If the goal of any interview is to get to the next step, you need to learn how to handle a salary discussion easily. Typically, each open position has a budgeted salary range. And if your salary expectation is beyond those bounds, you may close yourself out of consideration too soon.
“Frankly it’s best not to show your hand first,” said Laura Schmieder, president of Premier Placement, Inc., a specialized recruiting firm. “You want the initial discussion to be about the role.”
With some cities and states considering or passing laws that bar employers from asking about salary history, the conversations will pivot to desired salaries. Here are some options to sidestep gracefully:
Linda Whitehead Mote, principal of her eponymous career transition firm, recommends that instead of stating a specific minimum salary requirement, consider giving the following reply: “I am open to listening to a competitive offer for the responsibilities of the position.” The goal? You want the hiring decision-maker to recognize your potential value based on your experience and knowledge, not your minimum salary requirements—the lowest amount you would require to accept the job.
Schmieder recommends a similar path to job seekers and gives her candidates an out if the company keeps pushing for a salary history. “If pressed, you can tell them that I asked you not to discuss it at the first interview.”
Most jobs change considerably during the interview process as the potential employer recognizes what a candidate can and cannot do. Early on, career coach Win Sheffield recommends saying, “I don’t want to limit myself to a number. I want to receive market rate, but I want to learn more about the responsibilities of the position before we narrow down a range.”
Sheffield says another option is to ask for the salary range and just state that salary will not be a problem regardless of the number. (This will also be useful if you receive an offer, because you can aim for the upper end of their budget in salary negotiations.) After the company has decided they want you, that’s when you negotiate salary expectations. Mote agreed, adding, “Never try negotiating before receiving a written offer. That’s when the candidate’s leverage is strongest. The organization wants the individual to accept the offer and may be most receptive to rethinking the issue.”
“I expect the candidates to be more forthcoming with me than they might be with prospective employers because I am responsible for coaching them through the interview process and for negotiating the final package,” says Schmeider. “I often tell candidates that as a contingency recruiter, my fee is based on their starting salary so believe me, I will try to get the best possible offer for both our sakes.”
When the offer comes, it is time to negotiate (if you want the job opening, that is). Sheffield says many companies want to start candidates at the mid-point or below the budgeted salary range.
“Companies want the opportunity to give you a raise quickly so that you will like the place and stay,” said Sheffield. If you can't get higher pay or more generous benefits in your negotiation, Sheffield says switch away from the salary budget to a non-compensation part of the budget where HR policies don’t govern. For example, your potential boss may have the flexibility to provide continuing education options or approved conference attendance as sweeteners to the deal.
If you know the job and/or company culture is not the right fit regardless of what pay is offered, do not try to negotiate just to negotiate. Mote says, “Declining an offer when the negotiation gives the candidate all she wants will leave a very bad taste, and in this day and age, hiring managers change companies and may be the decision-maker for a future position desired by the candidate.”
Jennifer Bewley is the founder of Uncuffed, which provides detailed research into prospective employers. Jennifer has an unhealthy love of financial data and speaking her mind, and she uses each to help candidates choose the company they work for wisely.
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