Negotiating salary is uncomfortable. But if you don't do it, it could cost you $1 million over the course of your career. So as unnerving as it may be, it's worth it.
Unfortunately, there's no magic formula for how to negotiate salary. Everything from time pressure for the hiring manager to fill the role to recent concerns over budget can affect how a negotiation plays out, and the negotiations can proceed in infinite directions. There are just too many human variables for there to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
The good news? I talked to several recruiters, and they all more or less agreed on many important points regarding salary negotiation. So here I'll present the tips I heard across the board.
Because there's already so much variation even within each industry, we're focusing our discussion to salary negotiation within the tech industry. But many of these tips will also apply to other industries.
1. Capitalize on the Recruiter's Incentive to Hire You
Many people go into negotiations thinking that it's a game and that they have to beat the recruiter, likely the first person you will communicate with about the job opening. But in reality, the recruiter is your best friend during salary negotiations. For one thing, it's in the recruiter's best interest to get you to say yes to the offer. I spoke to a recruiter who has worked with Slack, and she put it this way:
As the recruiter, I have every reason to get you as much money as I can. By getting the hire, I get recognized for my work, and I eventually get more money too.
That means the recruiter wants to make you happy. Use that to your advantage by trying to do all negotiations through the recruiter, even if the hiring manager sends you the offer. If you can't, at least ask to speak to the recruiter, at which point you can get a better sense of what might be possible when you do enter into negotiations. You can ask them for suggestions on how to negotiate with this specific hiring manager—who they know much better than you do—or get clarity about certain topics, like the ability to negotiate outside of the stated salary range.
Plus, speaking with a recruiter about salary—as opposed to a hiring manager—helps you avoid some awkward situations. Do you really want to talk salary with your potential future boss? Probably not. Erika Klics, a recruiter at Zapier, compared it to working with a real estate agent:
You wouldn't walk into someone's home, comment on the decor, and then tell them how much you think it's worth. Same goes for a company: By speaking with a company's real estate agent—the recruiter—you don't risk offending anyone and losing the offer.
Bottom line: If the company has a recruiter, use them as a resource as much as you can.
2. Know Your True Market Value
It's smart to say "I want to be paid what I'm worth." But the real question is: do you know what that market value is? If you want to be paid market value, you need to come in with numbers. And here's the newsflash: company review and salary comparison sites like Glassdoor and Payscale alone won't give you what you're looking for.
Real estate metaphors seem to be popular among recruiters, as one Bay Area recruiter I spoke to put it this way:
If you're selling your house, you can't just go online and say 'Redfin says my house is worth $400,000.' It's not. Redfin hasn't seen the inside of your house. Redfin likely hasn't even seen the outside of your house. Redfin has no idea how much your house is worth. That's why you need a realtor.
The point? You need to do your research with real humans in addition to doing your homework researching at salary sites. Talk to other recruiters and hiring managers. Or, if you don't know any, reach out to connection on LinkedIn who work in the same industry or even at the company you're applying to. You can even ask your friends—or your friends' friends. The best way to know what people make for a certain kind of job is to ask the people with similar qualifications who have that kind of job in your location. Of course, different individuals have different qualifications, but this process will at least get you in the right range.
If you go into a negotiation and can say "I've spoken to four people in the area with similar job titles and duties, and the range was $72,000 to $80,000, depending on other benefits offered," you're going to sound much more prepared than if you say "Glassdoor says I should make $80,000."
3. If You're Going to Negotiate, Do It Early
How to negotiate is one thing, but people don't talk as much about when to negotiate. The answer: as soon as possible.
You can lay the groundwork for negotiations early by being transparent about your expectations and gracious in your interactions with everyone you speak to. But once you have that offer, you need to negotiate quickly.
Why? To start, it shows that you're excited about the job. If you're eager to negotiate, it means you want to make the offer work for you. But more importantly, you're avoiding some potentially negative effects. If you wait until the deadline to begin negotiations, you've put the company in a bad position. It's possible they're holding on to other candidates, and by pushing their decision-making timeline back, you're disrespecting them and those other candidates who are waiting for a reply. Not only does that back the company into a corner and make them uncomfortable, but it also just gives the recruiter less time to fight for you.
4. Be the First to Say a Number When You're Working with a Recruiter
Many states don't allow potential employers to ask how much a candidate makes, but that doesn't mean they won't ask you what you'd like to make. And it's important to be forthcoming with that number—even if they don't ask.
There's little consensus from experts on whether you should be the first to say a number. But psychological studies consistently show that being the first to say a number in any sort of negotiation plays out in your favor. It's called anchoring because the number you provide anchors the conversation and sets the expectations for all discussions going forward.
Waiting for the company to tell you the salary offer is tempting: You get to lead the negotiation from there, and you can be sure you won't accidentally undersell yourself. But the recruiters I spoke to confirmed that waiting to set expectations won't help. For starters, honest companies—the ones you want to work for—won't lowball you just because your range is lower than what they expected. Plus, says Tom Harvey, a recruiter at Zapier, it makes the recruiter's life a lot easier if you let them know your expectations right off the bat:
Giving the recruiter a range helps them better understand if you're on the same page. If your expectations are out of range, it's not a dealbreaker. But if they're dramatically out of range, now we know, and we can figure out how to move forward.
There's no real consensus on precisely when it's best to offer this number, but if you want to lead that conversation, you'll need to be sure you say it before the recruiter is—likely toward the end of the first interview. Especially if you're already earning on the high end for your industry, it's best to share that information upfront: Let them know what you're currently making or at least a range you might expect. Otherwise, you run the risk of wasting the company's time—and your own.
In the current job market, someone with a college degree is pretty likely to be able to find employment. That means that recruiters are competing against each other to get the best hires and you can use that to your advantage by knowing your market value and not underselling yourself.
5. Consider the Value of Benefits
Sometimes there's no wiggle room on salary, especially after the company has leveled you into their hiring structure and all the paperwork has gone through the finance team. But you still have opportunities in other areas: equity, insurance, parental leave, flex time, signing bonus, PTO, sick time, professional development, transportation, meals...the list goes on.
Some of these benefits are negotiable—others, not so much. For example, it's unlikely that a company will be able to negotiate health insurance or PTO, since those policies are usually the same for every employee. But individual benefits, like signing bonuses and flex time, are more fluid, so focus your efforts there.
Signing bonuses used to be something only high-level executives received, but these days, it's common practice for companies to offer it. It allows them to maintain their salary offer—allowing room for growth—while still showing flexibility.
Remember that perks have a monetary value too. So before negotiating the salary, do a quick tally of the benefits. If you add up the money the company would be paying for insurance, meals, transportation, and other easily quantifiable benefits, you'll have a better sense of the total compensation package before starting the negotiations.
6. Be Gracious
Offers can be retracted. But not because you negotiate—because you negotiate badly. Lynette Busby, Recruiting Operations Manager at Iterable, says:
There's an art to negotiation, and there are times when companies will walk away from candidates not because they want to negotiate, but because of how they go about negotiating.
By not cooperating with the recruiter—or worse, the hiring manager, who in most cases becomes your manager if you accept the position—you're indicating to the hiring team what it will be like to work with you. The recruiter and hiring manager may not be the ones writing the check, but they're the ones who will be spending 40+ hours a week with you.
All the recruiters I spoke to warned again being presumptive about negotiations. Yes, hiring teams expect candidates to negotiate, but framing it as a demand can be a dealbreaker. So instead of saying "I won't accept anything less than X," try "My current situation is X, and I want to make a move forward." Sure, it's just a matter of phrasing, but that phrasing can make or break the company's perception of you.
Remember: When a company makes an offer, they're excited about you. Even if that offer is lower than you'd hoped, don't be insulted. Show your appreciation for the offer and find a positive way to initiate the negotiations.
7. Use Negotiations As a Chance to Get to Know the Company
When it comes time for salary negotiations, you're in control.
You've done your job selling yourself, now they should sell you. If you don't feel like every effort is being made for you during the negotiations, that's a red flag.
Tom Harvey, recruiter at Zapier
If you say you have concerns about the offer and they don't give you a chance to discuss it, what does that mean for your future at the company? If they won't even show you the courtesy of talking to a manager or a recruiter—even if they plan not to budge on salary—that's evidence that you're not a priority for them now and likely won't be a priority down the road.
This is also your chance to better understand the culture of the company. Let's say they have weekly happy hours at a local pub. If you like to socialize and eat/drink for free, that's likely a sign that you'll fit in. But if you have a family that you want to get home to, maybe that perk isn't representative of what you're looking for. On the other hand, a company that offers flex time might appeal to a candidate who needs the flexibility to pick their kids up at daycare, but not so much to someone who wants more structure from their teammates.
Everything from insurance to free meals to egg freezing can tell you a lot about a company's values, so be sure you look closely at what they're offering—and how they offer it.
8. Practice Makes Perfect
It's not really possible to practice salary negotiations without being offered a job, but you can practice the skills that will help you successfully negotiate salary. The most important factor, according to many of the recruiters I spoke to, is confidence.
The best way to gain confidence in salary negotiations is to practice talking to recruiters and hiring managers—and you can do that via job interviews. If you don't interview often, when the time comes to sell yourself in a negotiation, you'll be a little rusty.
So don't be afraid to interview for new jobs even if you're happy where you are. Interviewing at least once a year will help you build the confidence you need to make a case for yourself when it comes time for salary negotiations, and it'll give you more information about where you stand in your industry and what you might be worth.
These tips are focused on salary negotiations for new job offers, but they can be mapped onto negotiations for a raise too. And when you're asking for a raise, you have even more tools in your arsenal because you know the people you're negotiating with. You know the kind of language that gets through to them, you know what makes them empathetic, and you know what would make them say no. Use that to your advantage.