what should a salary negotiation sound like?

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talk to a guest who’s wondering about salary negotiation — how to do it, what to say, and what kind of tone to use.

This episode is 18 minutes long, and here’s the letter:

I would really appreciate a good in-depth lesson on negotiating salaries. I see a lot of basic advice but I’ve never personally done it. There’s such conflicting advice about if women should or shouldn’t, how they should do it, and to top off, a mix of horror stories of offers being pulled because of negotiation.

The things I’d like to know most are:
* What kind of tone should you be using?
* How do you know if you’re being reasonable?
* How to get more confident and not feel so nervous about pushing for a little bit more?

You can listen to our discussion on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Volumes, or Anchor (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen above.

If you prefer, here’s the transcript.

{ 68 comments… read them below }

  1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    Oh, man. This is (potentially) perfect timing. While I don’t have a job offer yet, I’m happy to have something to listen to now so I’m not scrounging at the last minute! Especially since being knowledgeable ahead of time will give me more confidence if/when the opportunity rolls around.

    1. The Original K.*

      Exactly! I’m actively interviewing so this comes at a great time. Going to listen now.

    2. H*

      Thirded! I just scheduled a second interview at a place where HR told me the salary was open to negotiations. Of course, the base salary is still $10K+ more than I put as my “desired” salary, so I might just try to negotiate for what I REALLY want, which is more vacation time.

  2. I See Real People*

    I listened to this during my commute this morning! It was very helpful! Thank you!

  3. Tiny Orchid*

    Two questions came up for me:

    1) How should I treat bonuses in the negotiation? When I most recently got a job offer, the offer itself was in the middle of my salary range but the bonus if I did a good job actually pushed it above what I had asked for. I didn’t negotiate salary (it was a 30% raise over my last job, which I was thrilled about!) but in retrospect, I wonder whether I should have. (I tried to get more vacation days instead – and was unsuccessful, but have been happily on the job for a year and a half now)

    2) Does one usually negotiate right when getting the offer? I’ve usually received offers, then thought about them overnight, then come back with any negotiating that I wanted to do. On the one hand, I like to have some time to gather my thoughts. On the other hand, I wonder whether that turns it into a bigger deal than it otherwise should be.

    1. Cordoba*

      1) I regard a bonus as less valuable than an equivalent additional salary and mentally de-rate them accordingly when evaluating offers. This is for two reasons:
      a) At most organizations bonuses are more likely to be adjusted downward or eliminated than standard salary. There are plenty of people who have heard stories along the lines of “you did a great job but we can’t give you the full bonus this year because of [expensive problem] in [unrelated part of company]”. Salary can be reduced too, but it’s typically considered to be a much bigger deal than a weak round of bonuses.
      b) Bonus and raises are typically computed as “% of base salary” rather than “% of base salary + bonus” so with recurring raises a higher salary will compound itself at a significantly greater rate. Make some reasonable assumptions and do the math, over 5-10 years it often makes a real difference.
      Bonuses are fun, but ultimately exist to benefit employers. I would prefer to get the same total amount of money compensation in the form of salary if at all possible.

      2) Your approach sounds very reasonable in most cases. I actually prefer to do salary negotiations starting the next day via email, which takes your poker face out of the equation and leaves everybody with a durable record of what was discussed. The exception to this is if the offer is unreasonably low, and you are absolutely not going to take it without a big increase. In these cases it can be helpful to have some back-and-forth in real time to see where the mismatch is and what can be done about it. This wastes less time and seems to help people to understand that you’re not just using a negotiation tactic but instead really are shocked by the low offer and looking for a solution.

    2. Jerry Vandesic*

      For a bonus, I always ask for the payout percentages (of the full target bonus) for the last three years. If the employer has paid out at a high percentage (greater than 80%), that’s a good sign. Obviously individual performance will impact the payout for a specific person, but the overall percentages indicate whether the company regularly funds and delivers the bonus. If a company is unable or unwilling to share this data, I see that as a bad sign and makes me discount the value of the bonus to near zero.

      It’s also important to understand how the bonus is determined. If it is discretionary, then I also discount it. If it is formulaic, then I ask for the formula. One former employer gave ever bonus-eligible employee a book with the bonus equations, which incorporated company performance vs the S&P, individual performance ratings, and several other factors. Your manager would set your rating, but all other factors were non-discretionary, and it was easy to understand and estimate the payout.

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Without fully understanding why or how, I’ve also noted that I lose a much bigger chunk of a bonus to taxes (this is in the US). In terms of actually dollars in my pocket, a bonus isn’t as good as a raise.

        1. Joie De Vivre*

          I’m not sure it is still true, but years ago the IRS required that bonuses be taxed at a hire rate – at the time the bonus was paid. But depending on your taxe bracket, you’d get $$ back or it would lessen the amount you owed.

    3. Ali G*

      One other thing to keep in mind re bonuses is that each company does this differently. At my last job, I was eligibile for up to 10% of my salary in an annual bonus. BUT to get that, the company had to decide to pay out the full bonus pool available, or not. So if the company decides it didn’t perform well enough to pay out 100%, they will set it lower, say 80%. THEN, my boss had to decide if I performed well enough to get 100% of the 80%. If not, she could say I only deserve 75%. So if I made 100k, I could receive up to 10k, but in this case I would have received 10k*0.8*0.75 = 6k.
      So it’s important to know how they calculate bonus because on the surface they seem like a great perq, but really a large portion of it may never be yours depending on how the C-suite feels the year went.

  4. Delaney*

    What about negotiations for raises instead of initial offers? Does any of this advice apply?

  5. Oxford Coma*

    It never occurred to me to worry about my tone during negotiations, because every one I’ve done has involved a game of “whisper down the alley” among HR/direct manager/upper level manager. I doubt the minutiae of my request was accurately communicated among the 3-5 people involved in that decision during the two days it took for them to tag each other back and forth.

    Is it usual to negotiate directly face-to-face with the person who can make that decision on the spot?

    1. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

      I think tone is important when talking to HR as well – I say that as the person who is on the receiving end of that tone. If it’s a combative or irritated tone, I definitely will relay that information to the hiring manager, and it probably will affect how willing we are to meet that request.

      1. Oxford Coma*

        Well, I was (perhaps erroneously) assuming an examination of tone to get more nuanced than “general good interview behavior” tone of voice. If it just means be generally pleasant and professional, then I’m probably putting too much thought into it.

        1. designbot*

          I think it mostly means to be generally pleasant and professional, but as someone who hires but doesn’t deal with salary, I do get more than that communicated to me from HR. For example in my company, I come to HR and say I want to hire this person who I interviewed on that day and (partner) Cersei has approved. They ask me how I see them fitting into the team, and I’ll say they have a lot of potential but need to get skills Y and Z built up, so for now I’d see them as below Sansa but above Sweetrobin in terms of their value to the team. After that HR does most of the negotiation, but has come back to me before with reports that Arya is asking for more, and how important is it to me to get her vs. another candidate. That discussion generally comes with some degree of nuance—HR has communicated to me before that in this discussion a candidate came across as entitled, or sees themselves as fitting in differently than we’d discussed. Essentially if the tone can have the appearance of communicating anything at all, that impression (right or wrong!) might be passed on to others in the discussion.

          1. Detective Right-All-The-Time*

            Yes, I don’t think it’s really that much more than a generally pleasant a professional disposition. People who are generally pleasant and polite, I probably won’t talk too much about what their tone was like, but I’ve had some aggressive and irate salary negotiations and that is absolutely communicated back to the hiring manager. I’ll also work a little harder to meet people’s counter offers if they lean even further into the pleasant and excited about the offer side of things.

    2. SoCalHR*

      In reality, I think you should worry MORE about tone if its a ‘whisper down the alley’ game (which I am assuming is the same game as ‘telephone’ :-).

      I feel like tone has the ability to magnify the further away it gets from the source as tone is often hard to put into words (or possibly explained in an email). If someone says “they sounded a bit snarky to me” that may be communicated as “they were snarky” rather than just a hint of it. So now the snarky-tone is in the other person’s head.

    1. Cordoba*

      In general yes, everything in an offer that is not required by law is fair game for negotiation.

      Different organizations will vary in how open they are to this depending on their culture, the candidate, and the job being applied for. I’ve had some companies who were happy to throw money at me but said their internal policy was ironclad that they could not give additional vacation time. Even then, I expect that if I had been a very desirable hot-shot VP candidate instead of a lowly engineer that policy would have been more flexible.

      They might not grant your request, but with a reasonable company it will not hurt to ask. Nobody worth working for is going to pull an offer from a candidate they liked because the candidate asked for an additional week of vacation.

      My two cautions are:
      1) Don’t ask for anything that is transparently unreasonable for your industry and position. An entry-level engineer at Boeing asking for a parking space by the door with their name on it (for a non-medical reason) makes them look out of touch at best.
      2) If you ask for X, Y, and Z and they actually agree to give you those things it looks very bad to then ask for further things A, B, and C too. Your negotiating asks carry an implicit “…and if you give me these things I’ll accept the job”.

  6. Mr B*

    One thing I don’t understand is why the candidate gives a range rather than a static number. I get the employer giving a range because of differing experience and whatnot but if a candidate is saying that (s)he is looking for $80K-$85K, the employer isn’t likely to give $85K when $80K was already deemed acceptable.

    1. Cordoba*

      I’ll give a range in a few cases:
      1) It’s early in the process and I’m still learning what the job entails and what the benefits are. Giving a range helps everybody to understand whether our expectations overlap while still leaving me some flexibility. To use your example, if I said $80k-85K I may later learn that at that job I would have to pay for parking to the tune of $200/month, which means I’d hold firm on $85k to make up the difference. I’m not saying that $80k is “Acceptable” – I’m just saying that it’s something I could live with if everything else worked out.

      2) If I’m talking with multiple potential employers and the benefits/culture/people/location/etc are different enough from one to another that these things might sway me more than just money. I like putting this right on the table with something like “I’m considering a few other offers right now that range between $X and $Y, so am really looking for the best fit with the other aspects of the position.”

    2. ArtK*

      There’s more to compensation that just dollars. How much PTO? Vacation accrual? Tuition reimbursement? Health care costs. On site gym or child care? 401K matching? All of these should be factored in when deciding on an offer. I might accept a lower salary if the other benefits are good. Then again, I might insist on a higher salary if I’m going to be heavily out-of-pocket for medical stuff.

      A range says “somewhere in here, depending on the other compensation.”

      1. Lil Fidget*

        Yeah I’ve found that (using your example) $80K when insurance is entirely paid and they offer 401K match, is much better than $85 with bad insurance and no 401k, in terms of my disposable income – which is at the end of the day what I really care about. That’s why I usually state a range “depending on the total compensation package.”

        1. Me*

          This is why I decided not to interview for the job in StL; it paid the same as Exjob, but I would have had to pay three times the amount for insurance–and that was just medical alone–and they were only offering one week of PTO for the first year. Not really doable when your housing cost would also double.

    3. The New Wanderer*

      I give a range because starting salary is just one facet of the total compensation package. I’m willing to go lower on salary if the benefits are awesome and vacation/PTO reasonable. If there are costs to my time (strict hours, butt in seat philosophy, commuting) or money (parking, commuting) or benefits etc aren’t great, I would push for the salary to be higher to make it worth my while.

  7. BRR*

    I was incredibly nervous the first time I negotiated but after doing it once, I think it will be easier going forward. Thinking of it as not a big deal is really helpful in my opinion. It sort of goes along with thinking of interviewing as a two-way street. The other main point that was really helpful for me was be brief and then stop talking. I tend to ramble so this was so important for me to keep in mind.

  8. EEK! The Manager*

    Hearing this was super helpful and timely!

    I have a follow up question that I wonder if anyone here has experience with. Say I’m interviewing for a job and the hourly salary range of $22-24 is given up front, along with the benefits package. I know that if I were to receive an offer, I wouldn’t be using the benefits because I’m on my spouse’s and they are excellent. Can I use the fact that I wouldn’t be using their benefits to negotiate a few more dollars per hour? What would that look like?

    1. DivineMissL*

      Where I work, it works like this: If my spouse’s job already covers me for medical benefits, then I sign a waiver of coverage (and have to document the other coverage) ; then I get a portion of what my employer would have paid for my coverage (25% of the amount saved by the employer, or $5,000, whichever is less) in one lump sum at the end of the year. The amount saved by the employer is the premium due minus the contribution I would have made if I didn’t waive it. This is in the employee handbook, so take a look in there if you can get a copy, or ask HR if they have a similar policy.

      1. DivineMissL*

        Oh, I forgot to note – this is taxable income, you have to take that into account.

      2. SoCalHR*

        Curious, does your company ONLY cover employees, or do they cover a portion for spouses/dependents as well?

        1. hermit crab*

          The company where I work does something very similar, and they cover dependents – you are eligible to get more “opt out money” if you’re opting your dependents out too, rather than just yourself. The extra money is just added to our regular paychecks!

    2. WellRed*

      Alison had a similar question one time and part of her answer was, if you eventually needed to start using the health benefit, would you be willing to give back that extra salary?

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Although the way described above is a great way to do it, because it keeps it so clearly separate from your salary (so it won’t feel the same as a pay cut if it changes).

      2. Beatrice*

        And would they even be comfortable asking for that, in a qualifying life event? Who wants to tell someone whose spouse has left, died, or lost a job that their salary was going to decrease since they now need to use their own company benefits? Regardless of what the employee originally agreed to, the optics of that are terrible for the employer.

  9. hayling*

    Speaking of podcasts, Alison, I can’t wait for you to be on Ask a Clean Person! I love when my faves cross over!

  10. JamieS*

    Re: acting in bad faith if try to negotiate higher when offered the top of your range, considering it’s not uncommon to name a range at the beginning I’m wondering how to handle it if they offer the top but a candidate’s range has changed after learning more. Such as the named range is $75-80k but the candidate realizes they’ll need $83-88k after learning the benefits package is subpar. Specifically when should the range change be mentioned and if not mentioned prior to the offer how to phrase an increase in a way that lessens the chance of appearing to be acting in bad faith.

    1. Cordoba*

      I recommend solving this problem up front by really reaching high with the top end of your range. Don’t do $75-$80k, do $75-110k.

      If you’re already jammed up on the range it seems to be the right time to bring it up is when they reveal the details of the benefit package or whatever the sticking point is. If the issue is benefits you could phrase it like “Hmm, my original salary range was based on the expectation that the benefits here would be similar to my current job, but I’m seeing a big disparity here that is going to increase my out-of-pocket costs. With this benefit package I would need to make more like $X to make up the difference and still have it be worth my while to change jobs.”

    2. Someone else*

      Ideally, the range you give up front assumes a wide enough variance to offset whatever subpar benefits package you might learn about. That’s part of why you give a range. So if you find your original range was so off-base, either their other benefits REALLY suck, or you need to give wider ranges from the start.

  11. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

    I think maybe I commented this on an open thread once, but I really stumbled when accepting my current job. To apply you had to fill out an online application that required a “minimum salary requirement”, and you couldn’t put a range. I foolishly put my true minimum (if benefits were perfect). When they offered me the job, HR said “you asked for $X and we’re please to offer you $X”. I felt like pointing out that they were giving me what I asked for took away the ability to negotiate. I wish I had been prepared with some wording to be able to ask for a little more or maybe I should have put the top of my range instead of the bottom.

    1. The New Wanderer*

      I don’t see that as your fault, though. You didn’t ask for X, you stated that X was the absolute minimum you would consider before finding anything else out about the job, like actual responsibilities and benefits. And of course you didn’t know the company would use that number as the Only Offer number on the table. Companies like that are why a lot of us prefer to leave that spot blank or put zeros to avoid the risk that it somehow becomes carved in stone.

    2. Ali G*

      You did the right thing by putting in your absolute minimum. But you still could have negotiated! The application asked for the min, so you could have said “As you know, the application asked for my minimum salary requirement. After learning more about the position and benefits I believe a more reasonable number would be $Y.” (as long as Y ins’t widely different than X)

  12. Wendy Darling*

    I’ve negotiated salary three times now and here’s how it’s gone every time:

    THEM: We’re offering $X.
    ME: I was thinking $Y. (then I shut up.)
    THEM, after a slightly awkward pause: I think we can do that but let me check and get back to you.
    ME: Sure.

    I wait. They get back to me and agree to my number. The end!

    The hard parts are 1. being ready with a reasonable $Y when they come at you. I’ve actually asked them to let me look at benefits info and call them back so I could develop my counter. This has worked fine.

    And 2. shutting up after giving my counter. Most of the people I’ve negotiated with let the silence hang there for a minute to give me space to back down. You just have to wait. It’s hard.

    The only company I had get mad at me for negotiating agreed to my counter anyway and they were completely terrible across the board so holding my salary over my head was but one of the dozens of ways they were awful. So if someone is crappy at you because you tried to negotiate, know that they’re showing you they’ll be crappy if you try to advocate for yourself.

    1. Oxford Coma*

      Mine have gone like this:

      THEM: We’re offering $X
      Me: Based on data from industry-leading professional organization A and government entity B, I’m asking for $Y.

      glaciers melt, suns die, stars collapse

      THEM: We can offer you $X plus two percent, based on this think-tank salary database you’ve never heard of.

      1. Wendy Darling*

        I have the dubious benefit that I have weird jobs with weird qualifications and there are no good guides for how people doing my kind of work should get paid. So everyone is winging it all the time. The salary range is like $70k wide because it just depends who you work for and how they classify you… and what you can talk them into.

        So on the one hand no one can lowball me by choosing the salary database that gives the lowest number, but on the other hand I can throw out a number and have no idea if I’m asking for 2x the top of their salary band or lowballing myself.

    2. ThatGirl*

      When I was moving states for a new job (gladly!) from a low COL to a higher COL area, the new salary seemed a lot higher than I’d been making, but I knew what I needed in order to comfortably afford an apartment in that area. So when they offered me $X, I said quite honestly “I think I need $Y in order to make living there work” and it wasn’t a huge disparity, so they “consulted” whoever and got back to me and said yes.

      (In retrospect it was still a pretty piddly amount, and I could have done it differently, but I was still proud of myself as a naive 24 year old.)

    3. Popcorn Lover*

      “So if someone is crappy at you because you tried to negotiate, know that they’re showing you they’ll be crappy if you try to advocate for yourself.”

      Well said!

  13. Charles B.*

    Wow, this was a great segment. How about for promotions? Do you negotiate the same way as with a new job offer? Or sort of a combination of new-job-offer negotiating and current-job-raise negotiating?

  14. MRT*

    This is perfect timing for me! I’ve been told by a non-profit I applied to that they are currently checking references and I should expect a phone call to make an appointment with the VP of HR for an in-person offer. I’ve never heard of having to go physically to an appointment to receive an offer; in my experience it’s done over the phone. (This is a mid-level fundraising position). There is a salary range for the position but I’m nervous about seeing what they offer and hopefully negotiating for more. These examples from the podcast of what to say are perfect!

  15. ME*

    As an employer, I expect people to negotiate. I also tell people upfront what the range is, which is based on very concrete business calculations and knowledge of the market rate for the skill set. I ask what they’d expect to earn for the role. We don’t move forward past the screen if we’re not in comfortablely in sync.

    Within the range, we can negotiate. I have the most respect for people who bring concrete, data-driven reasons to the conversation. Because I bring mine.

  16. oranges & lemons*

    Negotiating has always seemed kind of weird to me on principle, particularly in the cases where you don’t have any particular rationale for asking, or even any research to back it up. It just strikes me as odd that for a lot of jobs there is a bonus $5k or so sitting there, waiting for you to activate it using the magical phrase. I get that this is just how it works, but $5k seems like a lot of money to be thrown around in such an arbitrary-seeming way.

    1. Cordoba*

      Negotiation is the norm for human commerce, “fixed price” transactions are a relatively recent invention and negotiating many purchases is still common throughout much of the world.

      Even in the US today, manufacturer’s coupons serve much the same role that haggling used to – they allow merchants to sell the same thing for different things to various people with differing levels of price sensitivity.

      It makes sense if you think of it as fine-tuning the assignation of value of something, whether that something is a tomato or a year of labor. If given tomato might be worth $1 to you and $2 to me it makes sense for the person selling tomatoes to offer them for $2 and then negotiate down to $1 when it becomes apparent that you’re not willing to pay $2.

      Likewise, it makes sense for an employer to offer $50k and then revise that to $55k if the candidate won’t agree to work at $50k.

    2. Betsy*

      Yeah, I think it’s quite common in some countries, but not in others. I read that only 50% of people in Australia, where I’m from negotiate, and I’m pretty uncomfortable with negotiating, personally. I’d much rather the salary was completely set (and it’s already a lot more likely to be set within a quite small range than in other countries).

      1. Trig*

        I wonder how it correlates with tipping culture! I know Aussies typically don’t tip, preferring that the price stated be the price paid, so it’s interesting that you say you like the set salary.

        1. DDJ*

          Well, minimum wage is also over $18/hour. I don’t believe that they have a separate minimum wage for servers the way the US does. That’s why there’s not a tipping culture – servers aren’t subjected to some weird, arbitrary set of rules independent from the rest of minimum wage.

          I just did a quick review of the Fair Work Ombudsman site for the Government of Australia and couldn’t find a separate servers’ wage, but I might have missed something.

  17. Lareth the Passable*

    I think it’s a mistake for a candidate to give a salary range: the employer is likely going to hear the lower number .

    Surely it’s better to say the upper middle of your range “assuming excellent benefits”.
    You’ve anchored the negotiations around a favourable figure while the nebulous nature of “excellent benefits” allows scope for negotiation without embarrassment.

  18. Stopdrop*

    The part about the top of the range made me feel good at first but now I wonder if I did leave money on the table/was tricked a bit in my recent experience…

    I was all set to negotiate for the first time. Earlier in the process, I told the HR person that I was looking for a salary “in the 90s” and she said that was in the range. About a month and a few interviews later, she calls to make the offer. The first thing she asks is “what did you say your current salary is…I forget what you told me”. Not wanting to fall for that one, I told her that we had discussed that I was looking for something in the 90s. Then she says “great… we’d like to offer you 100k”. Obviously that left me no room for negotiation but I’m wondering what would have happened if I said I wanted 110k!!

    1. Oilpress*

      I have an anecdote from the opposite side…

      I had a candidate give me their range. After offering the top end of their range, they negotiated for more. It really annoyed me and made me consider pulling the offer. Eventually I just negotiated them back down to a reasonable amount, but I could see a lot of people retracting the offer out of spite.

      I think you were right to be bold but not rude about it. Going above your previously stated range is pushing it.

  19. Me*

    Uuuuugggggghhh. I don’t have much practice at negotiating because most of the jobs I’ve had pay X amount and that’s it. I had an interview this morning for an entry-level admin position at a law firm (no phones!) and if they offer it, I’m going to shoot for the top of their range, which isn’t great. I plan to just say that while I don’t have any law experience, I have tons of admin and client care experience. And it’s barely worth driving across town for $12 an hour (I’ll leave that part out, LOL). The PTO is also a joke but hopefully I’ll be out of here long before that’s a problem because I’m not going to stop looking.

    I did get to do that at my last job, and fortunately, AwesomeBoss agreed and I said exactly all the right things, thanks to AAM. ;) But that was a higher-level admin job, and this is really not. I’m kind of sick of entry-level everything; in addition to not building new skills, I’m not really getting any practice at negotiating either. :(

    They did ask me to bring in references; they said they’d asked a few people for that but I don’t know if that’s good or bad. :\

  20. Too Many Resumes to Review*

    I’m really hoping that one day your podcast will be available on Stitcher. I love your blog and would love to enhance the experience by listening to you!

  21. stej*

    When the employer comes back at the middle or low-middle between their first offer and what you asked for, can you ask for more again? Has that worked for anyone?

  22. Wilton Businessman*

    You: I’m looking for $x.

    Employer: Here is $x+5000. When can you start?

    That is it. That’s all it needs to be.

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