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Two Numbers You Need to Know Before Negotiating Salary

There are two numbers that you need to know before going into a job negotiation.

Here's a common scenario: after completing an interview on-site loop the day before, the recruiter calls you up today with some exciting news:

Everyone loved talking with you yesterday! I'm so excited to offer you the position. The base pay is $120,000. We've got some great benefits and perks at MoneyCorp. I'll email you the paperwork tonight. What start date would you like?

Congratulations! You got the job.

It's easy to feel happy at receiving an offer, and it's easy to get carried away reflecting the recruiter's excitement back at them, especially if you've been socialized to do so.

However, just because you're being positive about receiving the offer, that doesn't mean you have to be positive about accepting it. It can feel that way, like a train that's going too fast to stop. Before you know it, you're talking about the start date and wondering if you missed your chance to negotiate.

You can wait for the written offer, and then ask to chat -- it's never too late to negotiate until you sign the contract -- but sometimes offers are less flexible once they're virtually typeset, and the extra time doesn't buy you much.

That first "verbal offer" chat with the recruiter is the perfect opportunity to ask questions, explore the possibilities you have in mind, and see if you can find some kind of overlap that works for both of you.

There are two numbers you need to figure out in order to properly negotiate. Since the negotiation is bound to be an overwhelming and stressful experience, you need to figure out those two numbers before the negotiation begins, while you can still think clearly.

Happy Number

The first number you need to know is your happy number. This is the salary you want to ask for. The salary you would feel great about receiving, and would accept without disappointment.

Minimum Number

The second number you need to know is the minimum salary you would accept to take this job. This is the salary you would walk away from.

Knowing your minimum ahead of time is very important because there are situations in the negotiation where you might use more consequential language and close a door that is difficult to re-open.

You don't want to be second-guessing yourself or coming up with a minimum number on the spot during the negotiation.

So how do you figure out these numbers?

1. Internet

The first source, which you're probably familiar with because you're reading this post, is to search the internet.

Glassdoor is one such resource. is another one.

There are also anonymous spreadsheets floating around like this one and this one.

If you have other sources, leave a comment and I'll add them to the list here so that other people can make use of them and share their own salaries.

I also recommend looking up companies that have transparent pay, especially if they come with a pay calculator like GitLab and buffer.

A pay calculator shows you how various factors such as years of experience, role specifics and geography impact salary. For example, you can look up what would you get paid for living in Seattle vs. San Francisco, or for being mid-level vs. senior-level.

Every company and situation is a unique snowflake, so the calculator can't always tell you exactly what your happy number should be, but it can help you understand how to weight specific factors, which can help you make sense of not-quite-apples-to-apples numbers from other sources.

2. People

Another great resource are the people around you. Ask for advice from friends, mentors and your network. See if you can get in touch with current and past employees of the company that you're hoping gives you an offer.

Ask people about everything: salary, signing bonus, yearly bonus, vacation, equity, things you don't know to ask about but should. Some people aren't comfortable revealing their exact compensation details, but will happily tell you ballpark or describe generally what to expect.

Maybe you're part of a professional network like a Facebook group or a slack community where you can also ask peers at other companies what they recommend.

You could also talk to a negotiation coach like Adam and I. We're always happy to respond to emails and give advice.

3. Recruiter

Don't forget that the recruiter or hiring manager -- or whoever is going to be the person delivering your offer -- is another good resource. You probably had a conversation with them earlier in your candidacy in which you discussed compensation expectations and the pay range for this role. This role-specific information is useful context.

Note that none of these data sources is the truth unless the company is fully transparent about their policies and about pay. Maybe it's the truth, or maybe compensation is influenced by a large and inscrutably complicated corporate machine. Or maybe the decision will get made by a single individual with somewhat arbitrary if not outright biased thought patterns. Maybe you will hear the bittersweet music of a recruiter saying "there are no exceptions," followed a short while later with, "we made an exception."

Input is invaluable when figuring out your numbers, but input is not truth.

4. You

The truth is that these two numbers -- why you want to ask for, and what you would walk away from -- are totally up to you.

There is no right or wrong answer.

The answer was in you the whole time.

You are the only person who has to feel good about these numbers, because you are the one who has to live with the outcome.

If you're trying to figure out your numbers right now, and would like some advice, send me an email with a job description, any other useful context, and your numbers:

Next week, I'm going to talk about how to do the negotiation itself. It'll be the last post in this "general job negotiation advice" series, and then I will move on to other topics like preparing for technical interviews, and answering whatever questions y'all send in.

Brought to you by Adam Dangoor and Lusen Mendel, the team behind candidates who kick butt.

☆ Online compensation resources ☆
☆ Glassdoor:
☆ Coding school graduate spreadsheet:
☆ Mega salary spreadsheet:
☆ Gitlab pay calculator:
☆ Buffer pay calculator:


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