You’ve got an employer on the hook, interested in talking to you.  Go, you!  But wait… before you even enter the interview stage, much less get into actual salary negotiations, you need to have a salary negotiation strategy so that you don’t leave money on the table.

Remember, recruiters and some hiring managers go through salary negotiations ALL. THE. TIME. so they have a lot of practice and they know how to play the game.  You may not have a lot of practice, but you CAN have a winning strategy.

Here’s what you need to know:  all salary negotiations go through at least three stages.


As long as you know what to expect in each stage, and handle each stage appropriately, you’re positioned to win.

Stage 1.  The “ballpark” conversation (aka the first time they bring up money)

In this stage, the recruiter or hiring manager basically wants to know whether or not they’re wasting their time talking with you.   You might be the most qualified candidate in their pool at the moment; yet, they need to know if your actual and/or desired salary level exceeds what they’re willing to pay.

“I’m flexible!” you want to say… but, alas, recruiters won’t stop there.  Here’s why: they’re worried that if you take a significant salary cut for this job, you’re going to want to jump ship at the slightest possibility that another employer will pay you more money.  Fair or not, they’re looking to make a long-term investment, and they’re assessing your flight risk.  On the other hand, if you say a definitive number up front and it’s too high, they stop the conversations before you have a chance to demonstrate your value.

They’re NOT looking for an exact salary number, or that you need flextime on Fridays to pick up your kid from soccer, or you need 20 days of vacation.  They’re looking to know “are we in the right ballpark, give or take 10%.”

Think of it this way from the recruiter’s perspective:  it’s kind of like when you know you need to buy a car, and in this stage you are wandering around the lot with a vague sense of the cars in your price range.  You know your low and high number, generically, but are mostly interested in whether or not you like the make or model of certain cars.

Here’s your strategy for stage 1:  They’re looking for a ballpark; give them a ballpark.  Don’t give them a specific number too soon, or you’ll risk them focusing on that specific number versus your qualifications for the job.

Make the ballpark:

  • true (you’d actually accept the low and high number, if everything else seems great and/or you can negotiate other things you want)
  • broad enough that it’s likely to overlap with their salary range yet still leaves room for salary growth for you
  • aligned with what you find out about their salary practices, using your own connections and/or a site like Glassdoor or LinkedIn’s salary comparison tool.

On your end, you have some questions that need answered, too.  Do what you can to find out the ballpark on their end, so that you also know whether or not your expectations are aligned.  Also, do some general market research on salaries so that you’re prepared for the “going rate” in the marketplace for these types of jobs.

Here’s how this looks:

Recruiter:  “What are you looking for, salary-wise?”

You: “Well, my research on these kinds of roles is that they’re typically from $x to $y or so, and I’ve been thinking that maps up pretty well with the range I’m considering.  I’m flexible depending upon the scope of the role as we talk further and other factors like benefits.  What general range do you have in mind?”

Stage 2.  The “we’re thinking about $x” conversation, either as a pre-offer or an actual offer

In this stage, the team definitely wants you on board, and starts getting more serious about whether or not they can afford you.  Often, you’ll start to face more targeted questions about your salary history, your current salary or desired salary (check out how that’s changing soon in Massachusetts).

Sometimes this conversation happens right before the offer is made, and they’ll float a potential range or number so that they target the official offer appropriately.  Sometimes, however, they skip that step and go right to an offer, which often means they have internal constraints on how much they can pay you (for example, a colleague would be unhappy if you made more than a certain amount), or they’re clear on their target compensation.

In the car buying analogy, this is the stage when you start to hone in on the ACTUAL car and the ACTUAL price and you get more serious about your investigation.  You see a specific model that has a price tag of $23,250, and you wonder if you can get it for $21,500.  You think about how you’re going to pay for it.  You’re gearing up for a give-and-take in negotiations, and you start to collect more information about the options that are included.  Sometimes you may come right out and ask the salesperson if the dealership is likely to accept an offer of $21,500 (pre-offer), or sometimes you sit down with the salesperson and offer that number as your starting point (offer).

Here’s your strategy for stage 2: be a detective (a friendly one, of course).  Your job in this stage is to collect whatever information you can, and keep your own early opinions as carefully guarded as possible.

By this point, you know more about the role, the company, the lifestyle commitment it requires, and you may have gleaned some insight into the company’s flexibility on work/life issues that matter to you.  You may have heard about the company’s range at this point, and/or identified a possible peer set internally that should be making the same general amount of money that you’d be making.

How to handle this stage:

  • Start to ask questions in a neutral way, collecting data about other compensation-related topics.  Don’t offer opinions or ask for anything specific, just collect the information and write it down.  Is there a bonus, an annual review, stock options, or anything else related to pay.  After all, if you give a number assuming there are annual raises and there aren’t, you’d be disappointed that you didn’t ask for more.
  • Listen VERY carefully to how they ask you about salary or they make you an offer.  Typically, unless you hear “you’re over our range,” “we have serious internal equity issues if we go that high,” or “this is the best we can do,” there’s wiggle room in what they’re offering.  (If, however, you do hear any of those statements, take them at face value and in the next stage you can negotiate on other work/life issues, a possible six-month salary review, or other ways they might be able to get around their salary cap.)
  • Mention the peer set (but NOT by individual names) and say that you’d like to be paid commensurate with the other director-level employees.  Of course, if you think you’re being paid more than the peer set currently, skip this point of comparison.   Or, you can mention the market range for similar jobs you’ve considered, if you think that won’t scare them off.
  • Do not negotiate in this stage.  Don’t agree, disagree, ask if they can do better, advocate for a certain dollar amount, you name it.  Just listen to what they have to say, and if they’re asking you to commit to a dollar amount, don’t do it yet.   If they ask again what you want, mention you’d like to be paid fairly for the role based on the peer set and the market range for this kind of work, and ask what they have in mind.  If you negotiate without all of the information (compensation, benefits, flexibility, title), you’re giving up power to create a total winning package for yourself.
  • Ask for “a fair offer,” if they’re still in pre-stage mode.  If they’re still feeling you out and want to pre-close you on a number, just kindly ask them if they can make a fair offer and you’ll be happy to talk it through with them once there’s an actual offer on the table.
  • If they make an offer, buy yourself time: If they make an offer, thank them for making the offer, make sure you’ve asked all of the clarification questions you can, and ask for a night to digest the information.

Stage 3: The actual negotiation.  You may have noticed that this is AFTER an offer is made, and not before.  Now is when you *actually* negotiate, based on a systematic, thoughtful analysis of the opportunity and all of the data points you’ve collected.

Without a strategy, people skip the “systematic, thoughtful” part of salary negotiations.  They get their heart set on a certain number and think they should just fight for that number, but don’t step back to look at the whole picture.  In your case, however, you’re going to approach this carefully.

Here’s your strategy for stage 3: Evaluate the data, pick your priorities, and kindly ask for what you want.   Here’s what to do:

  • Document and analyze the information you’ve gathered.  What’s the market data for this role?  What internal factors may cause them to pay higher or lower than the market?  What range have they mentioned?  What actual amount did they offer you, vs. that range (and by the way, they almost always leave room at the top of the range so they can give you raises eventually).  What other compensation factors are included?  What benefits are available and how much do those cost you?  What’s your commute?  What vacation time and flex time do they offer, and what do you want?  What title are they offering, and do they have any flexibility on that?  What opportunities exist for growth?  Sure, you’re probably considering all those things, but actually write them down so you can view them objectively.
  • Come up with your best-case scenario based on what you’ve learned.  Knowing what you know, what do you think is their *actual* best offer, if you came back to them and asked for more?  From my recruiter days, I found that we’d often go about 5-10% higher than our original offer, if asked, but that will depend on the specific company’s circumstances.
  • Pick your battles wisely and prioritize your requests so that you get the most important win first.  Let’s say they offered you a Sr. Manager title, $100K salary, 2 weeks of vacation plus holidays and sick time, for a full time, on-site job.  If you call them back and say, “I’ve thought about it and I’d really like a Director title, $110K, 3 weeks of vacation and the flexibility to work from home some days,” what do you think they’ll say?  If they don’t say “pound sand,” then they might say: “Great.  We can’t do the title or the pay but we’re so happy to grant you an extra week of vacation and sure, you can work from home when you need to.”  Don’t give them an easy out because you’re asking for too much at once.  Also, pick what’s important to YOU at the moment; if title doesn’t matter but you really want a 4 day work week, go for that instead.  Ask for fewer, more important things rather than the whole package.
  • The next day, ask kindly and in a non-threatening way for your top priority (pick one or two items to negotiate).  In the cases where the companies haven’t said “this is the best offer we can make,” my clients have almost always been successful with this approach:  “I was really hoping the salary would be closer to $X (your best-case guess of their cap in your case); is there any way we can get closer to that number?”  The hiring representative almost always says they need to ask about that and call you back.  They may not match the actual request, but they’ve typically come back with some counteroffer, at least.
  • When they call you back, then you can ask about the rest.  You have to do this carefully, so that you don’t seem like you’re constantly pushing the envelope.  However, you can say “I just have a few final questions as I’ve been thinking about this… is there any wiggle room in x or y?”  In this call, the recruiter’s going to be expecting to “close” you, so expect a little bit of push-back on your requests.  Fair enough; they already responded to one request, but again, you might be able to get a little more.  (Kind of like asking for floor mats once you’ve agreed upon the price of a car; the salesperson doesn’t love the question, but you get a 50/50 shot of getting free floor mats).  The key point here is *carefully,* *respectfully* and *kindly* asking them, not demanding from them or pretending you’re going to walk out of the showroom if you don’t get what you want.

On that note, a lot of people get nervous about salary negotiations, because a) you want the job and don’t want to scare them off, and b) you have less power and information in this situation.  Part of the reason I advocate waiting to negotiate until after you have an offer is that it balances the scales of power, somewhat.  Once they want you on their team, they’ll work harder to find a middle ground where everyone’s happy.

Now that you’re positioned with the right strategies for salary negotiation, pick up the phone, call that recruiter back, and go get the job!