Big Mistakes to Avoid When Negotiating Salary

One of the most emotionally fraught aspects of the hiring process is the salary negotiation. Talking about money makes people nervous; and if that wasn’t enough, there’s the pervasive fear that asking for too much cash might provoke your prospective employer into rescinding the job offer.

In other words, it’s a minefield. Although no two negotiations are exactly alike, here are some of the bigger “mines” you can easily avoid:

Revealing Your Current Salary Ahead of Time

Just because a recruiter or hiring manager asks for your current salary doesn’t mean you need to provide it. In fact, cities and states such as New York City and Massachusetts have laws on the books preventing prospective employers from inquiring about your pay. Advocates of such legislation fear that giving companies the ability to solicit a number can “bake in” gender discrimination.

“If somebody has faced gender-based pay discrimination over the course of a career or just in one prior job, and a new employer uses salary history to set pay, essentially you continue to carry forward that gender discrimination from job to job,” Sarah Fleisch Fink, director of workplace policy and senior counsel at the National Partnership for Women & Families, told Business Insider earlier this year.

(Note that these laws, which may end up enacted in more states, don’t prevent applicants from volunteering salary information unprompted—so if you make lots of money, and really want to share that fact with your interviewer, there’s nothing technically stopping you from doing so.)

In places with no such laws, there’s often a considerable amount of pressure to offer salary information if asked. What to do? If the initial ask is part of a written application, you can either leave that section blank or write that you’re willing to talk about salaries in person. (Note, some automated forms won’t accept anything other than a number; in such cases, consider inputting a broad range, or whether you want to apply to the job altogether.)

If asked during your initial interview, you can provide a vague range, along the lines of, “I make in the very high five-figures.” You can also say something like, “If I’m right for this role, I’m sure the salary will work itself out.” Depending on the tone of the conversation, you can even try flipping the question back on the interviewer: “How much has the company set aside for the position?”

Whatever path you choose, the goal is to keep as much leverage as possible until it’s clear that the prospective employer really wants you for the position; at that point, the salary negotiations can begin in earnest.

Accepting the Job, Then Negotiating the Salary

Picture this scenario: you interview well for a new job. Your hiring manager, impressed with your performance, makes an offer. You accept the terms. A week later, you come back and ask for more money.

To put things mildly, that’s not a good way to start off a new working relationship. If you have issues with the contract, the time to speak up is always before you put your signature on the dotted line; once you’ve signed, you’ve pretty much lost your leverage with your employer. In addition to not getting what you want, you may create the impression that you’re not a straightforward dealer—which is never ideal.

If you really feel like you’ve been lowballed, wait until your next performance review. At that point, you’ll have a track record (hopefully of success) and thus enough “fuel” to negotiate for more money.

Shooting Too High

Very specialized tech jobs can pull down extraordinary salaries. For example, artificial intelligence (A.I.) experts at top companies like IBM can reportedly make as much as NFL players. “Right now, A.I. is an elitist sport—there are very few people who know how to practice it,” Tom Eck, the CTO of industry platforms at IBM and a software developer who has been involved in A.I. as far back as the early ’90s, recently told an audience at the Markets Media’s Summer Trading event in New York. “The top-tier A.I. researchers are getting paid the salaries of NFL quarterbacks, which tells you the demand and the perceived value.”

But not all jobs are created equal. While a top expert in machine learning can march into a new tech company and demand a salary big enough to purchase an enormous house outright, most tech jobs simply don’t pay that much. If you’re unsure about how much someone with your skill-set can earn, check out Dice’s Salary Calculator. That can give you some idea of what you should be earning, especially given your background and geographic location.

Armed with that number, you’ll have a better idea what constitutes a fair deal from a prospective employer.

Shooting Too Low

On the flip side of that same coin is asking for too little money. Just because you live in a town full of Web developers or app builders doesn’t mean you need to short-change yourself in order to seem more “appealing” to a prospective employer. Believe in your abilities: if you have the skills, background, and portfolio that make you an ideal fit for the job, don’t be afraid to demand what you’re worth.

The fact is, with tech unemployment at a historically low rate, employers are scrambling for experienced talent. They’re prepared to pay top dollar for solid professionals. So stay calm, and make sure you don’t lowball yourself.

Remember to Actually Negotiate!

When it comes time for salary negotiations, your prospective employer will throw a number out there. Keep in mind that they’ve already built some flexibility into that offer—but unless you actually try to negotiate, you won’t know how high you can potentially go.

If the company seems adamant about a particular salary, you can also try to negotiate for better benefits or perks. For example, if you want a day or two of working from home, the hiring manager may prove amenable to that in lieu of an increase in money.

31 Responses to “Big Mistakes to Avoid When Negotiating Salary”

  1. Miss Tekkie

    When an online app asks for a salary, you often can’t put in a range because it demands numeric data only. Type simply the number “1” in the space.

    I find it interesting that, these days, the first question the recruiters ask you is your salary requirement. What does that tell you if that is more important than your skills?

    • I see that a lot with the on-line applications. I have got away a few times entering a range of numbers. I don’t think its a fair mandatory question and if it isn’t, don’t fill it in.In an interview when they ask, “What would I need to make?” I reply, “What is the salary range for this position”.

  2. After an experience where I had to live in a hotel for 2 months, rely on eating-out, and rely on a rented car, and still pay all the utilities at-home, to fulfill a temp contract that was paying me an hourly wage that was considerably more than I had ever been paid, I found that I had made almost nothing. Barely paid expenses. The work-experience was good.

    Now I post my minimum monetary requirements on my profile, and encourage clients to hire me on a telecommuting basis. I no longer am subsidizing other companies.

    • Miss Tekkie

      I’m surprised that there are temporary jobs that last only 2 months. I’ve never seen one advertised for less than 6. With 6 months you could have rented an apartment perhaps. A big company might have a contract for corporate apartments; obviously this was not your situation. Rather than posting your $ requirements on your profile, perhaps introduce that number when negotiations begin. Someone might be turned off by your large number. A local gig would not require extra money for out-of-town living arrangements. I don’t know how long ago that gig was, but these days perhaps you could look for an Air BnB? A daily hotel rate sounds outrageously expensive. Thanks for sharing your story.

      • I had to sign a 2-year no-compete, no-divulge document, and I am past that by at least 1 year, so I am comfortable talking about it.

        They contacted me from a dated resume I had on a different-than-dice site. So I was not actively seeking a 2-month (or otherwise) temp position. I condiered apartments in that town, but the apartments I found listed online were basically basement-dumps in people’s homes along the (industrial)waterfront, and didn’t really offer any savings.

        I haven’t done tech work since. I am content with staying semi-retired and working on my personal coding projects until something else comes along. It seems the best positions have always been from people who find me, and not anyone I’ve ever sought out.

  3. I was low balled because I just got out of prison. Really low balled. I had worked for the same company for many years before I left. Its hard enough to get a tech job with a felony. I’m two years out and still there, after the new year its time for me to go. I am good at what I do and never miss a day.

    • Hey Bill, how did you find the position straight out of prison? I have a felony and it is a royal misery trying to find a job in IT. I got luck almost a year and a half ago and my recruiter found me a role that didn’t require the background check, but the office is closing at the end of September. I’ve been looking since February when they first told us about the move, but I still haven’t been able to find anything. I’m super stressed out. My manager had glowing reviews about me, and they asked if I could transition with the company but that just wasn’t possible.

  4. I, too, hate the salary negotiation part. And I hate those online applications that require a number even more. I have tried entering “1” as suggested, but have yet to be contacted by any organization where that is what I entered. Also recently had a situation where the company was ready to make an offer but forced me to state my range first. I gave a number but emphasized I wanted the position and was willing to negotiate. The manager replied with a low number. I said that I would consider it with some extras like time off, remote, whatever. Basically begged for at least an offer. Never heard back. It’s a minefield to be sure!!!

  5. John Spencer

    A cautionary warning if you don’t live in New York City or Massachusetts.

    Do you work for a Fortune 500 or large company? Wake up! Its 2017. Your Salary and work history at a company are the company’s “property”. Companies share your salary and work history to a clearing house from Equifax (yes.. the one that got breached) called “The Work Number”. “Equifax Workforce Solutions” has created a “club” for “big iron” HR departments to exchange this information.

    Lets say you want to leave company A and go to work for company B. You tell the recruiter on the phone at company B that they need to match your current salary of $90,000 at company A and that you have worked there 4 years. After your phone interview, the recruiter for company B logs into Equifax and then sees it all. boom.. You lied. You told Company B you are making $90,000 at company A, but its right on the screen – you left company A 3 months ago, are unemployed, and were making only $65,000 when you worked there (for 2 years not 4). They know because Company A submitted your work history to The Work Number so they can retrieve other company HR data.

    This is real. https:/

    • I have never lived in New York City or Massachusetts, and I have never been employed by a Fortune-500 company or large company. That said: I thought that such salary collusions through Equifax, TRW, and others was common knowledge. I also think that all these companies need to be shut-down and have their huge databases purged.

      You get out of school, you have huge student loans…sorry, we can’t offer you emplyment: we pulled a credit report on you and saw that you are in debt!

    • Quick note about the work number …

      It should be known that the potential employer cannot access the applicant salary data without requesting a salary key. This salary key must be requested by the employee/applicant before the potential employer can access the data. So, be cognizant of any access requests and what that might mean for your application.

      From The Work Nber FAQ:

      How do I create a Salary Key?
      For security and privacy reasons, a verifier cannot create a salary key. Only the person whose information is being verified can create a salary key. If you are a verifier and need to instruct your applicant how to create a salary key, please provide them the instructions below.

      • John Spencer

        I provided an example link from an employer below (OSU). Interesting that I don’t see anyone here concerned that The Work Number database may have been part of the massive Equifax security breach.

        Here is some marketing data from The Work Number. Looks like your IRS data is up for grabs too..

        “Current pay-period employment and income is available instantly with our employer direct data, or in short order by streamlined fulfillment with the employer, while personal and business income tax information is delivered in just hours through our direct connection with the IRS”.

        “you can customize a solution to fulfill your income determination
        needs rapidly, and with ease.”

        “income determination needs” — who comes up with this doublespeak?

        Marketing PDF file from The Work Number:

    • Thanks for the information on “The Work Number”. I checked the site, and as usual, Equifax makes it a pain in the ass to get your data. Their process for ordering a report is straight from the 1980s and involves recording your information in a half-assed audio recording system and a two-week delay in getting your report.

      I think what’s called for here is a change to the Fair Credit Reporting Act that makes anyone reporting FALSE information strictly liable for liquidated damages in the amount of $1 million per incident. The way this information is created, retained and reported, Equifax could be getting or forwarding incorrect information and you would never even know it was costing you job opportunities. I more civilized times, making false statements about someone to their detriment was called “defamation”. Today, it’s called “Equifax”.

      • John Spencer

        It is diabolical. Here is an example of a company requiring YOU (as a condition of starting employment) to login to The Work Number and provide your blessing for Equifax to share your information.

        The way it works is your recruiter gives you a “salary key” (a one-time use password known only to your employer and Equifax).

        Example employer require you “give it up” from link below: “Access The Work Number to create a “Salary Key” that grants one-time access to your income data:”

        Where I live a company doesn’t have to get my consent (no salary key “exercise” here) to look me up. But in Oregon? Different story. Here is a link to an Oregon employer guiding you, an applicant, on how to login to Equifax The Work Number.

        .. it’s diabolical because I don’t see anywhere on this form where YOU get a copy of the profile you just consented to be shared.

    • Good point. If they report what I made as base salary, it would say $70K. For the last 5 years my end of year bonus has been $20K-$30K for meeting goals and getting a best tech with stipend rewards. Making me a 6 figure candidate.

  6. John For (a psuedonym)

    In 2010 I was dismissed from a job for cause. After 25 years of working my way up the tech ladder from associate developer to Sr. Manager of Software Dev, I couldn’t find any perm jobs in my area. I ended up taking a contract PM role 1,000 miles away. Since then, perm jobs have become very few and far between, so I have been unhappily contracting. Many companies in my area think nothing of shedding contractors whenever they hit a budget issue. The few perm roles I’ve applied for and been contacted about have had a salary range ending around 70% of what I’m making as a contractor. However, I’m currently in conversation about a perm role. The recruiter asked my requirements, I explained that I couldn’t know that without knowing the benefit and paid time off information. She responded by telling me the range and bonus percentage. From that we were able to agree that we should be able to make the salary part work out, if everything else does. As I said to her *We don’t have to choose the exact house, but we should make sure we are talking about the same neighborhood!

  7. Does it strike anyone else as odd that with “tech unemployment at a historically low rate”, we’re even having conversations like this? Finding a job at a reasonable rate should be easy – but it’s not. Unless you’re a Pakistani or Indian on an H-1B or L-1 visa.

    I’ve worked in tech for more than 25 years, and I don’t have employers beating down my door. I don’t even get an acknowledgement for most of my applications.

    I’ve also noticed over the past couple years that recruiting seems to have been taken over by India. Do you think they’re hiring Americans as a first choice? Or are we being discriminated against in our own Country?

    • You are clueless. Someone on an H-1B or L-1 visa cannot just change companies.

      I really wonder how current your knowledge is. And if it is current, it is time to update your resume accordingly. Considering you have “worked in tech for more than 25 years”, you should have no problem at all finding a job.

      • Recruiting in Technology for 23 yrs.
        H1B visa people can move around a lot easier than you state. They only need to get “approval” now and takes about 4 weeks. Back in the 90’s it took 4-6 mo to transfer a visa. The rates have gone down ridiculously over the yrs. I use to get people 90-130/hr + exp. Now its 60/hr all inclusive because H1B lowered the going rate. The Indians here are complaining about the H1B lowering rates. Also age is discriminated too. Many older guys saying they cant get jobs. Employers are looking for longevity not current skills so much.

      • Not entirely accurate. I lost my job due to company closure. I had 30 years experience and kept my skills current. Nonetheless, I was subjected to blatant age discrimination. Easy to recognize, but impossible to prove.

        • Worked at a large defense contractor in the NW for 25+ years. Have a lot of engineering and software tech skills. They got rid of almost everyone over the age of 45 in IT, especially if you were part of the engineering union. Four managers later confirmed that there was a policy in place to do this and to reject job applications from people above that age range. 25+ years at this place was great for them but terrible for me when it came to finding another job. I’ve encountered blatant rejection based on this and for my age. It hasn’t left me with many choices, but I’ve had odd queries from certain foreign businesses.

          • Red White and Blue

            Sounds like rampant age discrimination. All of us in the field knows that it exists; we also know it is illegal. How do companies get away with it? A close friend works at a company where there is a “voluntary separation program” where they are offering “voluntary” separation (job loss) for those over 50 with 15 years’ tenure at the company, along with slightly enhanced severance packages. You can take it or not, but you are being advised to take it, in case they have more layoffs in the future without “enhanced” severance. This is for the whole company, not just IT, but not every group is doing this. I suppose they get past the law by calling it “voluntary” or by enhancing the severance by a few weeks? Your story sounds much more blatant. You said you worked for a large defense contractor in the NW. I can guess that it was one of two specific companies, but I won’t name them. Did anyone think of contacting a lawyer? Oh, where my friend works, in order to receive the severance package, they had to sign a paper stating that they would not sue for any reason. No signature, no severance. Also included in their severance packet of papers was a hard copy of a spreadsheet showing all employees (not by name) broken down by age and laid off/not laid off, so you know that the company was “covering its assets.” Thanks for your story.

    • I was involved in on-boarding 150 Developers that were H1-B visa workers all placed in Connecticut. In a year from now 75% of them will be let go when the merger project is over. Not many US companies will sponsor them from what I hear and they will either move back to India or find something else here. I feel kinda bad for them because they were abused by Big Corp,

  8. Kentuckian

    The thing to realize here is that we are all lied to in college. They entice people to go into technology fields with talk of high salaries. Truth is that even with a B.S. & 2 A.S degrees in technology, its difficult to reach even the low end of the salary scale. People should plan on making 15% less than the bottom of the pay scale they were told the field pays when they graduate college. Then you got to simply prove your worth from there even if it means taking temporary positions or contract positions with no benefits. And for goodness sakes, dont start making any long term plans until you are with a company full time & most importantly out of their probationary period and are paying you benefits

  9. I recently filled out an online application and part of the work history was starting and ending salaries. They were required fields so I entered zeros. I’m going for a second interview this afternoon so, at least in this instance, that didn’t disqualify me. Should the topic come up prior to or during negotiations my stance is that my current and past salaries are irrelevant. What is relevant is the value I can bring to you now.

  10. I am wondering how the new Executive Order 13780, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry,” will affect the hiring landscape. This is going into effect in 10 days. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said that

    “in-person interviews will be required for approximately 130,000 immigrants nationwide seeking green cards”.

    “This encompasses visitors with H1B or H2B visas and any type of business visa.”

  11. Jason Kinney

    Couple issues in the comments I would like to express my opinion on:
    Salary is important as it weeds out potential interviewees quickly. Meaning if the companies pay range is 45 to 55 k and application has 70 k it automatically goes gets filed away. No need to waste everyone’s time. MOST (over 75% I am willing to bet) are not going to take a 15 K year pay cut.

    Secondly: those who don’t have people, specifically recruiters, knocking weekly is because you are not proactive on keeping your online presence updated.
    I update my profile on Monster, 14 – 30 emails with in 7 days.
    I stay some what active on LinkedIn, less but still responses weekly. Update my indeed profile, at least 10 responses with in 2 weeks.

    I even had a LinkedIn in recruiter contact me every 6 months to see how I am doing and want me to interview.

    Lots of large tech companies use recruiting services or have in house recruiters. Why? Because we developers are in high demand depending on your experience and knowledge base, and turn over is high for burn out and greener grass.