting to pay and respond with my own current (or immediate past) salary. I always thought employers could verify that – perhaps that’s my mistake.

    I also don’t state a number baldly – it’s always conditional. “At my last job I made $X but with the increased responsibility for this position I’d be looking for something like $X+y%.” In some situations where I was just looking to get out of a bad situation I’d say “I’m making $X and I’m not looking to get a big increase with this change. I’m looking for G (whatever my key goal is for applying with this company).”

  12. Dang*

    Does it sound delusional to ask for 30% more than your previous job?

    I had a phone screen today and told her my salary requirements. Then she asked me what my prior position paid. Obviously I couldn’t lie- but I need more because this is in NYC, I’d have to commute, and I was honestly underpaid in my last role. Did I shoot myself in the foot here?

      1. Dang*

        Darn! I couldn’t think on my feet fast enough to figure out how to avoid answering that question. Oh well. Thanks for answering!

  13. Laura*

    I received a call asking if I was still interested in the position,
    I said yes and she then discussed pay 13 an hour with insurance
    Or 15 an hour without insurance.When I asked how must would
    The insurance cost me she stated she did not have that information handy. She stated she would get the information and call me right back, I informed her I would be leaving for work in
    15 minutes an she said she would get back to me before I left for
    Work. So she did not call right back. I left 2 messages that day and then called the next day and was told by the secretary that she could not come to the phone and the position has been filled.
    I was shocked but after realized they did me a favor.

  14. anon*

    I’ve always found it really hard to know what salary expectations to give. I recently moved from a mid-sized western city to the east coast. I kept track of the salary ranges posted for government jobs (since they share this info) and I researched my job title on salary websites. When I shared my salary expectations, it was 15,000 over what they were willing to give me. I took the job because I needed it and it was a great company with room for growth (plus, it was a bump up from my previous salary so it wasn’t terrible), but I’m hopeful at some point I can be more confident that I’m quoting a realistic figure. I don’t know many people in my specific industry/role that I’d be willing to ask to find out better info.

  15. El Hustlero*

    I recently interviewed (2nd interview) and the interviewer told me she wanted to make an offer to one of the 10 candidates within 2 days. She also said she wanted someone to start in less than 2 weeks (it was a Thursday). Then she asked me how much salary I was hoping for. (The backstory: before my current employer, I reached out for this woman 3 years ago but nothing was available. Then she called me very recently when something opened up. Very nice of her.)

    I said “If it starts in less than 2 weeks then I’m burning a bridge (as I’m currently employed) and it must be worth it. Plus, even though I’ve been with my company for just under 3 years, my new role started 2 months ago (this is true). So my range is $X -$Y” .

    She seemed just a bit offended by that and said “Well I can offer you $Z” which is actually my current salary. I asked “Is this an bonafide offer?” She said she would make a bonafide offer by the next day. I refused because this new role would actually be a supplier to my current role/company. I really would be burning a bridge that I really helped build.

    Was that the right thing to do? This would have been my “Dream Job”… I know there’s no such thing, yet that role is where I want to be within 2 years if not tomorrow. My deep gut feeling is I made a mistake.

    I’d love to hear comments on my stupidity… :(

Comments are closed.