How to Delay Discussion of Pay Until It Matters

As my first rule of salary negotiation states, you should never discuss money until the employer indicates he or she wants to offer you a job. Yet employers use a host of ways to discover your acceptable salary early in the process, and thus force you to speak about money first. Classified ads are notorious for demanding that respondents list their salary requirements. If you feel that a particular ad is a good bet, indicate that your salary requirements are open to negotiation. Some cover letters go so far as to state that the subject shouldn't prove to be a barrier to a "mutually satisfactory relationship"a phrase I think appropriate if you think you may be overqualified for the job.

Next, an employer may try to trick you on the standard job application. Almost all of these forms have blanks that not only ask what salary you are expecting, but what salary you previously made. Doug Matthews of Right Management Associates says, "In many cases, your most recent earnings may not be relevant to the value of the new position. Scope of responsibility, the organization's culture and size, risk, location, industry segment, and competition can vary greatly." Fill in the blank concerning current expectations with the word negotiable and enter "confidential pending employment" in the spaces for your previous salaries.

Never, ever mention a dollar figure until you are sure you're talking to the decision-maker and not a go-between. Only the person you will work for directly has the power to accept or reject your requests and make counteroffers. Be assured that interviewers will attempt to wangle salary information from you early in the screening process. The question often is phrased in a casual tone and comes in many forms. The pressured candidate's natural response to any direct question is to volunteer information (in this case, a dollar figure). Instead, practice your answers to the common salary questions in the following sections.

What Is Your Current Compensation?

Tom Jackson, author of Interview Express, offers this reply: "In my last job, I was paid below the market price for my skills. I was willing to accept this for a while because it gave me the opportunity to learn and develop. Now I am very clear about the value I can offer to an employer and I want my salary to be competitive."

If you feel this type of answer does not reflect your situation, smile and politely reply, "I didn't realize we were ready to discuss salary so soon. I'd feel more comfortable tabling this subject until we are both sure we have a fit."

Another effective tactic, which Richard Germann and Peter Arnold recommend in their book Job and Career Building (which is now out of print, but available through interlibrary loan or as a used book on and other Web sites), is to offer a future-oriented salary figure. The conversation would run something like this: "The job you have described, if carried out in a superior manner, should be worth about $30,000 in three or four years." Most employers don't hesitate to agree because you are talking about a time in the future to work up to that figure. After you reach an agreement, say, "Because we agree that the job will be worth $30,000 in three or four years, I'm content to leave the starting salary up to you. What do you think would be a reasonable figure?" According to the same book, demonstrating your high performance and income expectations motivates the interviewer to offer a reasonable starting figure.

What Are Your Salary Requirements?

Doug Matthews of Right Management recommends replying: "Compensation is an important issue. However, my goal is to explore positions that allow me to maximize my strengths and solve significant challenges within an organization. I'm looking for a strong fit between my skills and specific company needs. When that happens, I'm certain the compensation issue will fall into place. Could you give me an idea of the range you've established for this position?"

If the interviewer provides a range, remain quiet for a few seconds; then say that the upper end of the range is in your ballpark and that you would like to learn more about the position's responsibilities. Notice that you did not agree to anything.

Should the interviewer push for salary requirements, Matthews advises parrying, "I understand the need to discuss specific compensation requirements. However, it might be more effective for me to know how your organization values this position. I'm certain you have ranges for various levels within the organization that are fair, based on experience, responsibility, and contribution. I'd be pleased to work within those ranges. If this is a new position, I'd like to discuss your needs further. Then I might be able to provide a proposal that would help us arrive at an appropriate compensation figure."

Yes, that answer is a mouthful. If you believe that type of answer is too complex for your needs, simply say, "I hesitate to disclose compensation figures because this position contains elements that may differ from my recent position. We may be comparing apples and oranges. Let's table this subject until we're both more comfortable with making an employment offer."

How Much Do You Need to Live On?

This appears to be such an innocent and caring question on the surface. Don't be fooled: A literal answer is not in your best interest, as it takes the focus away from how much you are worth and concentrates instead on whether you could do better with your finances. Unfortunately, some employers will use any information you provide to your disadvantage.

Online Salary Negotiation Help

You have that job offer in handnow how can you be sure that you negotiate the salary you deserve? Get inside information and tips at Quintessential Careers' Salary Negotiation Tutorial ( salary_negotiation.html). You'll find tips on getting the best possible salary, turning unacceptable offers into acceptable ones, handling salary discussions during an interview, and more. You'll also find useful articles on negotiation techniques. You can take an online quiz to see how your negotiating techniques stack up and follow links to other salary-negotiation guides.

Job seekers who press for more money based on their personal needs or wants rather than their value to an employer often create a bad impression. The employer might think "Why should I believe that you are responsible and stable if you have financial problems of your own making?" or "My dream of traveling Europe is just as important as your desire to buy a fishing boat." The most sensitive employers may try to help you find ways to reduce your living expenses by suggesting cheaper restaurants, lower-rent apartments, loan-consolidation services, and so on. Remember, you are dealing with a virtual stranger, and asking this person to sympathize with your personal value judgments is completely inappropriate. Instead, base a vague answer on your ability to do the job. Haldane's example: "I can be quite flexible if I have to be. Money isn't my highest priority. But I feel I have quite a lot to offer to an organization like yours. I'd like my salary to be based on my value to you. I'm sure you have a fair income structure for this kind of jobhow much do you have in mind?"

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