can my cover letter ask for more money than an employer’s posted salary range?

A reader writes:

I think I know the answer already, but I want to ask anyhow.

I work in a rather “niche” specialty. I am currently employed, but am exploring my options elsewhere for a whole lot of reasons. Within my specific field, there aren’t a lot of job openings posted and the pay isn’t great (the positions tend to be within nonprofits and there are a lot of volunteer workers who do parts of this job–it’s hard to compete with “free”).

I have seen a few job openings that list a pay range that is very low, even for this field (barely above minimum wage but requires that applicants have a 4-year degree and some pretty hefty experience). I’ve not applied to these positions because I wouldn’t be willing to accept them at the pay rate they advertise (especially when I’m currently employed at an acceptable rate of pay). Would it be completely out of line for me to apply but specify a higher salary range in a cover letter?

I would be interested if they could pay me a more reasonable salary–and I would perhaps be able to take on some more of the higher level work (which is actually the case at my current job; I work a conglomerate of positions that has me working full-time, but has me taking on some responsibilities that, at other nonprofits, would be under the purview of a higher-ranked person).

But I also think this could be off-putting and could end up having them think quite ill of me–and since this is a rather tightly knit nonprofit community, having my name associated with “difficult” or “expensive” would probably be burning a whole lot of bridges.

It usually isn’t worth doing. They have a range they plan to pay, and they’ve done everyone the courtesy of posting that range so that people know up-front what the salary is and can self-select out if it’s not right for them.

There are occasionally times when an employer will realize, after seeing the applications from people willing to work at the posted salary range, that they’re not going to be able to find the type of candidate they want for that range, and will realize that they need to increase what they’ll pay. Sometimes hearing from well-qualified candidates who say “your range is too low, but I’d be interested at $X” can nudge them in that direction. Sometimes they get there on their own, and it can be helpful to have your application laying around when they do.

But more often than not, that’s not how it works. They end up finding someone who meets their needs at the range that they’ve posted, and that’s that. Perhaps that person isn’t also taking on the higher-level work that you alluded to being able to take on, but they may not need them to.

So in general, no, I wouldn’t bother applying if the salary won’t work for you.

However, there is one thing you could potentially do (although it’s more time-consuming). If you network your way into contact with the people doing the hiring at the organization, you can sometimes ask about salary flexibility in a way that isn’t off-putting. For instance, if you have a mutual contact and that person is willing to recommend you for the job, you could reach out to the hiring manager and say, “Jane Smith suggested that I might be a strong match for the X position you’re hiring for. I read over the posting and your last year’s annual report, and I’m excited about what y’all are doing, and the Y and Z projects this role will be working on. I’d love to throw my hat in the ring. However, I wanted to be up-front about the fact that I’m looking for a salary in the $X range — which I know is higher than what you’ve posted. I don’t want to waste your time if you don’t have any flexibility there, but it looked like such a strong match that I wanted to check with you.” (Attach your resume when you do this so they can do a quick scan and get a sense of whether they might be willing to go up on salary for you.)

Bonus points if the mutual contact also reaches out just before you do this, and explains why they think you’d be awesome at the role.

That’ll come across differently than just applying and stating up-front that their posted salary won’t work for you.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. TCO

    Great advice. Since this is a tight-knit community you might easily be able to do some of that detective work Alison suggests.

    I encountered a similar problem the last time I was job-searching in the nonprofit community: I knew the salary I wanted to make was quite high for the kinds of jobs I was suited for (I was also looking beyond the nonprofit sector and ultimately landed in higher ed). I didn’t apply for jobs whose posted salaries were well below my range, but there were other openings where the salary wasn’t listed and I didn’t have enough knowledge/connections to figure out what that employer’s typical range would be.

    I did choose to apply for some of those jobs and got interview offers from several. However, in the initial phone screen/scheduling call, I always made sure to say, “The job posting didn’t list a salary; are you able to share what the hiring range is? I know my salary expectations aren’t in line with what some employers are able to pay, and I don’t want to waste your time if we’re not aligned.” They usually named a range or asked me to name mine (which I did, given the circumstance). If we were too far off, I thanked them sincerely for considering me and declined the interview. I was careful to emphasize that 1) I knew my range was high, so I didn’t look wildly delusional and 2) I didn’t want to waste their time if we weren’t a good fit. It worked well.

    Good luck, OP!

    1. Laurel Gray

      When you say that you emphasized that you knew your range was high, do you mean even beyond your experience or just to them?

      1. TCO

        I knew that the range I was asking for was perfectly reasonable in private or government sectors given my experience. I know that many nonprofits in my city and field (social services) do not pay as well as other sectors… but some do. It was my way to make sure that my salary expectations didn’t make me look wildly out-of-touch.

  2. Laurel Gray

    I’m surprised the OP is seeing salary ranges in the job postings! Most of the time it seems like the jobs pay low and it isn’t mentioned until both parties have already invested (or wasted?) each other’s time.

    1. Former Museum Educator

      At least in my experience, I’ve found salary listed fairly often within certain nonprofit fields.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger

        Yeah, I think many non-profits actually want to scare off people who are in it for the money. :D

        (Unfortunately, that doesn’t scare off the people who are desperate to work for money instead of for the “higher purpose” of the non-profit.)

        1. NonProfit OP

          Most of them don’t have the range–but a few have.
          Those that don’t have been upfront when they’ve called to schedule an interview–and it has basically ended there.

          (And I think the fact that my current salary is a matter of public record, so they at least can make a reasonable guess at the starting point, contributes to me not getting some callbacks. )

    2. Apollo Warbucks

      In the UK it’s really common to have the salary range listed with the job description.

  3. YandO

    Semi-related question:

    Have you found linkedin salary estimates accurate at all?

    Sometimes they seem pretty accurate, but other times really far off. I am curious to hear what others have experienced.

    1. Clever Name

      Maybe ask this in the Friday open thread? That is specifically for work-related discussions; I know that Alison prefers that the comments to posts remain on topic. :)

  4. MK

    Another factor would be, how wide is the gap between what the OP wants and what they are offering. If you want double the high end of the stated salary range, don’t bother applying. If the difference is reasonable, it might be worth it to ask.

  5. Former Museum Educator

    This sounds exactly like what I deal with in museums. The problem I’ve found is that there are A LOT of highly qualified individuals, with high levels of education, vying for very few jobs in a niche field. As a result, museums rarely invest in someone unless they are spectacular. You’ve got to be at the top of your game to get the average paying job and only true superstars are plucking up the jobs with extra pay.

    If your field is anything similar my suggestion is to do what Alison said and network the hell out of it. Also, I had a “never say no” mentality when I was in museums because it’s a job where you have to wear many hats and if you can be a solid go-to person it will pay off. It served me well throughout my museum career and typically rose to the top of the pack, despite the fact that I was often less qualified and less educated than others.

    Ultimately though I decided to change fields because the jobs are still hard to find and the pay is just not there. I needed to make money and pay off debts.

    1. Lily in NYC

      I left journalism for the same reason – it was just so competitive and low-paying yet there were always plenty of qualified people who would accept the low pay. To put it in perspective, I was a manager at Sports Illustrated and make almost twice as much now working as an executive assistant (and have much less accountability and no longer have to work crazy hours).

      1. Former Museum Educator

        Yup. I also make twice as much as I did. I was in a high level position too, director of the education dept. and still made crap money. It wears on you. I started off with a passion to work in that field and sometimes I am sad that I left it, but ultimately it’s just not enough money and way too much accountability and stress for the pay.

      2. anonnynonny

        Another former magazine managing editor here (at a magazine with just one- i.e. I was second in the chain after the publisher) and can relate! Loved what I did… for the first couple of years, until my passion for my work was buried under too many bills and too little sleep! I’m actually making more at a non-profit and, luckily, love it and still get to write, but it’s a tough market!

    2. NonProfit OP

      That’s pretty close to the field.

      I’m actually, for the right job, finally in a position where I can look at some options that could be part-time and/or pay miserably because I’m no longer the sole breadwinner (yay!), but I’ve been looking pretty hard for more than a year.
      Thus far my applications lead to “so, can you interview tomorrow at noon? No? well, we’ll pay our $8 an hour to someone who can come in tomorrow”

      (I think I sound frustrated, sorry)

  6. AnnieMouse

    Get the offer first and then negotiate for a better salary now or maybe after you prove yourself.

    1. TCO

      That’s fine if your desired salary is close to the stated range, but if you try to negotiate well above the stated range, the hiring manager could just see you as wasting her time. I’ve seen it happen and it reflected poorly on the applicant. It’s hard to make the case that you’re seriously dissatisfied with your salary offer if you knew all along roughly what the offer would be. If there’s no way you’d accept the job at the published salary or something close to it, don’t go all the way through the interview process hiding that fact.

  7. grasshopper

    If there is a difference of 5 or 10% less than what you want, it could be worth applying and then negotiating the salary. If there is anything more than that, you’re wasting everyone’s time. They’ve been up front with the salary and chances are that they will find someone willing to work for that.

    I have definitely written organizations and asked whether there were other parts of the compensation package (benefits, vacation, etc) that weren’t listed because the salary seemed low relative to comparable positions. The answer was always that they pay range really was that low and that gaining the experience of working with them would be worth it regardless of the pay. As previously mentioned, I’m happy that the salary range was mentioned up front so that I didn’t go through the process only to be disappointed.

  8. Brett

    We are on the receiving end of this all the time… our salaries are way too low for what we want to hire.

    (Example: We were recently trying to hire experienced java developers for $75k. We advertised $75k-$100k, but were only authorized to offer $100k. We received several letters telling us that the going entry level rate for java developers in our area is over $100k.) Since we are government, we will interview anyway but make it clear right up front that we cannot pay the hire range. That normally ends the interview fast. It doesn’t really cause problems on our end. We know were are too low, oh well. It just wastes the time of the applicant and we get through phone interviews faster.

    1. I'm a Little Teapot

      I’m job-searching and just saw an administrative assistant position at a professional services firm just outside of Boston, asking for a college degree, 1-2 years experience, and a looong list of responsibilities, for $10 an hour (in a high COL area with a $9 minimum wage). It’s been posted for over a month. Hmm, I wonder why?

      1. I'm a Little Teapot

        Oh, the kicker: they want someone who’s fluent in Mandarin as well as English. Hahahaha!

    2. Brett

      I meant to say above “only authorized to offer $75k”. If we could offer $100k we might have a chance.

        1. Brett

          Yeah, it definitely is not in good faith. The ranges really mean that “all employees working in this grade make between this”. The $100k people have been here 15+ yrs (heck, most people here less than 10 yrs are still making the bottom of the band).
          Even screwier, we cannot eliminate someone because they are out of the range. I still remember one amazing candidate, who was over 50% out of range for what he wanted, who went through multiple interviews (flying from out of state) and a background check before we got to the offer stage. We offered him 2/3rds of his minimum, he asked for more, we said no, and that was the end of a 3 month long hiring process. Since we don’t pay travel, he probably spent ~$2k of his own money to get to that point too.

    3. BeenThere

      I think it’s great that you advertise the range.

      I feel really bad for you though as there is little chance of getting a good experienced Java developer at that range in any location I know of. I disagree that it doesn’t cause problems, I can guarantee the quality of software being produced would be much lower, creating other costs down the line in support and maintenance.

      1. BeenThere

        Oh wait I just read the bit where you can offer the $100k advertised. That is really a tough situation.

  9. AnotherAlison

    One thing that also might be worth considering (and would deter me personally from contacting companies with postings below my salary range) is that the OP is 1.) employed, and 2.) in a niche field.

    For me, there are only a few local companies that would highly value my experience. I don’t want to move, so job changes have to be very strategic. It would be frustrating to just want a new job and have exhausted my options if I was suddenly in a situation where I needed a new job. The salary range might not be acceptable now, but compared to being unemployed, it might be okay. (I realize the OP has some issues at the current place not detailed, but I think those are great reasons to keep searching but maybe not for pursuing the job that isn’t the right pay grade.)

    Or maybe I’m a crazy over-thinker.

    1. OhNo

      That’s actually a really good point. If the OP contacts these companies now and requests a higher salary, they might remember if OP comes back around later and is accepting a lower one due to employment issues, and the company will want to know why. This is even more concerning if requesting high salaries will get you branded as “difficult” and automatically removed from the running next time around.

      Is it worth not trying now? I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t risk it if it’s a close-knit community with a long memory, but I’m pretty risk-averse.

      1. NonProfit OP

        That’s what I’m afraid of.

        I think I’m not able to apply based on fear of burning bridges.

  10. Empress Zhark

    OP – have you thought about maybe looking for higher-level positions in your field? You mention you’ve been doing some higher level work anyway, and maybe now is the time to use that experience to help you move up a rung in your career. I’m assuming that the higher level role would then have a salary range closer to what you’re looking for.

    1. NonProfit OP

      I have, actually. I seem to have rather lousy luck in that department. Pickings at the higher levels seem to pay better but are a bit more slim–and I’m arguably under qualified for some of them (as in, I’m qualified, but they’ll be inundated with people with more education).
      (For me to go further up the ladder, I think I have to go back for more schooling, which is not cost-effective or really practical right now)

      1. misspiggy

        Not necessarily. One feature of nonprofits in my experience is that they list very high qualifications and can’t bend much on salary, but will forget big parts of the person spec if they want you. So I say go for higher level roles.

  11. Yep

    I literally just decided not to apply to a job for almost this reason. Other job perks like working in the field I want, doing work I love, etc. etc., just aren’t as important to me anymore as a decent salary. I feel like a sell-out saying that, but it’s reality. I’ve worked too many years in low paying admin jobs – I’m sick of being broke and feeling bad about myself at work. I know I’m capable of so much more, and I’m willing to work for the higher salary – it sounds like you’re already doing the extra work.

    It might be worth considering switching fields. I’m sure your many skills are transferable to other jobs as well. At the very least, it couldn’t hurt to browse around, maybe go on a few interviews outside of your comfort zone – no one says you have to accept, just keep your options open.

  12. NonProfit OP

    Thanks everyone.

    I think that’s in line with where my gut instincts lived–I do have a few opportunities over the summer to reach out at some events and network (at least one of these people has expressed interest in hiring me away in the past–although his organization probably won’t pay me super well)–but the strongest contacts I’ve made are dealing with having to lay off their staff right now, which adds another layer.

    I do know that I need to go back to school to reach for the next rung up to stay in my field–but that that’s both impractical for my life right now and I don’t think I can count on it actually making me employable here. (and I’m looking outside of my field–but I love what I do-switching roles is a low priority)

    I’m looking (and I’m obviously a bit frustrated) and I’ll work on my network links (I have some very good references/contacts who know I”m looking and are watching out for me), and I’m lucky that I’m employed and have the luxury to bypass these positions at the moment

    And I’m reviewing my resume again this weekend.

  13. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2

    Yes, you can.

    If that’s your “low point” at what you’d be willing to / able to work for, you might take a shot.

    If it’s something the employer can’t handle, they won’t call you back. You’ve only “wasted” a stamp.

    If they call you in, there is an IMPLICATION that they’re willing to be flexible, but they still might try to lowball you – are you willing to spend your time, only to be “surprised” that they won’t come up to your number?

    Be prepared for that.

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