Say "Hmmm" to the First Salary Offer

Kate Lorenz, CareerBuilder.com Editor

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When it comes to salary negotiations, a two-letter word can cost you thousands of dollars. If you say "OK" to the first offer you hear, you are essentially throwing in the towel without a fight and giving up any hope that your employer might have gone higher.

Jack Chapman, author of "Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1000 a Minute," says everyone should say "Hmmm" to that first offer, whether they are starting an entry level job or taking a salaried position.  Saying "Hmmm" to an initial pay offer could add another several cents to an hourly wage or raise you from the bottom of a salary range to the middle, he says.

Just as pauses in conversations are uncomfortable, a pause in salary negotiations can make people ill at ease.  If the interviewer offers $50,000, a smart applicant will repeat that figure. "Fifty thousand," you'll say while tilting your head back to check out the ceiling tiles in the room. "Hmmm."

The interviewer will likely be anxious to hear your response and may ask what you think about the offer.  He or she may even up the offer without you having to do anything.

Your hesitation in responding has already made it clear that you were not overwhelmed with the offer. You have set the stage to counter. Now it's time to put your research to work. If you have done your research well, you should know the expected range for this job, and you can now begin to position yourself favorably within the range.

Tell the interviewer that your research has shown the range for this job to be up to $55,000 and that you believe your experiences qualify you to come in at the top end of the range. You'll probably get a counter offer somewhere in between.

Even if the initial salary offer is exactly what you had hoped for, it doesn't hurt to pause and reflect a little, Chapman says. This shows you have some backbone, and most employers will respect that. It shows what kind of employee you will be. It shows you will be willing to stand up for what you believe in and be willing to defend your work and the company in the marketplace.

An appropriate response to such an offer might be. "Well, that's a generous offer and I think I'm inclined to accept it, but before I make a decision I'd like to know..."  Then you might diverge into a discussion about when salary reviews typically are done and what you might expect your salary path to be. You can come back and re-address the salary offer. If the counter offer meets your expectations and is reasonable, say that based on your research you think the offer is a good one and you would like to accept it.  If you're uncertain, ask if you can consider the offer overnight and call them back first thing in the morning.

You have demonstrated to the interviewer that you are thoughtful, that you are knowledgeable and that you can hold your ground. This is much preferable to jumping to a quick "OK."

"Have you ever sold a car?" Chapman asks. "Say you are asking $6,000 for the car. Someone comes and takes it for a spin. He comes back and says he'll take it for $6,000. Right now you're probably thinking you didn't ask enough for it and you feel bad that you let it go so cheaply."

But what if the guy comes back and says he'll give you $5,500 for the car?  You say no, $6,000 is the least you will take. So he buys it for $6,000.  "In both cases, you get $6,000 for the car, but in one case you feel bad and in the other case you feel good."  Even if your salary negotiations don't net you a higher starting pay, you will at least feel that you gave it your best shot and you will have shown that you are a person who will stand up for yourself.

In Chapman's book, he lists rules for salary negotiations. The first rule, he says, is to postpone salary talk until the interviewer has had an opportunity to get to know you, to "sample the goods."  People always go over budget for things they really want, Chapman says, and a company will go over budget if they really want you - unless you have set the price too early.  "Your best leverage is when they are really interested in you."

An interviewer may begin the process by asking what salary you want. You might respond by saying: "Could we talk about that a little later on after I have learned a little more about the job?"

Or, the interviewer might say up front what the job pays and ask you what you think of that. Again, postpone making a commitment. Say something like: "I'd like to know more about the job before I respond.  Can we go ahead with the interview and see where I might fit in the salary range for this position?"

Using the car image again, think of yourself test driving a new car with lots of bells and whistles. Power windows and seats, sun roof, CD player. You hadn't planned to spend that much when you went into the dealership, but now you find you can't live without all those things. You'll gladly pay another $25 a month to have them.

Your interviewer thinks the same way. If you wow them during your interview, they will probably dig a little deeper when it finally comes time to talk price.


Last Updated: 24/09/2007 - 3:50 PM


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