Here’s one of those timeless career questions: What should you do when a prospective employer asks for your salary history?
It’s always an awkward topic, but it’s one an applicant should be prepared to answer. And regardless of how it’s brought up, negotiating about money is the toughest part of the interview process. It must be handled delicately: Aim too high and you could be out of the running, but lowball and you might find it hard to get your salary up later on.
To find out the smartest negotiating techniques, we called Karen Danziger, managing partner at the Howard-Sloan-Koller Group and one of New York’s top media recruiters. Here’s her best advice on how to handle sticky situations and still get what you’re worth.
What should you do when an employer asks for your salary requirements?
It’s very common to be asked this, and it’s really important not to start out too high because you can get knocked out for overreaching. It makes employers think of you as the person they’ll never get. But it’s easy to get tripped up here because most people have grandiose ideas of what they’re worth and no one wants to come in at the bottom.
What’s the best way to handle this without shooting yourself in the foot?
I don’t normally advise people to deflect a question, but in this case, deflect the question as much as possible. Say something like, “I’m accustomed to earning a range from X to Y, but I am very interested in this organization and I’m willing to entertain your best offer.” Or say, “Money isn’t really my focus, but I’d love something in the range of X and Y.” They may come back later and ask for your minimum.
Some job listings require that you include your salary requirements in a cover letter. What’s the best strategy here?
You do need to address it in some way. Ignoring it will only annoy the employer. Anyone who currently has a job could write, “I’m currently earning X, but my needs are entirely negotiable, and I would love the opportunity to talk about this position.” Someone without a job might give a range.
The bottom line is that if your background is exactly what they’re looking for, you’ll probably receive a call even if your salary is a bit off.
One of the more awkward moments is when an employer asks how much you make in your current job.
Word to the wise: Don’t lie. It will haunt you. Some companies will ask for pay stubs from your current or previous employer, or they’ll ask to see tax returns. If the salary you stated in the interview can’t be verified, the offer can be nixed. It’s totally legal, so protect yourself and tell the truth.
But what do you do if it’s low? Doesn’t that cut into your bargaining power?
If it’s low, then explain the unusual circumstances. Perhaps you took a cut in pay because it was a job you really wanted. Or it’s early in your career and you are still climbing the ladder. One strategy is to talk about other sources of income like freelance work. That will bring up your total income. It’s unfortunate that your next salary is based on the last salary, but that’s the way this works.
What should you do when an employer wants to talk salary right off the bat?
The only thing to do is to think on your feet and decide if you are willing to consider it. If the amount isn’t what you had in mind, then be gracious and gently end the meeting. If it sounds doable, then say yes, you are willing to consider it.
If the job is eventually offered, are you locked in at this salary?
No, you aren’t. The door is not closed for negotiation later on. Some people find that when they learn more about a job during the interview, the compensation no longer sounds reasonable. In that case, you can say something like “I’m thrilled about this opportunity and I know you mentioned the salary, but I was wondering if there’s any possibility of bringing it up again.” They’ll tell you if they can do it or not.
Once the compensation offer has been put on the table, how do you get the number up?
There are two schools of thought. Some employers expect you to bargain, so they intentionally come in with a low offer. They appreciate the psychology of someone who negotiates for themselves to get more. Others don’t feel that’s a game they want to play, so they come in with a firm offer and will not budge—unless, of course, you twist their arm.
Basically, it isn’t wise to negotiate just to negotiate. You run the risk of annoying the employer and having the offer taken away. Whatever you do, don’t overreach and be difficult. If you have an offer in hand and the situation becomes too much about money, they might renege the offer and go to another candidate.
If you really, really, really feel you need more in order to justify taking that job, try to be totally appreciative and gracious and say that you are thrilled with the offer but you were still hoping for a touch more. Ask if there is any way to sweeten the package a little with a six-month review.
Sounds tricky. Do you think it’s worth the risk?
If it’s really important to you, then you need to know. Just handle it very gently. If they tell you there’s no flexibility, then that’s the end of the conversation. You can take 24 hours to think about it, but call them the next day to either take the offer or walk away.
In order to make it to salary negotiations, you’ll need to nail the interview. The best way to prep is through a mock interview. Refine your interview skills in a one-on-one session with a Mediabistro career counselor and learn how to talk about your work history and answer tough questions, anxiety-free.