Question

I’m going to be talking with a manager who just made me a job offer. I’m going to say yes, but I’m inclined to ask, “Can you do any better?” I want to know how far to push it since my research on salary surveys indicates this is a rather good offer in my industry. Of course, I don’t want them to withdraw the offer, but it seems like I shouldn’t just say yes. I’d appreciate your insight.

Nick’s Reply

salary surveysWhy is it that when people get a good deal, they feel obligated to try and get an even better one? Maybe it’s because all those books about negotiating teach us that only the weak and meek take the first offer; that we can and should squeeze out a few more bucks. “Real negotiators know how to get more!”

Bunk. It isn’t about clever negotiating tactics. It’s about being able to answer the question, “What makes you worth more?”

Are you worth more?

Yes, I’m the same guy that recently advised you to demand bigger salaries. Only you can determine whether you’re worth more. But you have allowed that you already have “a rather good offer.” It’s fair to guess you elicited such a good offer because you performed well in your interviews. Is there something you left out that would support a request for even more salary?

If you posture for more money when you don’t have a leg to stand on, you will fall over. And that’s the crux of this. Unless you can show the employer why — exactly — you are worth more, then don’t ask.

What about the salary surveys?

“But wait — the salary surveys say I’m worth more! I’ll show them the salary surveys!”

Bunk again. Some “career experts” will tell you to use the survey data to support your salary request. What they don’t tell you is that the surveys describe a population of people who have similar titles and credentials. They don’t describe you.

Go ahead — try and tell an employer you’re worth what everyone else gets paid. It will earn you a blank stare, because any smart employer has evaluated you and decided what you are worth. “We don’t hire statistics. What are you going to do for me that’s worth more than I’m offering?”

That’s a tough question, and this is where people usually fall down flat. They think this is a matter of aggregate salary statistics when it’s a matter of one person’s value — yours.

Always negotiate?

Or, as you’ve admitted, “it seems like I shouldn’t just say yes.” Negotiating experts sell a lot of books marketing the idea that we can, and should, always negotiate! Every offer deserves a counter-offer, and only they can teach you how to make it.

If you can offer a compelling answer to the question Can you demonstrate additional value? then you should go for it.  I suspect that if you could, we’d have no question to discuss and you’d already have a higher job offer. But don’t do it only because it seems like you should.

But, seriously, what about the salary surveys?

The experts go further in advocating salary surveys. They claim that employers use the same surveys to establish their budgets and salary scales. So, if the employers use the surveys, you should, too.

Again, I say bunk. If an employer relied on the surveys to produce your offer, what more is there to talk about? Are you going to argue that this survey is better than that survey? Can you crawl out of one salary pigeonhole into another?

It’s not uncommon for a company to withdraw a good offer when the candidate asks for more without being able to rationally justify the request. That’s why you’re so nervous about asking for more.

What’s it worth?

Don’t feel bad. You’re just trying to be as assertive as the next person. But set aside the conventional wisdom and use your own common sense. If you definitely want the job and the offer is a good one, then don’t jeopardize it.

Here’s why. The better the offer is to begin with, the less you’ll be able to goose it up. In other words, you’re not likely to get more than a few extra bucks. Is it worth the impact on the employer’s attitude about you? Is the difference between one salary survey and another going to make a compelling case for you?

I’m not saying job candidates should not negotiate the best deal they can get. But we’re talking about an offer you believe is good to begin with. Part of my aim is to debunk the myths of job hunting, and this is one of them. Not every situation requires negotiating. And negotiating when there’s little or nothing to gain reveals a petty person.

But how can you ask for more anyway?

So okay, I’ve got that off my chest. I’m not trying to beat you up. You asked a valid question and you clearly recognize the pitfalls. What can you do?

First, judge the employer. Will they be offended if you try to squeeze out the last buck? (Some might actually be impressed, but not many.) Second, estimate the tradeoff. Will it affect how you’ll be perceived once you’re on the job? Finally, are you willing to lose the offer altogether if they balk?

Here’s how to ask for more with — I believe — the least risk. You could try to finesse this by first accepting the offer, then explaining that your salary objective is a bit higher. You must be able to give them a specific (and very reasonable) number, and a good justification for it. But be very clear about your intent.

How to Say It

“I’m excited about coming to work for you, and I accept your offer. That said, I’d like to ask if you’d be willing to consider a higher salary. My objective is $X. If you can come closer to that, it would mean a lot to me. If you can’t, I still accept enthusiastically. I want to work on your team.”

You are making a clear commitment to accept the offer as-is, but you’re politely asking if they could make it better.

Be prudent

If this seems like a bit of a stretch, well, it is. But you asked, and this is the best, most prudent and honest approach I know.

If you’re looking for a negotiating secret, here it is. Companies rarely boost an already good offer by much. I’m more inclined to negotiate up a big difference than I am to gild the lily. So it’s up to you — use your judgment. If you can get more money, great. But remember that prudence and good will may be worth a lot more in the long run than a few more dollars now. Congratulations on getting a good offer for a job you want!

Would you negotiate a good offer for a few extra dollars? When you ask for more, do you typically rely on salary surveys? Has an offer ever been withdrawn when you tried to negotiate? What’s your personal rule about negotiating job offers?

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21 Comments
  1. I have used salary surveys to help me develop a fair salary when making a geographic move together with a significant change from manufacturing to defense. I’m a professional engineer and had very detailed recent surveys that helped me get a substantial increase while staying within the range for my area of expertise and years of experience. I was happy with the offer and they met my requirement without balking.
    I have also asked another company if their offer was the best they could do when the offer was several thousand below what I had made previously. They gave me half the difference, and I was happy to get it.

    • @Tango: Nice job splitting the difference on one, and getting what you asked for at the other. Which salary surveys have you found most helpful?

      • Surveys of active members of 1) National Society of Professional Engineers & 2) Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Neither survey was free, but both had ways to adjust for practice area, geographical location, level of experience, etc. I believe they were worth what I paid for them.

        • @Tango: Thanks. EE Times was the first real licensee of Ask The Headhunter content, online and in print, so I know the IEEE well. These salary surveys are better than what most people are stuck with — Glassdoor, Salary.com, etc. — because they’re niche and they’re not free. EE Times used to do an annual salary survey that was quite robust. Advice to others is, use a survey from within your profession or business rather than a general-purpose survey. Most salary surveys are garbage-in, garbage-out.

    • And, seriously, you accepted an offer that was below what you were making? That sets you up as possibly a very bad hiring decision. Why would anyone do that??? What will management be thinking the next time salary comes up? Less mmoney – he will accept that. Maybe a salary decrease. He accepted that last time around! A large industrial valve company, about 1999 or so, offered a friend $66,000. HR swore that was the top of the range that was possible. When he was laid off in an industry slowdown with the rest of his department, he revisted the salary range with HR. HR had forgottwn their previous lies. (If you always lie, its difficult to remember what lie you told to whom.) HR stated that the top of the range was $120,000. So, my friend got about half of what he might have gotten if he had been more confident. That was a serious career income disaster for him. He could never recover from what might have been. How do you recover from making $60,000 less that you might have been making! You never do. Integrate that over another 20 years od employment, and you will vomit. HR probably got a bonus on every cheap hire. BTW, my friend did some industry research on his own that resulted in his employer acquiring a big chiunk of the industry leader’s software department. The stock market consequence is the his employer’s stock went from $22 per share to $35 per share. You guessed it, he did nt even get a thank you from thed Exdecutives. He was, however, included in the general layoff that came three months latere.

  2. As usual very wise advice from Nick!

    Personally I’ve always politely asked and sometimes got it (once HR told me that she needed to go ask the country’s MD as my direct boss wasn’t allowed to approve, to which I replied please do go and ask. I received the contract with the demanded amount in my mailbox 2 days later).

    Other times I did not get more (offers were good so just asked if they could do any better and not pushing any further) but feel I started the dialog for the future – will of course need to justify it with my results… ;-)

  3. I was recently in this same situation because close to the end of the interview process my employer asked what I wanted.

    When the offer came I got exactly what I wanted. It was strange because I also felt like I really should negotiate for more because how could I just accept the first offer they gave me?

    But then I thought about how my credibility would be damaged if I came back and effectively said, “You gave me exactly what I wanted but now I am still going to ask for more.”

    Sure there might have been a creative way to make this request but for the first time ever I just accepted it and am now happy I did so.

    So I agree that not every offer requires negotiation even if it feels really strange not to do so.

    • @NC Exec: It’s a classic human reaction. When we get what we ask for, we automatically worry we could have gotten more. I know people who carry that with them for years, and it can be destructive. An employee can blame their employer for years… because it gave them what they asked for.

      While salary surveys can be a decent place to start deciding what you want, far more useful is information about how others in the company/department are paid. That info is harder to get but worth trying.

      Another approach is to bring up money early in the interview process. My lawyer once gave me a wonderful line to use – “So, what’s the pay like?” Sometimes it’s possible to help the employer understand that discussing salary early and openly is helpful to everyone. It doesn’t mean the early info will make it easier for one to pull the wool over the other’s eyes. Negotiation can be a friendly dialogue.

  4. Take the job and keep looking. Unless there is a substantial contract in place that locks committment, all employment is temporary and you are expendable to the enterprise. The new job will give you a higher platform from which to look for new opportunities. If you dont take this one, there may not be that better offer awaiting.

    That was pretty cold. Now on the more positive side, take the job and do your best for their sake and for your own. Learn and grow and be of some use to the people you work with.

    • @JJJIIIMMM: That’s a good thing to keep in mind. Nothing cold about it.

  5. Salary surveys are a good start to know what’s fair… I always tended to negotiate in the higher range for the position. HR frequently wanted lower range to midpoint to keep things fair. Then of course there’s supply and demand… I knew of hires that were compensated off the charts because it took a large salary to lure away from current position or competitor.

    One thing I always tried to negotiate was an early review with potential for pay raise… let me do the job for 6 months and see what I’m really worth. Then become indispensable.

    • @Paul: I’ve used the early review as a card to play in salary negotiations. It can work. The trick is to get it in writing in a way that actually works!

  6. While your advice is good, I’d add another dimension to the negotiation: Reducing the time to the first performance/salary review. My experience is that getting quick feedback is a plus for my performance and career and it’s good to have a short period before sharing feedback. This should be something that is easier for the manager to say yes to (and should be in their interest as well).

  7. My experience has been if you do a good job outlining why you’re the best candidate and the firm makes a good offer assuming all other aspects of the compensation is up to expectations pushing for more yields minimal results vs. possibly losing the offer. Your larger scale upside will available by your performance and commensurate recognition by the firm.
    If the firm isn’t forthcoming update your accomplishments and find another organization who recognizes your growth and contributions.

    • @Mike W: Yah – sometimes the best negotiating tactic is to walk away altogether. One of the worst things job seekers do is fail to decide in advance where that line is.

    • I walked awway from an offer only to be called at my other new job three months later with a wonderful job opportunity at NASA Houston.A whale of a lot bigger salary, too.

      But, Mike W, I don’t believe relying on any company’s so called good faith is a safe approach. I have always delivered exceptional cash-in benefoits to my employers but never was close to faitly rewarded. $10,000,000 out of thin air in one instance; in another avoided corporate bankruptcy and brought in hundreds of milions of dollars, cold cash, and never a BTW” Thank You.” Leading salesman at three companies by a factor of 2 or 3 vs. tghe composite of all the other company salesmen and never a Thank you.

      I have come to not respect any manager or employer. Warren Buffet is correct, look for an honest emplolyer / manager and pray for the best. Never expect it.

  8. It depends very much on the industry.

    In financial services IT, where I sit, the initial offer is almost always a lowball = slightly below the median for that position in the hiring firm. If you take it, without countering, you might as well be wearing a sign with “Pushover” in bright bold letters. And the negative effects don’t end there.

    Your bonus will similarly be lowballed, and you’ll be in an inferior position regarding raises and incentives through the rest of your time at that firm. Further, this carries over even if your corporate title changes.

    I’ve seen cases where Associate Directors who took the lowball, were promoted to Director – and who were still making less than many senior Associate Directors when all-in comp was considered. This happens when you’re promoted internally – instead of getting the median, or mean, for a new position (like Director) – you normally get a “bump” over your current comp, of 12% to 20%

    • @Steve: You’re right, and IT (especially in financial services) is an unusual data point where demand is high and the culture is weird among recruiters and HR. Here we have employers, headhunters, HR and staffing firms pursuing some of the most educated people around. Yet they persist in playing silly negotiating games that only a “pushover” would fall for. I don’t mean to insult IT folks, but I think there’s a high fear factor in the profession. That is, workers that are afraid to push back and to demand fair value. My compliments for pushing back. Maybe the employers low-ball precisely because demand is so high and they need to show they can keep a cap on job offers at least some of the time — when they encounter “pushovers.” Thanks for your insights.

      • Nick – u r too kind. Banking/finance folks are really, really cheap! That’s why offers are generally low-balled. :(

  9. I buy and sell collector coins part-time. Lots of negotiation there! I’ve learned not to bargain against myself (although I do do it, sometimes).

    Suppose I’ve got a coin marked $23. Customer picks it up and says, “Can you do better?” Sometimes I say, “How about $25? That would definitely be better.” Among other things, their question is totally hypothetical, they haven’t even made it clear that they want to buy.

    When I offer to buy for resale, I try to be fair, and my first price is my best price. If we’re very close, and my offer just doesn’t work but 2% more would, I won’t usually let that get in the way. I won’t make a big increase, though, and I won’t get into an extended back-and-forth. I’ll pass.

    Referrals and repeat business are very important to me, so I really do try my best. Hardball negotiators and consistent nickel-and-dimers, on the other hand, are a pain in the neck and I’d rather they go bother someone else.

    So, in the Questioner’s position, I’d say to myself, “OK, I got my price, and these folks seem easy to do business with”, and to them I’d say, “That’s a very fair offer, and I appreciate it.”

    • @JR: Good summary of the entire column, and a great real-world analogy.

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