a real-life salary negotiation success story

A salary negotiation success story from a reader:

In all the years I’ve been reading your column, I have never ever managed to get the gumption up to negotiate salary.

I was laid off in February (just after closing on a house!) so I knew I’d need to get something quick. Severance didn’t last long since I needed to put a new roof on the house immediately. I was making $117K with an 8% bonus at the job I lost, which sounds like a lot, but I live in one of the top 5 most expensive cost of living areas in the country. So I was careful not to apply for anything that didn’t bring me up to $120K.

I ended up as a finalist for a role that I was really excited about, and I knew that call was coming when the recruiter emailed me to ask if she could call me that afternoon. So I went through the archives and pulled all the scripts you’ve ever offered, and keeping in mind the wild range for things I’d interviewed for (not kidding, a communications manager role was all over the place, some places $110K and one had a starting salary of $180K). And not only did I write down the scripts, I practiced saying out loud, “I’m really excited, but I wondered if there’s any flexibility on salary.”

I had no idea what they were going to offer me, but I’d given them a range of $130-150K at the beginning and they were okay with that. (Also, I have never given such a big step up range before. I know I’ve been underpaid for a while, but I never felt “good enough” to ask for more.) So when the recruiter offered me $130K + 15% bonus, I thanked her, said I was really excited, and was there any flexibility on salary? She asked what I wanted and I took a deep internal breath and said, “I was hoping you could make that 140.”

She asked me if that was based on my previous salary — in my state you can’t ask about salary history, but I looked this up, they can ask after they’ve given you an offer with a number attached. I said it was based on other roles I was interviewing for. Completely true, I’d spoken the day before with another company about a role at $160K.

She said she’d check in with the hiring manager, and I spent the most nerve-wracking night thinking I should have just accepted the $130K and now they would probably not want me at all. Couldn’t sleep. And the next day I got a call back and they said $140K, final offer. I took it, which was good because I didn’t get an offer from the other place I’d made a final round for and I really needed a paycheck.

{ 56 comments… read them below }

  1. nervous wreck*

    This is amazing! And also the sign I needed to ask for a raise I’ve been thinking about for a while.

    1. Alle Meine*

      Practice saying out loud! Grab a friend to pretend to be your hard nose boss and role play it! You will 100% feel stupid, but it’s all part of muscle memory and you’ll be able to do it when it’s for real.

      1. Hlao-roo*

        Yes! And practice some pauses too. They will feel awkward, but there is a lot of power to well-placed silence. A sample script:

        wild baby: I’m really excited about this offer, but I wondered if there’s any flexibility on salary.

        (5-10 sec pause)

        Friend: Hm, what salary are you looking for?

        wild baby: I was hoping you could make that [number].

        (5-10 sec pause)

        Friend: [Is that based on your previous salary/Let me take that number back to the hiring team and see what I can do/etc.]

    2. teensyslews*

      Remember – a good recruiter and company will expect you to negotiate! Also it does not need to be just on salary, if the pay is good but you’d rather have an extra week of vacation that can often be negotiated as well.

      1. NotAnotherManager!*

        We take a different approach and try to come to the table with our best offer first rather than expecting the candidate to do the legwork. We’ve offered people more than they asked for because a market or internal survey came back higher than their asking range and paying them their ask rather than our offer would create an internal parity issue. (And also in the other direction – absent a very specific, niche, impossible to fill need, I can’t bring someone new in significantly higher than the incumbents, unless the market shifts, in which case, everyone’s getting a raise.)

        We will certainly consider negotiations/request, but I don’t necessarily expect them nor want to put candidates in a position where they feel they have to negotiate to be paid fairly. I have four market surveys and usually internal salary ranges at my disposal, so we might as well use them as intended.

        1. teensyslews*

          Sure! But this is often the exception and not the rule. What I meant was that any reasonable company or recruiter will not be surprised or offended that you ask if there is room for negotiation in salary or or any other benefits as it’s common practice. If an employer does consider withdrawing an offer (unless the ask is wild, like, I want 6x the salary and 20 weeks vacation) because of that I would consider that a red flag.

  2. The Formatting Queen*

    For my current position, I went from temp to perm – and that was an awkward place to be negotiating from, when the company gave me an offer after I’d already been working there a year and had made been making it clear that I wanted to continue. I used very similar wording – “is there any flexibility on the salary?” – and mentioned equivalent positions and research I had been doing. I think the HR person seemed happy to bring the question to the executives making the decision. Ended up with about an 18% raise instead of the 5% initially offered. It helped my nervousness to start the conversation with HR by literally saying “this is a weird place to be negotiating from!” Would I have actually turned down the offer and left the job if they didn’t give me that bump? I have no idea honestly! Glad I didn’t have to find out.

  3. Sara*

    Congratulations! The waiting is always so so scary. I negotiated for a sign on bonus by just asking if there was flexibility since I was walking away from the year end bonus at my old company, and the 24 hours of waiting made me feel terrible. I really wanted to the job regardless of their answer and was so scared I had blown it!

  4. KHB*

    Congratulations on your new job and new salary!

    I’ve got to say, though, I don’t understand these companies that will supposedly pull your offer just because you tried to negotiate a bit on salary. (I mean, I do understand it, but…they’re jerks.) I’m on the other side of the hiring process, albeit peripherally, and from where I sit, if you’ve gone through our interview process and you’re our top candidate at $130K, you’re not going to suddenly stop being our top candidate if you ask for $140K. At the very least, we’ll say “No, sorry, we can’t do that, but we really hope you can still join us at $130K.”

    1. Runner up*

      Completely agree with you, KHB! In my experience at a mostly-reasonable company, counteroffers very, very rarely result in pulled offers. Sometimes they result in a “no,” sometimes they result in an increase (or a hiring bonus if a salary increase can’t work). I’ve only seen hiring managers even consider pulling an offer for this reason when the counter is way out of line – and even then, to the extent anyone listens to me in my peripheral role, I recommend sticking with the original offer if they were good enough yesterday…

      1. Be Gneiss*

        It happens at the place my spouse works, where some out-of-touch HR factions react to counter-offers with a “how dare they!” attitude. And it costs them good people.

        1. Blue*

          Honestly, this seems like a bullet dodged. If HR is affronted when people try to negotiate upfront, I can’t imagine how they respond when good employees ask for raises…

    2. EMP*

      I’ve seen offers capriciously pulled basically because of the hiring manager’s ego, but it’s not something a good team should do.

    3. Pulled Offers*

      In 2023, I have seen so many offers pulled for various ostensible reasons, because of my network of people laid off from large tech companies. Many have gotten an offer from a new company, prepared to start, and then shortly before the start date, the new company pulls the offer. These didn’t seem to be linked to compensation, but I might fear it is more likely if you negotiated.

      1. Cyborg Llama Horde*

        Maybe, but to my mind if you were on the chopping block at $140k and they haven’t spent any time training you yet, you probably aren’t that much safer at $130k and they haven’t spent any time training you yet. Considering the different the $10k can make to you — both this year and with future raises — I think it’s worth the risk to ask.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Seriously. I can’t hold it against people when they advocate for themselves, unless they ask for something crazy, in which case, you just say you can’t do that and move on.

      I’ve only had to pull offers a handful of times – it’s always either that something goes awry with background (one lied about a required degree, another’s reference disclosed they’d been filed for embezzlement and actually had a court case pending over it) or someone was using our offer for a counter and continuously asking for extensions to consider the offer while they negotiated (like, they got a few days to consider it (which is fine!) then asked for another week (okay…), then asked for another week, at which point, we said, “no thanks, we’re moving on”).

    5. Niffler*

      I saw this happen multiple times when I was in academia support services – it was very much a “how dare they?!” type reaction. I never understood it, especially because everyone knew that the majority of support services staff were severely underpaid. Of course good candidates are going to try and negotiate when the salary being offered is well below market.

    6. stratospherica*

      I can see it happening if the candidate is asking for something so far above the offer and so out of line with the market/candidate’s skills/previously communicated budget to the point where you might start having reasonable doubts about the candidate’s judgement, but generally speaking those candidates will have weeded themselves out before getting to the offer stage.

      I agree that in the vast majority of cases it’s better for employers to simply say that the candidate will have to take it or leave it and maintain the offer.

  5. The New Wanderer*

    It’s great that you had already checked into when and how they can ask about salary history, and your response was perfect. I didn’t know that some states have a catch where employers could ask after they offered a salary number. It also exemplifies why they shouldn’t bother asking salary history at all – it’s not what *you* were worth to some other company before, it’s what the *position* is worth now to them and their competitors.

    Awesome job!

    1. 2 Cents*

      I thought OP gave a great answer too, that it’s in line with other roles OP’s been interviewing for.

      (Still boils my bottom that they can ask if it’s based on *current* salary as someone who’s been dreadfully underpaid in the past.)

      1. NotRealAnonForThis*

        If that ever comes up in my world, I have replied with “I received a promotion in title only in 2009, with promises that raises would come once we got out of the hole that was (waving hands) all of this. It never happened, I was never made whole to the level that my same-title-coworkers were. Had I been paid market rate from the go, we’d not be having this conversation.”

        1. Lauren19*

          This happened to me!!!! When I got promoted I got nothing. Then a few years later when I promoted other people into that position, they got a 10k bump and stock. I’m happy for them and they deserve it, but it’s BS.

        2. oranges*

          This is good. I received a “promotion” last year, and it was in title and responsibilities only. (With a promise of a raise on the horizon that is still nowhere to be seen.) I really like the work and my direct supervisor, but I almost grit my my teeth flat every time my director called it a “promotion”.

          If/when I leave, I’ll definitely remember that script.

      2. A Simple Narwhal*

        Right? What does it matter if it’s based on your old salary or a number you pulled out of a hat? The number either works for the company or it doesn’t. It seems like the only reason to ask is to see if they reaaaaaally have to pay that amount or can they get you to back down and take a lesser amount.

  6. Garblesnark*

    When I was being offered my current job, they said they could pay me $23/hour, and they had no flexibility to offer any more than that because they used a merit-based pay system.

    Which I was angry about because I knew other people were doing the exact work at the exact company, less effectively than I was (I’d been in the role as temp for a while), for more than that.

    So I asked if there was any way they could do $25 an hour, and after about two hours they called back and said they could.

  7. some writer*

    The only year I ever made that much was the year I got a six-figure deal on a book I’d written. If I went back into the workforce I wouldn’t make half that.

  8. Jack Straw from Wichita*

    Can confirm that practicing it aloud while waiting for the call 100% DOES help!

    I did exactly what OP did (coincidentally was also laid off and also interviewing for two jobs as a finalist) and it rolled right off my tongue when I asked for 10% more than I was offered. They called back and I had a revised offer letter within 5 minutes. First and only time I’ve negotiated for salary in my life and it was all thank to Alison and AAM!

  9. call me wheels*

    Congrats! And thank you Alison for sharing these success stories. Hearing stories like these inspired me to ask about pay increase when offered a promotion (new title and more responsibility) at my internship and I only accepted my manager had secured approval for the raise :)

  10. Melicious*

    Congrats! I wish it was more common/acceptable to negotiate for vacation time. I asked, they said no, so I responded with ok fine, give me more money then. They did, but it was still a disappointment. I would much rather have had the PTO.

  11. Not Today, Satan*

    The best tip I learned from reading here is: STOP TALKING after you make the ask. No explanations, excuses or further reasonings… just wait for the answer.

  12. Funfetti*

    Amazing! Severely underpaid person over here! This definitely gives me the courage to be specific in my next search with those type of salary goals. I’m entitled to be paid my worth!


  13. Mrs. Pommeroy*

    This is something I’ve been meaning to ask about the whole “asking for the salary history” thing: are you within your right to lie?
    I mean, if you know or have a feeling you have been underpaid in your previous job(s), and an interviewer for a new job asks for your salary history, why would you not immediately assume they are trying to base their salary offer off your previous salary and thus also underpay you? And with that assumption, why would you then tell them the truth unless you legally have to?
    Admittedly, the whole concept of anybody but yourself, your current HR department, and the tax man thinking they have any right to know your salary is bonkers to me…

    1. saskia*

      That’s why there are laws in certain states against asking for salary history. Unfortunately, many states allow jobs to ask you this question. But you don’t need to ‘lie’ per se. You can attempt to redirect the conversation in the direction you desire by bringing up other roles you’re interviewing for, research, other recent job posts, market rate, value for work, what you’re looking for, etc.

    2. mreasy*

      I have been asked about my previous salary in a job interview before, and I just said it wasn’t relevant to this role and the range I’m looking for. I got the job btw!

  14. Spicy Tuna*

    I would NOT have done that with a new mortgage and a need for a new roof! That is some serious nerves of steel!

  15. Bossy Magoo*

    Love this! Congratulations! I think part of the strategy is to reframe what you’re doing in your own mind to remember you’re not being combative or on the offense, you’re simply sincerely asking if there’s any room for more. It’s like if you’re ordering a hamburger at a restaurant and you ask the server “do fries come with this?” (okay so not EXACTLY the same thing, but you can be coming at it from that same place – wanting a little more and wondering if it’s possible).

    1. Wondering*

      I wondered about this as well. 130k + 15% seems like the better deal? Although I suppose a bonus can always wind up being cut or changed more easily than the base salary so there is some reassurance there.

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