The standard for most negotiations is this: “He/she who gives a number first loses.” What this means in salary negotiation is that giving a number, any number, will put you at a disadvantage to the person with whom you are negotiating. So if the candidate gives a number of what they are seeking, they will either be too high (and therefore may not be considered at all for the role) or too low (and therefore losing out on a potentially higher salary). If the employer gives a number first, again, it will be either too high (and end up paying more to a candidate than needed) or too low (and losing a potential candidate).
When job seeking at the entry level, it does get somewhat simpler, since many employers have set salaries and/or ranges in which they make offers. This is especially the case when the employer is hiring multiples for the same role. That said, it can get complicated when there are multiple locations involved, and thus, multiple cost of living variables.
In its simplest terms, there are effectively two times when “the number” will come up in salary negotiations. One is on the front-end, at the very beginning of consideration, and the other is back-end, when the actual offer is being made. At the front-end, the Recruiter typically screens a candidate to make sure they are within the acceptable range for the role. A major faux pas on the part of any Recruiter is to bring in a candidate for a round of interviews, everyone loves and wants to hire, only to find out that the candidate is already paid x% higher than even the high end of the range for the role. So the Recruiter or HR person will often perform due diligence to probe at the front-end, even at initial phone contact, to find out salary information and increase expectations. This most typically happens when a candidate is already fully employed in a similar role. For college students and recent grads, this step is often skipped entirely. So the first mention of salary is often at the back-end, as the employer is prepping to make the offer.
While some employers will make the offer without consulting with the candidate (this is especially common when the salary amount is set the same for all), many employers will want to have a “pre-close” discussion with the candidate. An open-ended question could be: “If we were to make an offer, what salary level are you expecting?” A closed-ended question could be: “If we were to make you an offer at x, would you be ready to immediately accept?” In the former case, the employer is asking you for the number. In the latter case, the employer is giving you the number.
So what do you do when asked for a number? Ask a question in return: “What is the expected starting salary range for this role?” Although the employer may give you a number or a range, it is also possible that the employer may turn the question back to you again: “We don’t have a set range for this role, so we need to understand your expectations.” Your best response is to defer again: “I am ready to consider your very best offer.” You can also take a competitive approach if you have other pending opportunities by adding: “I do have other opportunities pending and it’s my hope that this opportunity will be the best offer.” Of course that will technically be the case with every pending opportunity, so you’re typically within bounds to make that statement.
So now you’ve effectively deferred twice. But what if the employer still presses you for a number? This is when having done your research on the role, the employer and the geo (for cost of living adjustments) will help you. You have two choices at this point: either defer again ( “I don’t have a specific number in mind, it will depend on how your offer compares to my other options…”) or you can give a range (“I am looking at potential offers in the x to y range…”).
However, note that if/when you bring up the possibility of other offers, some employers may hold off on making an offer, wanting to be the last and best offer. So only play the competitive card if you truly have an offer (or two or three) in the works and/or pending.
In salary negotiations, your best approach is to defer. However, if you are in a position where you need to give a range, know the standard salary range for the position. You can review the Career information at CollegeGrad.com to find out more about a variety of careers, including average wages on a national level. Then you simply need to make an adjustment for local wages, either up or down, depending on the local cost of living factor.
And, in the end, keep in mind that salary is only one number in the larger overall total compensation package. You need to weigh salary along with other monetary items (bonus, stock, etc.) and non-monetary (benefits, vacation time, etc.) to analyze the total package.
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