a real-life conversation about salary with a hiring manager

A reader writes:

A short, sweet note about how I used your advice to tackle salary talk during an initial phone chat with the hiring manager:

Hiring manager: While we’re talking about cost of living, can I ask your salary expectation for the role?

Me: (casual laugh) Actually, I was just about to ask you what your budget for the role is.

Hiring manager: (laugh) Oh! Hum…. I think I can pull that up. Give me a second…
(She tappity-tapped on the line. I waited, and bit my lip so I didn’t nervous-babble anything about steep rental prices in the area, and waited.)

Hiring manager: So the number I have here is X.

Me: (long pause) Oh…kay. That’s a little lower than I would have expected. Is that the bottom of the range, or…?

Hiring manager: No, that’s the top of the range.

Me: (pause again) Mm.

Hiring manager: We’re actively reviewing it at the end of this cycle. In my view it’s a bit low, I agree with you there. So either we need a pay band increase or a title change.

Me: Yeah … for this role I would have ballparked more like X+10%.

Hiring manager: Okay! I don’t know that we’ll get all the way there in this cycle, but I am pushing to nudge it closer to your number. I think that’s what the role is worth anyway.

Me: That’s great.

Hiring manager: We can definitely keep it in mind as we proceed. Moving on…

Oh, and the lower number she gave? Is still 50% higher than my last salaried role. Don’t settle for being underpaid and taken advantage of, kids.

{ 85 comments… read them below }

      1. Coffee Grinds.*

        When I got an internal promotion with a title change and salary bump, I wanted to keep everything very positive, so when the manager told me the salary, I said in an upbeat voice, “I’m excited to hear that it’s so close to the salary I’m looking for. I was hoping for X+5K.” And they gave it to me. Just another script for a different scenario. I still would have taken the job if they had said no, because it was still a raise and a new career trajectory, but you can do a lot with an extra 5K per year.

  1. Bob*

    Negotiating salary is probably one of the most important things you will do with your career. For those of us who want everyone to be their friend, it is not comfortable for sure, but practice and having a strategy and being willing to walk away are key.

    1. TheBunny*

      Wahoo OP. I just accepted a fully in office role. I negotiated for them to include the cost of gas and maintenance on my vehicle (didn’t get into thos specifically) but I countered with a number inclusive of that.

      Ended up making more than the advertised top of the pay band for the role.

      I’m pretty pleased about it too.

  2. Yeah...*

    I love a script. A (hypothetical/real) conversation laid out something I can work with and edit as needed.

    1. ThatOtherClare*

      Scripts are brilliant learning tools because it’s a little bit like living the experience yourself, at least as far as your brain is concerned. Brains can do a lot with not much. So then when you run into a similar situation in real life your brain goes “Ok, I’ve basically done this before! I can follow some pre-built connections here, no need to start from scratch.”

      ‘Living’ an experience by doing something like reading a script or looking up a route on Google Street view is a great way to kick start your learning. It helps because it gives all the concepts like ‘be confident’ or ‘turn left at the red letterbox just after the old church’ something to anchor to, even if you don’t consciously pull up the anchor ever again.

    2. Blackbeard*

      I am absolutely going to steal this line:

      “Actually, I was just about to ask you what your budget for the role is.”

      for my next new job interview.

    1. ZSD*

      When I started with the government, they wanted to match the salary from my non-government role. I told them what that was, but I also wrote something along the lines of, “But as I’m sure you know, many states and DC now make it illegal for employers to ask about salary history because doing so perpetuates gender and racial pay disparities. I know the federal government is allowed to ask this question, but it shouldn’t be doing so. If I were a man, I’d probably be making significantly more than I am as a woman. If [agency] just matches my salary, it will just be continuing the gender pay gap.”
      They gave me a 10% raise.

      1. Governmint Condition*

        This will depend on what government you’re working for. My government will start you at the bottom of the pay scale for your title. Period. They used to allow negotiating to allow starting in middle of the pay scale based on previous salary and other factors, but found that certain groups were unfairly disadvantaged and couldn’t find a fairer way to do it.

        1. Zee*

          Same (local government). But we get way better, more consistent raises than anywhere else I’ve ever worked. And our COL increases affect the pay band. I actually got a raise before I even started, because my interview was at the end of a fiscal year but I started in the next, and in the interim the pay bands shifted.

          1. RedinSC*

            We had that happen to a new employee as well. She was quoted one salary, and by the time she started she had already received a COLA pay bump.

        2. fhqwhgads*

          If that were the case in the example then they wouldn’t have asked for the prior job’s salary in order to match it? They’d have just offered the bottom of the pay scale for the title and left it at that.

        3. Orv*

          I’ve worked for public higher education, and in the two states I’ve worked in the tendency is to start people somewhere in the middle. Starting them at the top is almost never done because they quickly end up capped out and get dissatisfied at the lack of raises.

        4. Marzipan Shepherdess*

          Hmm…sounds as if they decided that the “fairer way to do it” is to ensure that EVERY individual from EVERY group is disadvantaged! That, or they’re cheaping out on paying salaries under the guise of performative virtue. Okaaaayy…

          1. amoeba*

            I mean, if they then do higher yearly increases (or just adjust the salary bands so that they’re higher in general), it can still work, I guess? But yeah, just overall giving everybody less wouldn’t be ideal, for sure.

    2. Fluffy Fish*

      yeah, gov starting salaries aren’t always great and there’s usually not a lot of room to negotiate if there is at all. you can still ask though.

      but as a long time gov employee, i urge people interested in government role to strongly consider that theres often better work life balance, leave, holidays, a pension, and better health benefits and better job security. not always and not when compared to every company but thats for anything.

      they often also have a standard raise amount for promotions or upgrades (ours can be as much as 20% depending on how many pay grades you jump)

      you may consider asking if they can provide a total compensation package which includes the cost of salary and all employer paid benefits.

      i will also say that i have gotten an annual merit and cost of living raise 80-90% of my career.

      1. SarcasticFringehead*

        I got a government job just under a year ago and was able to push the salary a bit higher than their offer, and my manager actually said she was really glad I negotiated, so it’s definitely worth asking!

        I also asked for and received 5 days’ worth of vacation time – it was only a one-off thing, so obviously not as valuable as a higher salary, but it was still nice

      2. Zona the Great*

        Oh I joke but you can pry my government job out of my cold dead hands. The balance, the benefits, the personal reward of helping my neighbors–unbeatable. Besides that, mine matches 12.5% of my contribution to my retirement.

        1. Fluffy Fish*

          seriously! i didnt start at the highest salary or the most leave but through years and strategic promotions im very comfortable and can retire with a full pension then go get another job and get more retirement savings.

          i by far have the best work life balance of all my friends and the most vacation and sick time.

          Gov is struggling to hire because there’s been a cultural shift towards people (especially younger) being focused on higher salaries.

          and we definitely haven’t helped ourselves by having archaic hiring practices and weird rules (better make sure your resume EXACTLY states the same words we use)

    3. Heather*

      I’ve worked for 2 government agencies. The first, there was some wiggle room for candidates who had previous direct experience, but for people new to that specific field of work, there wasn’t really a way to justify paying them more than others with the same lack of experience. I know of at least one person who pushed for more money with no experience and that person’s offer was rejected. The other agency, salary is strictly tied to the year you received your professional license for everyone with a specific job title.

    4. Off Plumb*

      Government jobs I’m familiar with have a sort of formula/matrix based on your qualifications, so they factor in your years of experience, education, and so on, and then come up with a standardized offer. So there’s not really room to negotiate unless you think something should be categorized differently – “you have me at six years of experience, but I think my time in X role should count for Y reasons, which would give me eight years,” that kind of thing. I got an offer once that was not only more than I was expecting, it was more than the upper end of the range in the job posting, because that’s what the calculations required for my experience.

      Government jobs also tend to have much better pay transparency, so you should have some idea what other people in that role are making.

      1. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

        My wife was able to get the “My time at my current position should count for purposes of X and Y” to work and got her to the point where she was eligible for a grade increase more quickly.

        1. Salary negotiation email worth $10-13k p/a*

          I did the same. When I asked about starting on a higher pay point on my grade for a government position in Australia (Senior Delivery Officer i.e. project manager), I was asked to put together a brief business case by email.

          Below is the email I used in case it is handy for anyone else! – I looked at the role, showed alignment with my experience, and made a guess that someone who has handled constant government change would be popular.

          It worked; this email scored me about a $10-14k pre-tax increase from day one.

          (Actually, in reviewing the email now, I realise I only asked for what I thought was reasonable in a $3,000 increment, one point increase and that instead they maxed me out at a $10-13k, three-point increase – so I got better than I asked for!)


          Hi [HR],

          The [Specific] Award lists the base salary for a Grade 9 – Year 2 as $116,531, which is the amount I’m hoping to start on [instead of Grade 9 – Year 1 which was about $113,000]. In my current [comparable state government] organisation, generally an employee will progress incrementally within their band each year until they reach the top, subject to satisfactory work performance.

          I’m entering the third month of my second year as a 9/10 clerk now at [current agency], so would be bringing more than a year’s experience at this level. I receive continually positive feedback from my manager that I’m a ‘safe pair of hands.’

          I also bring more than 10 years’ project administration/management experience across small business, community services and health.

          I have the capacity to enter the role as a high performing team member who is able to take on advanced level duties. For example, in the last few months, three of my team members at [current agency] have left, and I have absorbed their work. Working with my manager, I’m now the sole team member across four programs budgeted at around $10 million, including taking on a program that was completely new to me (called [Program name]), and learning the ins and outs of it in around two weeks.

          In addition, our organisation’s centralised PMO function has reduced their support for our programs, so I am carrying out a higher level of duties in relation to grants management e.g. operating our grants system independently.

          My current work aligns with the duties of a Senior Delivery Officer – such as developing, delivering and implementing a portfolio of strategy initiatives, and working with stakeholders to identify issues and conduct analyses – meaning that I would aim to be able to jump in and add value straight away.

          I have also gone through four Machinery of Government changes in the last year with [current agency] (or, from today, [new agency name]) which has given me a good understanding of increasing the profile of programs internally and adapting to growing or changing teams and priorities over time.

          I’m excited about the role and Department, and look forward to bringing my skills and experience to the [Specific] program area.


      2. NetClari*

        Thank you! Came here to say this. There really is no such thing as negotiating with the (US federal) government. All you can do is make sure you are categorized appropriately (which is key).

  3. Badger*

    Do you have any advice for when they won’t provide you that budget or salary range information at all?

    1. Just Here for the Cake*

      In past when this has happened to me, I always give a range for the salary I’m looking for. The range is based on my research into what the market rate is for the role, with the lower number being the lowest I would need in order for the move to be worthwhile. Giving a range instead of a specific number leaves things open for negotiation later on.

        1. Loki*

          As an employee, I would have a rather negative view of someone willing to offer only my minimum. I would be scrutinizing everything to see if they are low-balling me on anything else, and think hard about whether I want to join them.

          I hope that employers know that, but I am not sure.

    2. Parenthesis Guy*

      You can’t force someone to give you salary range info. If they refuse to provide it after you ask point blank, your only options are to continue with the process and hope it’s reasonable or end the process right then and there.

    3. Fluffy Fish*

      the other comment is a good option but I personally would consider it a red flag about how the company treats its employees.

      maybe not an instant deal breaker but a very strong check in the con box.

      1. Peanut Hamper*

        This is where I land. Chances are that they aren’t really thinking that far ahead or they are hoping to low ball someone. Neither of those things speak well of the organization.

        There is a very slim chance that they will actually meet your salary expectations and be a decent employer, but I wouldn’t hold my breathe on that.

    4. Ally McBeal*

      Yeah, walk away. It’s a big red flag if they won’t tell you what the salary is after they’ve invited you to interview. I learned this the hard way.

      1. Glazed Donut*

        +1. Late in the interview process, a company asked what my expectations were, so I gave them a very reasonable range, less than my most recent salary because I knew this org’s budget was smaller.
        They didn’t say anything until the offer stage, at which time they offered 10k below the bottom of my range…

    5. Zahra*

      I’ve often countered with “Oh, but you are certainly more acquainted with the market rate for this position since you interview multiple candidates!”. Results have been mixed, so YMMV.

    6. fhqwhgads*

      Then they’re jerks. They’re not interviewing for a role without a payband of some sort in mind. There’s no way they have no idea the budget. So if they’re refusing to provide it, it means they’re OK with all the Not Good Things that are the basis for many states making it illegal to not provide that info.
      So you either proceed with them knowing that about them, or you withdraw because they’re shady.

  4. HugeTractsofLand*

    Congrats! In this situation- and in most of life- tamping down your urge to fill a silence can yield wonderful results.

    1. Managing While Female*

      THIS! It’s something I’m still working on myself, but I end up saying the dumbest stuff when I’m just nervously filling silence.

  5. François Caron*

    I know the feeling. I also experienced a significant salary jump when I switched jobs. I was being underpaid for way too long. That was entirely my mistake for being too “loyal” to the company.

    1. Slow Gin Lizz*

      Same! I have four and a half days left at my current job and most of what spurred me on my quest to seek a new job was that I was being massively underpaid for my qualifications and my high COL area. After attempting to get a promotion here, I have found a new job that is a 40% raise on what I am currently making. I asked for an extra 10k and they were not able to provide that, but it’s still much better aligned with my qualifications and my area. I too am sick of being underpaid. Thanks to AAM and the commentariat, I had the confidence to ask for what I needed. I didn’t even look at jobs that were less than $20k more than what I make now.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          Thanks so much! Added bonus is that I’m getting away from incompetent leadership who won’t do anything about one of the leadership team who is TERRIBLE.

  6. SpaceySteph*

    In a previous role I was trained as an instructor and one of the big pieces of advice there was also to get comfortable with silence. When you ask the class a discussion question and nobody speaks up right away, wait em out. So many people are uncomfortable with silence and just move on rather than wait the extra couple seconds for someone to get up the nerve to speak in front of the group.

    Getting comfortable with the silence works in a lot of situations, like this one!

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      This is an auditor’s trick as well. I used to train people to go through audits and I would tell people to answer a yes/no question as either yes or no and not add any additional information. Auditors love to just say nothing at this point and wait for human nature to kick in and for the auditee to blurt something out.

      You can use this to your advantage in all sorts of situations, though.

      1. GDUB*

        I think it’s also a police detective’s trick. I wouldn’t know for sure…

      2. Hastily Blessed Fritos*

        I learned it, not that I’ve ever had occasion to use it, as “Never volunteer information to the cops”. Don’t let awkward silence make you babble.

      3. JustaTech*

        Yup, this comes up every year in my audit training.
        And the trainer doesn’t just say it, he then *does it*, sitting starting directly at the camera for what feels like an eternity.
        And then he says “That was one minute. I’ve had an auditor who did that for 30 minutes.”

    2. Jay (no, the other one)*

      Yup. Someone is going to break the silence and I learn a lot more when it’s not me.

    3. bamcheeks*

      Yes! I do this when I’m coaching too. It’s fascinating when it works, and people who think they’ve finished talking suddenly start back up again.

      (I coach people NOT to do it in job interviews if there’s a gap after you’ve finished your answer but the interviewer is still writing notes. You don’t have to fill that silence by babbling!)

    4. Dahlia*

      This is also a really good tip when you’re talking to kids, especially little kids. A lot of adults will ask a question to a little kid and then immediately expect an answer and their brains need time to process.

      One of the best tips I got for talking to kids was to count to 5 in my head after asking a question.

    5. Maeve*

      This is also what they tell you in fundraising! Make the ask, and then be quiet.

      1. Maeve*

        Googled it and for the record, in 2021 “pay was too low” was the top reason US workers quit their jobs according to Pew. Not sure about since then.

  7. Bad Wolf*

    I work in a freelance industry. It’s all word-of-mouth contract work. When I get low-balled, I turn it down for myself but love recommending my assistants – far too inexperienced for the position, but absolutely the right fit for the offer. It’s my passive-aggressive way of saying “you get what you pay for.”

    1. AnnieB*

      ah, I do a fair bit of that. “I wouldn’t be available but I might have a degree student who’d be interested”

  8. bmorepm*

    gosh, this “… I waited, and bit my lip so I didn’t nervous-babble anything about steep rental prices in the area, and waited.” is SO DARNED RELATABLE!!! Congrats!!

    1. holdonloosely*

      Seriously: Not speaking at the right moments in a negotiation is astonishingly effective. So many people will get anxious because of the silence and stumble over themselves to assuage you. The first time I tried it was discussing terms with a new freelance client, after he mentioned the hourly rate, and after about a six-second pause, he bumped it up 25 percent. I didn’t have to say a word!

      1. Just a question*

        This is excellent advice. Most people will try to fill the silence. The first one to speak is
        Sub conscientiously on the defensive.

  9. I just wanna get paid*

    I need this right now. I actually negotiated an ok salary with a decent commission and now my boss is reneging on the agreements for the commission (and pretending that this was always what was agreed despite all evidence to the contrary).

    1. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

      Boss: nuh uh

      You:. Well, since I made decisions in good faith based on the fact that [the agreement was x], I would need that honored.” and then silence.

      Boss: whatever

      You: “I see. Does this mean you won’t be able to honor the agreement made in your email/our discussion/etc” and more silence.

  10. Limdood*

    this is missing some crucial context. WHY was X “lower than you would have expected”? had you researched market rate for that job title in your area? was it a hunch or gut feeling that it should be higher? was the comment just haggling tactics that you would have said for any number given?

    obviously the story still has some value as is, but with the parting comments of it being 50% higher than you were getting paid along with “don’t settle”, it kind of has the undertone of “push for more no matter the number”

    1. A Girl Named Fred*

      Came across to me much more like OP had done their research and knew what their ballpark figure was for the roles they were interested in, and the proposed number didn’t match that. Hence, it being lower than expected and offering their own ballpark.

      Sure, it could have been a hardball negotiation tactic, but that’s not really giving OP the benefit of the doubt, is it?

      1. 2 Cents*

        I’ve been looking for a new job for the past 5 months. I have an idea what the pay range is for the title/job duties I’m targeting based on what most companies are paying. Are there outliers? Of course. But if a company that has other, similar level roles listed for $x+30% and mine isn’t at that level, it tells me something about how they’re operating and how they value that position.

      2. Gemstones*

        But if it was lower than expected, why is this supposed to be an example of a success story? The script didn’t really accomplish anything. I mean, the salary was still a lot more than the LW was originally making, which is good, but if you’re in a situation where you’re made a very low offer…this script doesn’t seem to offer much guidance for how to get more money.

        1. Dahlia*

          That’s why they negoiated for 10% more than X, which was lower than expected.

        2. nnn*

          it’s an example of how to talk to employers about salary, turn the salary question back on them and let them know what they’re offering isn’t impressive so they will need to come up

  11. Marmiter*

    I think my “casual laugh” in this situation would come out more like “hyena yelp”.

  12. CubeFarmer*

    This is such a great rehearsal for this type of discussion. I think putting the hiring manager on the hook for the range first was a great way to do this.

  13. Velomont*

    I’m genuinely sorry but I must be really dense here and not interpreting things (I’m also a bit on the spectrum (formal diagnosis) and interpreting stuff is a bit of a weak point for me), but did you actually get the job at the salary you wanted?

    1. Elsajeni*

      It sounds to me like this letter was written in the middle of the hiring process — so, who knows! It may yet be a bust, where the OP doesn’t get the job at all, or gets an offer with a lower salary than they want. But I think, when you’re early in the process, you can’t think of the win condition for this kind of negotiation as “I get offered the job with the salary I want” — getting them to name their range without naming yours, or moving forward in the hiring process with them making some motion of “sure, that seems okay” toward the number you want, counts as a success.

  14. Pocket Mouse*

    The hiring manager saying “We’re actively reviewing it at the end of this cycle. In my view it’s a bit low, I agree with you there. So either we need a pay band increase or a title change.”

    …strikes me as HER nervous-babbling to fill the silence! If the LW had continued talking after “Mm.” she may never have said that part. Kudos for letting the silence sit a few beats longer.

  15. Orv*

    This is great, but I can’t help but wonder if the promised raise will ever materialize or if they’ve been given an empty promise.

  16. Msd*

    I would be concerned if I were offered the top of their range or they decided to offer more than their previous top amount that future raises would be small or non existent. “You’re already at the top of your band”

  17. 2 Cents*

    THANK YOU FOR THIS SCRIPT! I need a casual way to insert this question since the pay transparency laws aren’t always followed around here.

    Wish you the best, OP!

  18. Usedtobeunderpaid*

    I’m serious about what happens if you come in at the top of the pay band – does that mean you are happy with the salary for some years to come? Love to hear any thoughts about that.

    1. StartingSalary*

      In my experience that’s what they’re willing to pay new people. It doesn’t affect getting raises, etc in the future.

  19. nnn*

    I was just thinking today I wish I knew of a tactful way to say “Why are you asking me? Surely you have a budget!!” And you’ve nailed it, OP!

  20. DontRelyOnGeneralSalaryData*

    I always respond with something like “In my experience companies typically know what they want to pay for a position. Do you have a salary in mind?”

    I get an actual number about 80% of the time. Sometimes it’s very low, but sometimes it’s more than I expected. I once made $13/hour over my then target contracting rate by making them give a number first.

    When pushed, I’ll either provide historical ranges or numbers other employers have provided (if recent/ similar enough positions). I’ll say something like “I typically make $N-$M for my base salary, often with significant bonuses” or “my last several contracts with commercial entities have ranged from $H/hr to $J/hr”. I will deliberately exclude academia and likely will do the same for non-profits in the future (working at my first non-profit now).

    In my experience, so-called salary research is useless and wildly out of alignment with what people actually pay. I would be undercutting myself by tens of thousands of dollars if I believed it. I suspect a couple of factors are in play: very wide definitions of geographic area, lack of specificity of job titles/descriptions, mixing together large academic employers with commercial employers, and probably more.

    In case it’s not clear, I’ve done both contracting and fulltime employment (going where the work was).

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