It's a hirer's market, but when it comes to salary negotiation, too often people sell themselves short simply because they don't know how to tackle the compensation question. Whether you're moving from one job to another or unemployed and looking for work, there are steps you can take to make sure you get the best possible salary offer, says Charlotte Weeks, Chicago-based career coach and resume writer.
"There [are] a lot of people out there who accept salaries lower than they could have gotten," she says. "So many people don't know how to negotiate."
Here are some of the most common ways you can expect to encounter the salary question when applying for a job and the best ways to tackle the challenge:
Avoid Talking Numbers Early On
It's a good rule of thumb to avoid answering the question of what salary you're willing to settle for, whether on your job application or in the early stages of your interview, says Weeks. "Usually the first person to name a number doesn't have the upper hand when negotiating," she says. "If possible, it's best to be a little vague." On a job application she suggests writing "negotiable" in the space allotted for salary rather than a specific figure.
If you encounter this question in preliminary interviews, don't be alarmed. "If we are talking salary early on, it means we are interested in pursuing that candidate further," says Tami Vanderpool, recruiting Senior Manager at Citigroup. "What we want to avoid is putting the candidate in front of a hiring manager and they fall in love with them but we are $30,000 apart in expectations."
When you hear the question early on, it's wise to deflect your answer by talking about what you can offer the company instead. "When they are really interested in you, then you can start negotiating on salary," says Lynne Eisaguirre, author of the book: We Need to Talk Tough Conversations with Your Boss: Tackle Any Topic With Sensitivity and Smarts.
Related: Five Military Negotiating Tactics That Can Help You Get Ahead
Remember Where You're Coming From
Your negotiating power will vary depending on your current employment situation. For instance, if are unemployed and applying for work, expect to earn approximately what your old salary was or slightly less, says Don Hurzeler, author of the book: The Way Up: How to Keep Your Career Moving in the Right Direction.
On the other hand, if you are being hired away from an existing position, Hurzeler doesn't suggest settling for less than a 20% salary increase unless you are completely unhappy. "Why would you leave a situation you know for one you don't know unless there is a breakthrough in salary?" he says.
Related: How to Overcome Five Impossible Workplace Hurdles
Don't Sell Yourself Short
Whether you're moving from one job to another or unemployed and seeking work, you can expect to be asked about what you were making at your old job, so be ready with an answer.
One common mistake when talking about previous salary is forgetting to include benefits as part of your total compensation, says Hurzeler, an oversight that can hurt you in the negotiation process. For example, if you are earning $100,000 a year with a 20% bonus plus health, dental and other incidental benefits, you should answer the question by saying, "$120,000 plus generous benefits."
This will prove useful if you find you're not able to negotiate on the amount of money you're earning. For example, if you're coming from a job where you had five weeks of paid vacation to one where you will only have two, negotiating more time off might be easier than winning a higher salary, says Marsha Egan, a Pennsylvania-based career coach.
Related: What Your Worth and How to Get It
Have a Range Rather Than a Single Figure
When pressed for your salary requirements, you should always be sure to offer a range based on what others in the field are earning, rather than a single fixed number, says Karen Lawson, founder and president of Lawson Consulting Group, Inc., , a Pa.-based Management and organizational development consulting firm. That's where doing your market research becomes critical.
Check out similar positions online and network with others in the field to determine the standard pay and what the higher end salary might be for such a role, says Weeks. For example, if you apply for a job that typically pays $40,000 a year but see it advertised as paying $48,000 occasionally, you can set your range at $40,000 to $50,000, she says.
Related: Bonus Deferrals and Clawbacks: Sign or Decline?
Handling the Low-ball Offer
Employers expect you to negotiate, so don't be anxious about countering a low offer, says Weeks. That's why knowing the salary range for a position similar to yours in your geographic region is key, says Weeks. "That's what you can use as your weapon for negotiating," she says.
If you're coming out of unemployment, don't expect to have as much negotiating power, says Lawson. In fact, you might have to settle for less. Rather than outright rejecting a pay cut from your previous job, talk to your potential boss about revisiting the salary question once you've had time to prove yourself on the job, suggests Lawson. While you won't be able to get it in writing, it's worth asking if you can revisit the issue six months into the job, she suggests.
And don't be too quick to let a low-ball offer close the door to a job opportunity. "If you get a job and can show your value, that money is going to come back to you down the road," says Hurzeler.
Related: Finding Out if You're Underpaid and Taking Action
Take Time to Decide
You might feel the pressure to jump on an offer right away, but it's wise to take a few days to think about it before making a decision, says Egan. Be sure to ask for the offer in writing so that you can see how it breaks down in terms of salary and benefits. Request anywhere from a day to a week to decide, depending on the company's time-frame.
Related: Negotiating Salary, Benefits and Severance
"You never have to make a decision on the spot," says Egan. "It's a life decision."
Write to Jane Porter here.