Discussion: June 29, 2010 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter

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A reader says:

Through a recruiter, I received an offer for a job that’s a good fit for me with a lot of potential. However, the compensation is below what I expected and I don’t actually need the new job. I’m secure and pretty happy where I am, but I would consider this job if the money were better. I’d like to signal that the current offer is one I won’t accept. How should I negotiate this?

Get ready to walk, then negotiate!

Effective salary negotiations are rooted in knowing what you don’t want as much they require knowing what you do want. People often lose negotiations because they’re so determined to make a deal happen that they sacrifice their objective.

My advice to the reader in today’s Q&A is to be ready to walk away from a job offer, then negotiate. In the newsletter, I explain how to re-state and re-emphasize the two reasons the employer is making an offer… and how to politely question the terms of the offer. Then leave it up to the recruiter and the employer.

(We also talked about the importance of knowing How to decide how much you want.)

In the end, your strength lies in your readiness to walk away if the deal isn’t right for you. Do you agree? I know it’s easier to advise this kind of approach than to actually do it. What’s been your experience with salary negotiations?


  1. Excellent advice, about the “walk point.” If you don’t know the point at which you will walk, and if you don’t enter the negotiations perfectly comfortable with walking if things drop to that point, you’ll be skydiving without an altimeter.

    Assuming you know your walk point, one good way to organize the conversation is “sugar, knife, ask.” Spread the sugar — remind the other party how excited you are about the position, your vision for the company, how great the possibilities are, etc. Then show the knife — tell them what salary you would like, and back it up with arguments like market rates, or value-that-will-be-created, etc. Then do the ask — ask them if that’s cool with them, what do they think about it, do they need time to think about it, or are they ready to get started.

    Matt Krause

  2. Nick and Matt,

    I agree with both of you. The assessment process continues when it comes to this point – integrity, communication skills, critical thinking and level of interest in the job and the company are being looked at. Certainly, the candidate learns similar things about the company, hiring manager and recruiter. Both sides should be ready to walk away if red flags appear.

    In the end, the candidate should be happy they joined the company and feel like they are truly valued. The following three to six month integration period is when the new employee should be digging in and learning their new role, versus feeling like they didn’t get paid enough to leave their former employer.

  3. Right on, Nick.

    As you can probably tell from earlier postings, I’m in professional sales, and you must have an “abundance” mentality whether you need the sale (in this case job) or not. Else they’ll smell the anxiety/neediness and you’re “done” (especially in this job environment).

    The candidate must be prepared to walk away from the table from the get-go.

    My belief is that what is happening now as a result in this “Great Recession” is a strong move by employers to ratchet down compensation (understandable in free market economics).

    Unemployed job seekers, unfortunately, have little choice; take an offer and live to fight another day.

    Job seekers like today’s writer DO have a choice to send a signal to employers that GOOD help IS in fact hard to find, and that employers have to pay for it. Understandable in free market economics.

  4. I agree with all. My personal experiences with comp (for me) hit reasonable targets in the area the reader seemed to be talking about, base pay. In my cases I was talking to a hiring manager via a corporate recruiter. The reader didn’t mention other aspects of comp which I did negotiate when I sensed as someone said the company was very interested, e.g. signing on bonus, stock options, relo package stuff.
    As a hiring manager for a boss who would not negotiate…against his principles etc. In that case in the process of the interview I’d have to coach per Nick’s points & tell them to do their homework and make sure they thought it through so I could come up with an offer that would work the 1st time in.
    The reader’s question points out one the the really strong value adds of an external recruiter..face saving intermediary, and as a recruiter I’ve played that role. both sides can vent their agnst on the recruiter and not each other until you arrive at the key question..if they offer X will you take the offer which you duly flip to the client and tell them if you offer X they’ll sign on

  5. And regarding the question of how to “signal” to the employer: Nick is correct. Be firm and nurturing but tell them flat-out the offer has to be better (but do NOT mention any numbers).

    It’s a game of liar’s poker at this point and you want them to tip their hand before you tip yours.

    I had a call from a head-hunter yesterday and he asked me for my current compensation and I told him “that’s a card I play very close to my vest and won’t reveal this early in the process”. He asked twice more and twice more I gave him the same answer. In the course of the conversation, he spilled his candy in the lobby (so to speak) and he gave me his compensation numbers.

    It’s a poker game and you have to think of it as such.

  6. @Al J: That’s a great way to put it: “that’s a card I play very close to my vest and won’t reveal this early in the process”.

    Would make a great How to Say It column!

  7. How has the process gotten this far without the headhunter having a clue to the candidate’s compensation expectations? Why would an experienced recruiter waste time with this coy candidate? Do I really want to spend my time talking to someone who expects $175K for a $100-125K position? Do I want to “hope’ the candidate will accept a generous offer?
    Do I want to present a candidate to my client who may or may not be within the parameters we have established? One who just might consider a fantastic offer? Probably not. Not unless they are really a once-in-a-lifetime, not-to-be-believed, wonder-working superstar.
    The only possible exception: that very unusual job for which there really are only a handful of qualified candidates.
    By the way,if the candidate is “…secure and pretty happy…” why would a recruiter assume that this person would change jobs?

  8. If you have already tipped your hand early on so to speak can you recover from it if the hiring company uses this information to tailor their numbers during final negotiations?

  9. I agree with Miloak. This reader’s working through a recruiter, a middle person. Somewhere in this process he/she needs to reach a point where a trusting relationship has developed (or not). While they aren’t in the business of finding jobs they are in the business of pleasing clients. If you can’t trust each other, it’s a waste of time to even try to play coy with the hiring company. As a recruit I wanted to know their comp package and what they wanted. Because I have it doesn’t mean I spill my guts and regurgitate it to the company. In turn ideally I’d like the same degree of trust between me & the company. Then we can talk business. I view this negotiation process as a middleman akin to doctor/patient confidences. Again it boils down to the best comp package that will work for both. If either end it conceding too much it won’t work in the long run and often the short run.
    In the F100 world unless your are a contractual C-Level person it’s not much of a negotiation. Base salary ranges are cast in stainless steel. You have some wiggle room to be sure, but no one in their right mind is going to start someone outside the range. A grand unveiling near the end of the process is counter productive usually, it’s best that this stuff gets on the table as early as possible, and certainly if you have a recruiter working it, who like the applicant would like the best deal. So don’t tie their hands behind their back

  10. So many good points have been made in this discussion.

    I’ve been in all of the hiree positions mentioned, including working sometimes through a temp agency (the intermediary who negotiates for you). One thing I’ve learned very well: the better your intermediary knows you and your work, the better chance you have of being happy with the results.

    That knowledge bank is your own responsibility, especially in these days of rapid technological advances. Everything you do electronically can – and will – be seen, so make sure your online submissions of all kinds are professional and represent you the way you want to be known!

    A technique that has worked well for my reputation with the temp agency assignments is to keep my agency contacts (my employers) in the loop as far as what’s happening at the assignments (without spilling any confidential information, of course). My name is now at the top of the agency list for assignments that require the attributes and skills for which I have made myself known, and I’m usually able to negotiate a rate – and, just as importantly, working conditions – that satisfy my current needs.

  11. @Miloak: Sorry, but I don’t understand your comments. A headhunter will recruit someone who is happy where they are; the point is to find them something better. An in this case, the hh seems to have done that; the person is interested in the job. The hh has done his work well. A candidate who wants the job is more than half the challenge. Working out the terms is relatively easy — relatively. I think the headhunter has his work cut out for him, but I don’t see any problem with this situation, except that the two need to candidly discuss the terms.

  12. @DJ: If by tipping your hand you mean that you discussed your salary expectations early, then changed your mind – I think you can recover if the reason for your “shift” has to do with information that came up during the discussions. It would be up to you to explain how a higher salary would pay off for the employer, too.