Updated: Mar 8, 2020
Salary Negotiations: Making Dollars and Sense
“So, what are you looking for in a salary for this position?”
Salary negotiations are often among the most uncomfortable moments in an interview. I am inclined to believe that this question, in a job interview, is even more nerve-wracking (and more mishandled) than “So tell me a little bit about yourself.” The range of thoughts on how to deal with this question may include anything from lying, to pulling out a personal bank statement.
First and foremost—you are under no legal obligation to answer this question regarding pay or previous compensation, even under the threat of “we need your previous pay for our records.” Potential employers also cannot ask former employers, legally, what your specific salary was behind your back. The only reason why potential employers continue to ask is because we continue to tell! Now that we have that settled, here is my #1 go to tip for how to answer this tricky question: Stop telling and instead, employ strategic ambiguity.
What is strategic ambiguity? Simply put, at times there is strategy to not answering a particular question with absolute clarity. When asked “What compensation are you seeking for this position?” respond with, "Can you tell me what the range is for this position?" Become assertive and confident with this response—no hesitating, no stuttering. Hopefully, and there is no guarantee that they will take the bait—but if they do, response with, "That sounds like it’s in the range/realm/neighborhood/ballpark of what I am seeking.” Find the strategically ambiguous phrase you’re most comfortable with and stick with that phrase. The takeaway is that you got them to make the first move.
Now, you may be thinking, “But, Liz! What’s the point in being coy here?”
The truth of the matter is that the first person to name the actual dollar amount loses. Companies have different ways of handling pay. Some pay a median-range salary but have fantastic commission percentages where others up the medical benefits. On occasion, you’ll have the employer who pays well above the industry standard. In all of these situations, if you’re the first to name the number, you will lose.
For example, suppose a job you’re interested in pays $45,000 for a position that, at other companies, typically has a range of $38,000-$43,000. That company is paying salary ABOVE the average. If you say “I’d like $43,000,” (because you’ve done research and figure that you’d start high and negotiate down), you’ve already lowballed your own salary. You just saved the company $2,000. They are excited; you just lost.
On the other hand, suppose the average range for the position is $38,000-$43,000, but this company pays $38,000, maximum with a 25% commission bonus for each sale. You have the potential to make upwards of $60,000 over time. If you ask for $43,000 starting salary, you may have just put yourself out of the running because you are out of their price range. Again, you lose.
With that being said, the strategically ambiguous route is not easy. You have to be strong and prepare yourself for this question and how you will handle it ahead of time. People think, “I’m not a game player—I am going to be upfront!” If you feel that way, then take the approach that makes you comfortable. Just be aware that 99% of the time you will be negotiating yourself out of money. Isn’t a little strategic ambiguity worth a few grand?