The Salary Game

Many job seekers believe salary negotiation is a game. There is a thought ‘he who speaks first loses.’ In truth, the loser is always the job seeker who doesn’t understand and clearly communicate his value. Discussing compensation should be about getting both parties on the same page in terms of what dollar amount is fair to pay an employee considering what he brings to the company.  This is more the job seeker’s responsibility than the employer’s, yet job seekers often fail to take ownership in this area.

To establish value, both parties must have a clear idea how the relationship will benefit the employer. How likely is it the employee will add/recapture/retain customers, solve a problem, improve efficiency, broaden diversity (thought/skill/social), cut expenses and better position the company for future success and growth? All of the above translate into dollars.  Job seekers have to be aware of what they bring to the table in order to negotiate effectively. Leaving it to the employer to see the value on his own is risky business.

Let’s go back to the ‘he who speaks first’ myth. Many job seekers I know want the employer to be the one to throw out a number first. They are afraid to say a number below what the company might have been willing to offer. Interestingly, these days the number companies throw first tend to be disappointing. More employers are actually pressing the job seeker to take the lead. Gee, do you suppose they too believe speaking first puts them at a disadvantage? Maybe they don’t want to throw out a number that’s bigger than what they would have needed to retain you.

My Grandpa would tell people straight, “don’t be greedy…know what you feel is fair and go with it.” It’s true you may find yourself walking away with less than you could have, but you at least have a number you can feel good about and that you know is reasonable. It’s like those who are afraid to cash out on a stock because it’s growing and they don’t want to sell and find the stock climbs even more tomorrow, never mind the return they are getting on the investment has already met or exceeded their expectations. So the decision is made to hold out to see if it can be better and then the stock tanks. Draw a line in the sand in terms of what return you’d be happy with and stick to it. You’ve won at that point.

Just to clarify, I do think it’s important for a job seeker to have a complete idea of the situation before committing to a number. I’m not suggesting anyone commit to a number based on a two line job posting by a company who is largely unknown. Asking a company to give you time to fully assess the opportunity and what you can bring to the equation before suggesting an appropriate compensation package makes sense. The point is, once you know the scope of the job and how your skills, talents and connections can positively affect the bottom line of the company, don’t be coy about putting a price tag on your forehead. Show your buyer you know what you are selling is worth.


  • Scot says:

    Interesting thought Lisa. With so many of the employers now using automated tools to screen applicants, I feel a reason for hesitancy in using an actual salary figure lies in the concern an accurate number will automatically cause one to be excluded by a computer and loose the chance for a face-to-face interview.

    I favor talking about compensation after I know what the employer expects me to do.

    As you have noted previously employers who attempt to “steal” talented individuals will get what they pay for – a person only in the job long enough to find something better.


  • Lisa says:

    Scot, it’s hard to win at all in a situation where your way into the company is exclusively through its online application system. There are two strategic ways to play it, I suppose. You can go low on a salary and hope you can sell the value later on in the process to bump it up, or you can stay true to your value and do more to reach decision makers capable of rescuing you from the depths of the applicant database. I’ll say it again, though, you have to know what your value really is. There may be a big difference between what you want and what you are worth. Never put what you want to make on your application, but what you are worth for that role. If you put less than what you are worth in the hopes of getting noticed, you’ll have to be prepared for some resentment or concern on the employer’s side when you try to go for more later. It’s no problem if you have new and more complete information to justify asking for more, but if the information is essentially the same as it was when you applied and you set a new minimum at the end, you’re not going to make a lot of friends.

  • Tamara says:

    Lisa, this is so important! Job seekers can conduct a salary research to determine what is the going rate for specific job titles and industries. One can feel better armed for negotiation when they can quote facts and refer to the research on the US Labor Market Information website or even Finding an official salary range determines what is a fair rate for specific positions and leaves the personal preference out of the equation (at least in the beginning).

    Many people often focus on money too early in the hiring process, giving the impression that their needs and desires come before the needs of the employer. Wait until the job has been offered and then work negotiating within the salary range for that position. Most people I know have had to start their new jobs with less pay than their previous job, but that has pretty much been the norm long before the recession.

  • Lisa says:

    Thanks, Tamara. Salary negotiation is one of my favorite things. I agree with everything you wrote. There is so much power in knowing your worth. I wish we lived closer so we could chat over coffee or something. I have a feeling we’d have a lot to talk about.

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