“Don’t be the first to say a number.”
For as long as I’ve been a software engineer this has been the prevailing salary negotiation advice. Avoid telling a potential employer how much you want before they tell you how much they want to pay. Potential employers want your number first to low-ball you. You want their number first to maximize your compensation. If the company magically offers you more than you would have asked for, you’ve “won.”
But you are not a substitutable good to be sold at the lowest price and potential employers shouldn’t need to be tricked into paying you fairly. This is a zero-sum game where only the confident — aggressive — survive. It’s dehumanizing and disadvantages many already-marginalized candidates. Why can’t we just be honest and expect to be fairly compensated?
Asking for a raise has massive financial repercussions. A one-time $5,000 increase can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) over the course of your career, according to the calculations in Ramit Sethi’s Ultimate Guide to Getting a Raise & Boosting Your Salary. The overlooked corollary is that being underpaid by $5,000 one year costs you the same amount. Accepting a low-balled salary is expensive.
One of the tactics employers use to bait candidates into “saying a number first” is to ask for salary history. If a potential employer makes you an offer based on your salary history, that $5,000 deficit increases exponentially and snowballs at each comp increase. You deserve the chance to correct compensation deficits at your current and every future job opportunity.
This is why states like New York and California, among others, have banned salary history questions and/or banned employers from using salary history when considering a compensation package. Your salary should be based on local salaries for comparable work, your level within that role, and how badly the employer wants you. You are not legally or ethically required to disclose your salary history to current or potential employers, nor should you.
Just don’t do it. If you live in one of states or cities that has banned salary history questions, you’re set. However, if you live somewhere that has not yet banned salary history questions or the law hasn’t taken effect yet, you still don’t have to/should not answer that question. Here are some things you can do instead:
- If salary history is required on the job application put zero or $1. Don’t lie. Enter something that obviously means you declined to answer. Bonus points if you tell this potential employer why they should remove that question from their application.
- If you are asked directly redirect the conversation to market rate. Interviews are stressful and if you aren’t prepared it may seem easier just to answer. Practice your canned response in advance so that it comes naturally and you don’t have to think about it. Try “I don’t feel comfortable sharing that information. Salaries in this area for this role are X. What is the salary band offered for this role?”
You should always know what people are making in your city for the same work that you do when you go into an interview. There are a few places you can look for salary information at the bottom of this post.
If you know local salary numbers and you want to be more active in the compensation discussion from the beginning you can say a number first. You can say the number you want regardless of your current salary. You can do this with recruiters or you can just use Hired (full disclosure: this is my referral link).
Hired is a recruiting platform where “companies apply to interview you with the salary details upfront.” Because you list your desired salary up front it does the dirty work of filtering out companies who are not willing to pay you enough in the first place and it puts your expectations and the company’s offerings up front. And it doesn’t bind you — you still have the opportunity to negotiate for more later. I’ve used Hired successfully for my previous two job searches. I had two different experiences with salary negotiations.
In 2018, Hired connected me with Director of Talent for a DC travel startup, Hilliary Turnipseed (who now runs her own show and is actively hiring, tell her I sent you). She didn’t ask me about my previous salary (although it was a required field on the application and I entered $0). She asked me what number would excite me, regardless of what I had on my Hired profile. I had under-valued myself on my profile as advised by my Talent Rep at Hired. They thought it would give me more options. It was lower than what I was currently making and I knew I would have to negotiate. Asking what would excite me made it easy for me to do this (take note, recruiters). I explained this and asked for more.
Last month I went returned to Hired hoping to repeat my experience. This time I put a salary on my profile that I was excited about. It was the shortest job search of my life and it was my top choice from day one. When it came time to discuss comp, the hiring manager acknowledged that these conversations are uncomfortable (another pro-tip for recruiters, comp discussions don’t have to be confrontational). I confirmed that the number on my profile was exactly what I wanted. Done.
I love my new job. Find us at Mix.com.
Whatever your comfort level, you deserve to be paid fairly. You can set yourself up for success even if the hiring manager/recruiter doesn’t. Know the numbers, practice your responses, and remember that you deserve to be paid fairly and to correct compensation deficits. You got this. Good luck!
Not sure where to find salary information in your area? Glassdoor.com, Salary.com, and Hired’s State of Salaries Report are a few of the places to start. While you’re at it, read Ramit’s entire Ultimate Guide to Getting a Raise & Boosting Your Salary.
Are you a hiring manager or recruiter? Check your job application and remove any salary history questions. Ensure that none of the interviewers are asking for salary history. Make the compensation discussion as easy as possible for the candidate. It’s in your best interest for them to feel completely comfortable so that you can both get what you want.