should you ever negotiate salary through email?

A reader writes:

I am in the midst of negotiating salary for a new position. My sister recently completed a salary negotiation through email, and suggested I do the same. We are in slightly different situations, as she accepted an offer from an academic institution and my potential employer is a private sector company. What are your thoughts on negotiating through email? My initial response is don’t do it, and I will be negotiating through a phone call. I’d be interested in your opinion though!

While I can certainly see why email might feel more comfortable — it takes some of the awkwardness away that many people feel when they have to actually have a conversation about salary negotiation — I think that generally it will put you in a weaker position.

Having a conversation — a real conversation over the phone, not a back and forth in writing — allows you to hear the other person’s tone, and where they pause, and how they react to what you say. It allows you to state what you want and then stop to force a response from them, right there in the moment. Email does none of that.

That said, some people certainly do negotiate salary over email, and there are probably some who do it perfectly effectively. But I think you’re sacrificing some opportunity there.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. Dang

    I once got my official offer through email, complete with the salary offer. So I negotiated through email, since it was clear that’s how they wanted to communicate. I do appreciate that it most likely puts you in a weaker position, though.

    1. Christine

      This same scenario happened in my last negotiation as well. I never spoke with the hiring manager over the phone, so I thought it’d be weird to look up her phone number and call when she seemed to prefer e-mail.

  2. Adam

    Hmmm…so if an employer makes the job offer and initial salary specs through email, since that is likely how they wish to proceed, is this another “employer holds the cards” situation or would you be remiss in requesting to have the conversation via phone?

  3. Anon

    Why would email put you in a weaker position, but not the employer? I understand that you can’t read their visual and verbal nuances via email, but it also means they can’t read yours.

    1. Adam

      I guess from one standpoint they have something you want (a job/more money) and you’d want to be in the best position to feel out the situation as you can. In the end if they decide your asking salary is not something they can accommodate based solely on electronic exchanges, they can likely back out easily and go with an alternate candidate they may have waiting while you are sent back to the uncertain job hunt pool. With more human cues you may have been better able to discern where an acceptable boundary was between your needs and theirs.

    2. Greg

      Well, mainly because in this situation, you are trying to get them to change the status quo (the original offer). It can be easier to say no to someone over email than in a direct conversation. (Obviously, you can say no as well, but your no has the effect of terminating the deal completely, while theirs just leaves you both in the same position.)

      That said, I agree that the success of a negotiating strategy has far more to do with the company’s budget and desire to hire you than the communication medium. A very strong negotiator may be able to secure themselves a great offer, and a very weak one may leave money on the table. But I suspect that if your negotiating skills are marginally better or worse than average, it won’t make much of a difference either way.

    3. kac

      I also think it depends on the job you are negotiating over: If it’s a client/customer facing job, especially with a sales or marketing component, I think it is especially important to be able to hold your own and manage over-the-phone negotations.

  4. Blue Dog

    I agree with the statement, but as a result come to the oppose conclusion. I think that most people are terrible at negotiating their own salary and don’t have all that much experience with it (whereas a hiring manager probably has much more and has less emotional involvement).

    It seems like the employee would benefit more from having the ability to sit back and think about something (rather than being the one who would probably react first to the awkward silence). How many times have seen someone post here, “I just blurted out that I accepted without really negotiating fully.”

    I do think that there is something to be said for negotiating in person, but since most people are just so terrible at it, it just seems to me like the employer would be giving up more by negotiating over email because it tends to place the parties on more equal footing.

    1. llamathatducks

      I agree, from (limited) experience: I successfully negotiated my salary for my current (entry-level, temp) job through email, and the reason I decided to do it via email is that in phone conversations with the hiring person I was much too nervous to do it at all effectively. In an email I was able to totally control my tone because it depended on word choice and punctuation.

      So for people who can think on their feet and be smart and confident in the moment, talking on the phone is probably a good strategy, but for those of us who need time and privacy to formulate our thoughts, email can win out.

    2. Greg

      That’s a good point, and as someone who expresses himself much better in writing than in person, I find it fairly compelling.

      That said, here’s where I think it falls down: A good negotiation shouldn’t just be a matter of, “You’re offering $50K, I want $60K, who’s going to blink?” Ideally, you’ll bring up every aspect of the offer (vacation time, bonus, equity, salary review) and negotiate them all at once. I think that would be much harder to do over email, because you can’t rely on the “sliding preference scale” the way you can in a conversation. Maybe you wouldn’t push so hard for that extra $5K in salary if you knew you could get the extra week of vacation. Maybe you want to throw in that final issue as an “oh-by-the-way” once you’ve gotten everything else you can get (ie, “Oh by the way, I would like my start date to be after my two-week vacation to Akalakastan.”) That’s much harder to pull off when you have to put your demands down on paper (so to speak) at the outset.

      1. llamathatducks

        Hmm, I guess that makes sense if there are a lot of variables to discuss. In my case that I mentioned above, the salary was absolutely the only thing to discuss: as a temp, I wasn’t gonna be getting major benefits like health insurance and vacation time; smaller day-to-day benefits are set in stone by the company’s policy towards temps; and their proposed start date suited me just fine. (“Proposed” might not even be correct – they stated it as though it were a solid fact and not up for discussion, although maybe I could’ve pushed if I’d wanted to.) Plus their base salary actually would have been okay for me anyway, and I assumed as an entry-level candidate I wouldn’t have much bargaining power either, especially since I didn’t have any other options to choose from. So literally the only reasonable thing I could do was ask if they had any flexibility on the salary, while being careful not to suggest that I’d turn down the offer if they didn’t. I definitely could not trust myself to get the nuance quite right over the phone, but in an email it worked well. :)

        Probably after I get a bit more experience and confidence I can start doing this by phone, but for now… no.

  5. shawn

    I’ve had this happen a few times with candidates. I always make the offer over the phone, but sometimes they email me back after thinking about it. I’ve never really viewed either method, email or phone, especially different.

    In reality, our willingness to negotiate often depends less on exactly what you say and how you say it compared to our budget and the value we place on hiring you. Rarely has a candidate made such a compelling argument that we were convinced to do something we weren’t already comfortable doing. Given all of that, in my mind negotiating is more about actually asking for something (money, perk, etc), having something(s) the employer wants (a skill, experience, attitude, idea, etc) but can’t get from the next 10 candidates, and giving them at least a little inkling that if they don’t make the offer a little sweeter you may not accept it.

    There are edge cases (such as industry / hiring manager / HR / preferences), but I don’t think your ability to negotiate is especially dependent on calling versus emailing.

  6. Feed Fido

    If you are too afraid to negotiate on a call, I’d email. Even if it is forced to a call, you have broken the ice. That said, I wonder how many job offers are rescinded if you barter? How many just insist on original offer?

    1. shawn

      I’ve facilitated the hiring process for a few hundred vacancies from the HR/recruiting side. I’ve never rescinded an offer because someone negotiated and I’ve never heard of someone doing it or having it done to them (not saying it has never ever happened).

      When coming up with an initial salary to offer I talk hiring managers through potential candidate responses and have them envision how negotiations might go. This doesn’t mean we lower an offer to allow room to negotiate, but I just want them to be aware the request might come and let’s be prepared .

      There are occasions where our offer is best and final/non-negotiable. I usually tell the candidate this info when making the offer, assuming I’m aware of it (I try to be). This helps them better and more quickly evaluate the offer versus trying to haggle when it won’t be possible.

    2. Greg

      Honestly, any company that would rescind an offer based on a good-faith effort to negotiate is so poorly run that you should consider yourself lucky for having dodged a bullet.

  7. Milos

    While I haven’t encountered this yet, some businesses like to have EVERYTHING documented – even before you officially join them.

    I do agree with people who commented before me whose sentiment is that an opportunity is potentially lost if doing so via e-mail (unless you don’t feel comfortable negotiating in person).

    Either way, if the number is what you are looking for it doesn’t matter how it came to be.

  8. Matt

    I’m a big phone hater and email writer (I absolutely loved the article “Can you stop to take phone calls and direct all to email” :-) and I’d always do as much via email as I can. I agree that the great point about email is that you can think things over and don’t have to blurt out an answer in seconds to avoid awkward silence.

  9. anon58

    We did some of the negotiating for my current position over email. It was the best way given the circumstances (hiring manager was on the road and I was working another FT job where I could not take personal calls but could check email occasionally on breaks.) It was particularly helpful as one of the things I needed to know more about was the benefit package since much of the interview was spent on other things, so they were able to email me the health insurance premiums and an explanation of how vacation policies work and the 401k contributions, etc.

    1. anon58

      Oh, I should mention that I was able to negotiate my salary to be near the top of their 40-49k range for the position, so I feel pretty good about that! But they had also told me that I was the unanimous first choice for the job (and 5 people interviewed me) when they offered it to me so I knew I had some bargaining power.

  10. Steven J. Owens

    Using a channel with fewer body language indicators (whether it’s email instead of phone, or phone instead of face-to-face) has advantages and disadvantages. Yes, it deprives you of cues like tone, timing, expressions, etc.

    But sometimes those cues are more useful to you; sometimes they’re more useful to them.

    If they’re using the cues to manipulate or deceive you, choosing a communications medium that dampens those cues will help you maintain an even perspective and focus on the facts.

    If you’re not sure if your impressions are subjective or objective, having at least one conversation via a low-cue medium will help you sanity-check the details.

  11. David

    Salary should be talked about up-front. Whether it’s by email, or in-person, phone, doesn’t matter that much. The employer usually has a top amount they are willing to give, the candidate a bottom amount they will accept. If they don’t match, get it out right off the bat.

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