So we all know the “What’s your salary expectation?” question. I was talking to a very nice recruiter who asked me that on our first call. I said $X. The recruiter presented my information to a company, including my desired salary. They said “We can’t offer $X base pay, but we can meet her at 90% of $X and then offer $N on top of that in bonus and incentive pay.” My question is, is it okay to feel like I am negotiating salary before I have interviewed? Does it leave room for negotiation at the offer stage? I have not come across this scenario before so I am just curious how you would advise to handle something like this in the future?

Nick’s Reply

hire-meI think the best way to get hired and get a salary that’s right for you is to challenge the employer not to hire you. But why would anybody suggest an employer should not hire them? I’ll explain why (and how) you should do just that! But first let’s address your question.

I wish all employers would start negotiating salary before an interview even takes place! It’s a great way to establish whether everyone is on the same “money page” before investing a lot of time!

Of course, it’s best to give a salary range, so you have room to maneuver later. (See Salary Negotiation: How much to ask for.) But the logic underlying this early negotiating strategy is simple, and you set the stage like this.

How to Say It: We’re gonna talk money

“Thanks — it seems we’re in the right ballpark, so I’m willing to invest some time to talk. Although I read your job description, I don’t really know what the day-to-day demands and deliverables of the job are. We’ll get into that in our interviews. So my compensation requirement could change depending on exactly what’s required of me — and what I can do for you.”

You just created a salary opening we’re going to drive a truck through.

Employers rarely can describe what the work is really all about in a job description. Job descriptions are HR-ese — keyword salad. (When I do presentations to professional audiences I often ask for a show of hands: “Who’s job today is what the job description said when you applied for the job?” Everyone cracks up and no hands ever go up!) Until we’re talking shop in a working meeting, we can’t figure out what a job is worth — and how much pay you can negotiate for.

If you’re in the right ballpark, it’s worth talking. But now you need to find out how you could relieve the employer of its pain.

Try something like this.

How to Say It: Why you should hire me

“Please tell me where it hurts. That is, what do you need me to fix, improve, make better, deliver — and I’ll do my best to show you how I will do it. That is, I’ll sketch out a kind of business plan about how I’ll take care of your problem. If I can’t do that for you, then you shouldn’t hire me. And if you don’t offer me enough money, then I won’t take the job. But as long as we’re in the ballpark, let’s roll up our sleeves and I’ll do my best to show you why you should hire me. Let’s talk shop!”

I find that volunteering that it’s possible there is no match is incredibly disarming. It changes your meeting from a job interview to a test that you yourself are proposing. It opens the door to discussing the employer’s most important needs. It tells the employer you are taking the load off their back and you’re going to explain to them why you’re the best hire because you’re going to show them.

And that can change how they evaluate all your competitors.

Raise expectations

I find this takes the interview way beyond your resume and the job description. You’ve raised the stakes because you’re not just applying for a job like everyone else. You’re about to present a business proposition, and that raises the employer’s expectations for all applicants. It leaves the door wide open to negotiate for more than they expected because no employer expects the job candidate to actually have a plan.

After you’ve learned the whole story about “where it hurts,” after you learn what they really need — the actual deliverables — then you’ll have a lot of control when negotiating salary.

Suggesting they should not hire you if you can’t talk shop and show you can fix, improve, make better, and deliver on what the employer really needs sets you up to have their complete attention.

Of course, you’d better be ready to prove what you can do in this meeting. Because if you haven’t prepared to do that, then you have no business in the interview.

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  1. I tried this in an interview last year where I said if you don’t think I can add $X in value, you should not hire me.

    They got spooked and gutted someone else “who wanted the job more than you did.”

    • @SI: Sorry to hear that, but maybe not. Maybe you dodged a bullet. Work for a manager that hires the person that wants the job the most?

      • Yes. It’s fascinating how little time even execs at Fortune 500 firms spend to think about “value added” when hiring.

  2. Then you really dodged a massive bullet!

    If they **had** chosen you, you probably would have still been under-compensated in one way or another, AND you would have been walking around with a target on your back because the higher ups feared your confidence, and the peers/direct reports would have been told what “an arrogant ass” you were before your first day!

    • Exactly right. Great boss but passive aggressive peers is the worst.

      Filtering out the bad employers is critical. And this approach “let’s talk about the work and value added” is the best way of doing that. If they don’t speak this language, keep looking.

  3. Nick’s wisdom is something I always enjoy reading, and have for more than 20 years now. At times there’s these gold “how to say it” nuggets. Next time I’m up for an interview, I’ll be sure to give this a try.
    I’m lucky enough to work at a place I absolutely love, and have no plans to move away from. But you never know what the future holds in store, and with a 13 yo daughter with professional ballerina aspirations, I might end up having to travel around the world.
    My interview with my current employer is a funny story. Because of my name (Olger) they expected a girl (Olga/Olger, potatoes/potatos), which I didn’t know until months after.
    It’s also interesting, which I learned later too, is that during the interview they asked me questions about changing things. I commented that wasn’t my priority, rather take stock of what there is, and decide eventually if a change is warranted. Apparently the other applicants were big on changes. Funny thing is, I ended up making changes pretty much every month. And everyone is loving it. They’re all good changes (ok, I’m biased), but I think the key to changes is that I hold everyone’s hand and guide them through it. It’s discussed and explained until everyone agrees (well, the most important peeps anyways :-D). I don’t necessarily do their job, but I do set the changes up so everyone is comfortable with them.
    Nick makes a very good additional point, you need to know what your capabilities are and translate that to something they understand.

    • @Olger:

      “They’re all good changes (ok, I’m biased), but I think the key to changes is that I hold everyone’s hand and guide them through it.”

      I learned long ago that no matter how good an idea or product is, you must stay with the customer/user until they fully understand what they’re working with. I have seen outstanding ideas/products totally fail for no reason other than that the “creator” just dropped it in people’s laps and walked away, secure in the thought that “It’s great, they’ll love it!”

      Follow-up is 90% of success. Great story!

  4. My job is just about as close to the description as physically possible. Tip: get hired by an engineer.

  5. Remember that salary is only part of the compensation.

    Medical, 401k matching, profit sharing, PTO, professional training, and a host of other things can make a huge impact in the bottom-line.

    One example is medical. A no-cost, zero-deductible benefit is worth ~$40k (compared to paying all out-of-pocket).

    Benefits are a crucial aspect of compensation.


  7. I was just offered a job with a start up. I told them what I had done in the past and they described a scenario where I told them how I would approach that problem. I also mentioned how I would fix another issue they are facing. They offered less than what I was hoping for so I asked for a bit more. We’ll see if they think I’m worth that. It is an interesting business and I have ideas how to help them. I’m ready to go to work—just waiting on them to answer some questions and yes or no on the salary I asked for.

  8. I’ve long felt that the average job description is:

    1. A list of duties that the last guy had assumed.

    2. A hodgepodge of duties no one else wants to add to their plate.

    The last guy just left, and is not applying to get his job back.

    No one wants to assume a hodgepodge.

    You don’t pay enough.

    To be fair, as a freelancer you get these crazy offers now and again (“I see you’re a copywriter, we desperately need a young, modern developer who really understands COBOL …”) but it’s easier to cut the conversation short.

  9. Spot on. Good advice. And I think that an attempt to negotiate per se serves as a work place test. Negotiating requires an open mindset. Refusal to negotiate is a red flag. If you think about it “negotiation” is part of life inside a company…on work assignments, funding, supplies, working hours, career development etc. If the company and especially a hiring manager won’t consider negotiating with you when applying, consider working for that company and that person.

    Over the years
    1. Worked for a Director whose rule was if a candidate responds to a salary offer with a counter offer or wants to even talk about it, End of discussion, offer rescinded.

    2. Worked for a company that published starting salaries on the website & in the job description. They did not negotiate them and said so. As their recruiter when I interviewed applicants, I made sure they read that and explained why. It’s not as negative as it sounds because the optimum word was “starting”. Once aboard you could come in the next week and ask for a bump…if you could justify it. So changes in starting salaries/pay within the 1st year after hiring wasn’t unusual. Nor did that company slavishly adhere to a yearly review. That ability to ask for a change was always there. (this was a small private company not a mega corp.

    3. I worked in Asia for a # of years. In that part of the world, everything was negotiable. Especially, especially starting salaries, job content & another big item….training. There was one instance I recall when a person I knew got an offer from an American company, He naturally responded with a counter. They dropped him like a rock (see #1) He was dumbfounded.

    Which serves to highlight something you’ll frequently come up against. People don’t know how to negotiate on the hiring side. It’s almost if they have to leave their phone or work station and find an adult and say “she’s trying to bargain with me..What do I do?”

  10. @Don: It’s always puzzled me. A company sets a salary range for a job after reviewing third-party salary data. Of course, it’s always a curve. And HR usually prefers making offers in the fat middle. And HR recruits candidates, hoping to find one that fits in that sweet spot: Not necessarily a low-cost candidate, but not so high that there’s “no room to grow into the salary range.”

    HR also notifies the world that the company wants out-of-the-box thinkers with leading-edge skills.

    See the disconnect? Why are they so focused on paying toward the mean when they say they want the best? A company that won’t negotiate to get the very best is a loser.

  11. I hired an absolutely kicka* territory manager 10 years ago who negotiated her starting and package hard and professionally.

    CEO to me : Are you rethinking your offer given she is so confrontational?

    Me to CEO….Uh why are we hiring her?

    CEO: to get money from customers. I hate talking to you, sometimes.

    All I needed to do to land her is to handle the “ No girls” memo from upstairs, but that’s another story.

    • @VP Sales: I often use that analogy when I confront hiring managers and HR with this question: “If you count on your sales force to negotiate hard when selling, why would you outright reject a job candidate who demonstrates the same skills while interviewing with you?”

      Their eyes just gloss over. “HamenaHamenaHamena…” They really don’t get it.

  12. I also asked to see the workspace where I would sit. I also asked who I would be interacting with in the office and the off site staff. A company that won’t introduce me to the team I would be working with and the office space has been a concern for me. I wonder what they are hiding. I know one place that walked candidates through the department so they could see who the team members were and the office space. They asked me to come to the office for what seems like a third interview to answer my questions. Those answers could have been sent by email or discussed over the phone. They could have told me yes or no to the salary too. They are a startup and money may be tight. If they can’t pay more, I get that. I also asked how I will be evaluated and at what intervals—3 months, 6 months, etc. I also asked them this: In a year from now, if you told me I was doing a great job and exceeding expectations, what would that look like? I want to know how success is defined for this role.

    • @Dee: Excellent script for employers interviewing!

    • A good chunk of my working life I was a hiring manager, doing so in companies ranging from Mega Corps to a small family owned company. For the most part the hiring process was regimented involving a either a series of singular interviews ending in a decision or group interviews & consensus decisions. In most cases an applicant only got hints of context, environment etc. No one BSed them. Their questions were answered. What info they were provided on context varied mgr to mgr and/or HR. Applicants too were mostly conditioned by custom to expect those processes.

      Necessity is the mother of invention. In the former Big corp world I managed A QA dept in a relatively large Hi-Tech R&D Software Dev organization. In that world real men were the warriors…real men developed, everyone else were mere mortals to be tolerated..but not too much.

      Yet we recruited from the same pool, most likely on the same day. I knew how my Dev Mgrs recruited. I’m also a Marine and was told our beloved officers had a saying “Beware the enlisted, though ignorant, they are crafty and sly & bear watching at all times”. So our team changed the formula. 1st we spent more time with people. Especially with me. Where I’d focus on context, what we do, why, how and where I want to take the team, where they would fit in & why Quality was next to Godliness. Then I’d turn them over to the team lead who most likely they’d actually work with who’d do the formula interviewing… But then they were invited to spend as much time with us as they needed or wanted, mainly shadowing the lead and/or someone who’d they be working with. Including sitting in on team meetings if scheduled that day. Someone(s) would take them to lunch. In short they had the run of the place. They left understanding what a day in the life of an SQA engineer would be like, warts and all, including what it was like to work for me

      We did well. We were competitive. One day, It made that day when one of my goose stepping Engineering Managers peers dropped in expressing his amazement as to why a savvy, well qualified engineer took my offer over his.
      Better process, which was my secret. Simply put, it’s good business to see that an applicant if fully informed about the sand box they were going to play in, so that their decision was based on a good foundation. When you do this, people tend to stick around.

  13. @Dee

    “In a year from now, if you told me I was doing a great job and exceeding expectations, what would that look like? I want to know how success is defined for this role.”

    That’s a million dollar, “ How to say it “ right there…,l

    The beauty of that is your negotiating your salary. One suggestion…

    “ A year from now, when you tell me I’m exceeding expectations…..


  14. A favorite negotiation story.
    Recruiting for a small company that I worked for. I met a young lady at a job fair that sought our company out. We had a chat & I thought she’d be a good
    addition to the company. Her self confidence & background made her stand out.

    She seemed a no brainer for a small mfg ops team we were building. Pitched her to the Mfg Mgr & we invited her in.

    I didn’t usually sit in on his interviews. In parallel we were building up a Sr Mgr/executive layer so the Mfg Mgr recently inherited a new boss. When the candidate dropped in those 2 had little experience working with each other.

    To the surprise of the Mfg Mr his new Director invited himself into the interview with the candidate. If I recall the Director had a strong Supply Chain/Procurement grounding.

    After the interview the Mfg Mgr tracked me down and debriefed me. He was laughing his ass off. He said that The Director kind of took over and went into a long sermon on the art & craft of negotiation. He seemingly did run on and neither the Mfg Mr or the candidate could get a word in edgewise.

    He said she dutifully listened and finally after about 20 minutes he paused and she politely and calmly asked “Are we negotiating now”?

    She got the job.

  15. @vPSales

    I looked up good questions to ask a potential employer and found that question on a website. It is not my own question, but I thought it was a good one to ask.

    Since they are a startup, I get the feeling there is much ambiguity and they admitted that too. One of the founders said I need to be okay with ambiguity. However, there should be some sense of how they will measure the person who will fill the role. If I don’t know what to expect and how to know I am doing the job the way they want, how can I (and they) be successful?

    Unfortunately, the job description is full of HR speak–facilitate communications, coordinate internal and external resources to expedite workflows, etc. There is no HR in the company, so they probably found similar positions and cut and pasted the duties. I also assume they found similar positions online and used that to set the salary range for the job.

    I asked the about how much OT they expect this position to work–still not getting a clear answer and I suspect there is more OT for this job than they want to admit, which is why it is salaried, not hourly. I calculated how much I would make per hour if I worked 45 hours, 50 hours, 55 hours, and 60 hours per week. I would be making less per hour than I am now at one job (I work 2 jobs now) and some more than I do at the other job. Is it enough to jump ship and take this job? That is what I ask myself. There is opportunity to be on the ground floor of what could be an exciting company or I could be worked to death pulling 50-60 hour weeks most of the year for not enough pay and resenting it in 6 months. And, yes, money is one of the criteria I use to measure a job. When I am giving a company my time, experience, and skills to further the bottom line and help them to grow, I want to be paid fairly. I’m tired of companies wanting the best but wanting to pay the least possible.

    • Note that “startup” means “Might not exist in a year or two.” I jumped from a big corp to a startup once. I was let go 3 months later because the founders had made a mistake in their business plan and couldn’t afford to pay me (although they were happy with my work). (Then they filed my tax info with the wrong Social Security number, but that was fixable.)

  16. This is why you need guarantees on annual salary ETC you’re a to be received regardless of how long you’re with the company and all the other benefits. IN WRITING. A startup means higher comp BRCAUSE of the MULTIPLE RISKS.

    • Startup paying more than a big company? Sure, but they’ll pay that with funny money, “we will give you 50,000 shares that will be easily worth 5 million in a couple years and we will not tell you how many shares are outstanding or what the valuation was at the previous round”.

      Guarantees from a startup aren’t worth anything if the company folds/ fails. And it’s hard to see their financials.

  17. I have always “required” in writing that my stock be and remain at a clearly specified constant percentage of total stock issued/ to be issued.
    They Always freak out at that. Trying to “explain” that that “is.not how it works.” I explain back that without the constant percentage specification they are talking fraud. Result: they either get serious or opt out. I also point out that the owners / Founders are receiving hefty salaries and perks under different names, such as “advances,” etc.
    Always best to acknowledge when you are talking with liars and fraudsters. I sometimes politely ask them how it feels to knowingly lie to prospective employees. Best to recognize the fraudulent employers now rather than two years down the road when THEY have received the millions that YOU brought in and you received minimal salary and perks and now your 5% stock is now less than 0.5%.

    • @Wes: Been there, done that. Thanks for offering this caution. I once got naively seduced into joining a tech start-up for a low salary + 25% of the stock. (We’ll up your salary if you really need it, but we’re all sacrificing so we can plow profits into the biz. Then we’ll all make out.) When I found out the founder was spooning our revenues up his nose, we had it out. I left. He quickly diluted my 250,000 shares by issuing more stock. Lesson learned. Thanks again.

  18. This startup buys underperforming apartment complexes, renovates them, and then hires people directly to manage the properties. The founders who started the company used to do single family flips, and they still do.

    I went for the third interview at the startup to meet with the person I would be reporting to. These are main concerns.

    1. There are no metrics for how I will be measured for performing the job. I was given a broad overview only, but nothing solid that I could aim for as a new employee.

    2. I asked and there is no strategic plan for the business. They have a vision statement and a handful of underlying principals to guide them. The person I would report to looks at the financials each month, reconciles expenses, payroll, and revenue and then those financial are reviewed by one of the founders. One of the founders makes the decisions about the business. They get people to invest–not sure how that is done.

    3. When asked how they determined exempt vs. nonexempt, I was told the payroll company they hired recommended the position be salaried, not hourly. I asked how many hours above 40 I would work each week. I was told they want to keep a work/life balance. Not sure I believe it bc the person I would report to mentioned she takes work home.

    4. When asked how they arrived at the figure ($50,000 per year), she said it was competitive with salaries in the area for the position. I asked for $52,000 and was told no. There are some benefits (PTO, flex time, medical, standard holidays).

    My main role would be to learn the business and to formulate processes for workflow. I think this includes the process to buy a property and all that entails. They have some processes in place but need much more than what they have now. I would be also entering AP/AR into a system they use to help track expenses.

    I would like to have a full-time position instead of the two part-time positions I have now, but I have doubts about the success of this company. No strategy or business plan worries me. I know the founders have it in their head what they want to do, but that is not the same as strategy and then planning for that strategy.

    Any thoughts?

    • Ummmm… Deputy CFO responsible for creating, documenting, and implementing financial policies and procedures for an entire enterprise for $50k/yr???

      Unless the job is in Podunk, RuralMidwest, where you can buy a really nice house for $100k, I wouldn’t!

      Around here, a semi-competent low-to-mid-level secretary makes at least $50k/year. Call center CSRs make that. Granted, this is a relatively high COL area (a modest 4/2 house in a decent area runs around $500k).

      Tell them to make it 100% WFH, throw in one of their largest units ABP (including premium internet service and cell phone to facilitate WFH) for “free” as long as you are an employee, and at the same rent as their smallest unit for 12 months after your employment ends, and maybe you could talk!

    • @Dee: I hate to throw cold water on a job opportunity I know little about… so this is not advice but food for thought:

      A start-up run by newbies buying distressed properties?

      A $50K salary for potentially 24X7 work whose limits they are not defining?

      A job with no clear definition or performance metrics?

      A start-up in real estate?

      A start-up in real estate? (Did I say that?)

      Please, don’t pass up a good ground-floor opportunity, if that’s what this is, but look carefully before you leap (and trust your gut and good sense).

  19. I suggest to each of us that we always keep in mind, and share with recruiters, that UPS drivers receive $170,000 per year. I am not sure if that includes all the perks. And, you know that your job qualifications exceed driving a truck and wearing short pants.

  20. @wes

    So true. I’ll drive a truck for $170k per year.

    @autistic among you

    The title I would have is office administrator. Not interested in the title as much as the pay, they have no strategic plan, and it appears only one founder is making the decisions. There are 2 founders. I have an unsettled feeling about the job and the company.

    • @Dee, I understand about the title… but the work you’re describing sounds like it’s much more significant than that salary or title!

      This is either a “build-your-own-job” opportunity, or a nightmare of unspoken expectations waiting to happen.

      I think you’re wise to be leary.

  21. @autistic among you

    I found out the job is a nightmare of unspoken expectations waiting to happen.

    Dodged a bullet on that one.

  22. @Nick

    They said they wanted someone who would lay the foundation for structure around their work. They said they wanted someone who had experience in creating SOPs, workflow, etc. This is what they said in the first two interviews.

    However, what they really wanted was someone who could respond to urgent requests. Requests for what, I don’t know. I met a third time with the person I would report to. She spent 90 minutes talking about everything except what they expected this role to fill. I asked about metrics to measure progress in the job–she said we don’t have any. I asked about a strategic plan–they don’t have one. They said they have investors in the company–not sure how else it was funded.

    I did extensive web research, but I could not find enough information about this company and the founders. I know they did single family flips and are now trying their hand at apartment building flips. There wasn’t enough information about the company, their financials, and the role, so I decided against the job.

    • @Dee: I am happy to see you walked away from this. I felt it was prudent to keep my $0.02 to myself, there was plenty of great advice offered.

      Instituting processes is a huge challenge. It is changing the culture of the company. And unless the top leadership are committed to following the processes themselves, it becomes little more than a display of political contentedness within the company.

      There was a place I worked where senior executives could get IT Deskside support without opening a ticket. A new CEO came along. He believed it was important to really see what IT support was doing. So he called the Service Desk and opened a ticket. Someone working the phones could get a C-level executive just as easily as a warehouse clerk. EVERYONE called the Service Desk when they had a problem.

      Without that level of backing, instituting process will fail.

      And happy hunting for your next role!