Something I enjoy - A LOT - is helping people negotiate, particularly for software engineering jobs, particularly if they are early-career or coming from a different background. To people in other fields, or new to this field, some of the stories I have from negotiating software engineering jobs sound made up. You got what!? They offer what kind of signing bonus!? They're paying what to mid-level people!??? I personally am of the belief that the boom times will not last forever, so I try to encourage people to seize the moment of the particularly competitive job market we find ourselves in.
As a disclaimer, I live in the US and that's also where I recruited except for one weird assignment in the Kingdom of Bahrain. Other countries are of course, different with different markets/salaries than what I may mention.
Part I: Get Your Mind Right
Your negotiation stance is a collection of beliefs, behaviors, and boundaries that starts far before you have received a job offer. Sometimes I see new people say "I'm open ended on salary for my first job, I really just need the experience".
They aren't wrong - a single year of experience in software engineering can be leveraged almost immediately into a 10, 20, 30k raise, perhaps more. But this approach is still slightly flawed.
It is good to have some flexibility if the ends justify the means. But I encourage you not to limit yourself here. The biggest reason for that is that you are negotiating not just for current you, but future you.
Scenario: you get offered a really great position at a very entry level salary. You join and it is everything you wanted, your skills grow phenomenally and you love the org and team. But within one year, that entry level salary adjusted 3% for cost of living is far beneath your skills. It is too irresistible to leave 20k plus on the table, so you leave after a year although you'd have liked to stay.
Negotiating aggressively is betting on yourself, and how much your new job will be a great fit for you for a long time. You owe it to yourself to set the tone with a salary you'd be happy with for a long while.
This is not limited to new people. I also see experienced people who have stayed with an employer say, the past five years vastly underestimate how much salaries have exploded over the past couple of years.
If you go into the job hunt with an undefined sense of what you should aim for, someone else will try to define it for you. What's worse, sometimes a sense of "sunk cost fallacy" will mean we go farther in interview processes than we should even though our spider-sense tells us this job may not be right. Defining your salary goal and your hard limits as part of your negotiation mindset up front can save you a lot of interviews, and who likes those!
Part II: Things to Figure Out Way Before the Offer
Average and stretch goal salary: anecdata, a lot of people I know job hunting in 2021 were starting from about 125 base, hoping for 150 and with a stretch goal of 180. The collective experience of people I know in that boat was that getting to 160 was surprisingly doable, and that everyone was giving out signing bonuses like candy. Some of these conversations happened in developer communities, and I have no doubt people on the sidelines at 125 that had been seeking 145 adjusted accordingly based on what they heard.
Benefit hard limits: I fell into this trap at one point. Entertained a role with under three weeks PTO. The farther I got into the process, the more I realized that amount of PTO worried me, especially in the time of COVID. It wound up being a dealbreaker. I honestly wasted everyone's time and went through a lot of stressful interviews I could have skipped by not knowing that limit sooner
Tech stack hard limits: Another one I speak from from experience. I would have not thought this mattered to me, but at a certain point I realized I didn't want to walk away from Python and start over with something else
Interview hard limits: Is this related to negotiation? Technically yes. It makes perfect sense to be willing to do a stupid amount of interviews to make Google money, but otherwise nope out.
Your real current comp value: Consider that imaginary tech workers Joe and Sarah both make 200k. Joe has three weeks vacation while Sarah has six. Sarah is actually in the grand scheme of things compensated annually ~$11,640 more than Joe for her time. Does your work have a tuition program? 401k match? Commuter benefits? If you need a nudge to ask for a big scary number, sit down and consider EVERYTHING you currently have.
Where the Job Lands: Before you even get to the negotiation stage, you want a reasonable assurance that the negotiation could result in an offer you'd take. So that means getting baseline information on comp, benefits, and other hard-line items like (for example) remote work if that's important to you.
Part III: Negotiation Time
Negotiation is not a one time event. If you think about it (not to get too meta) life is a series of negotiations. We are constantly negotiating the place we hold in the world and how people treat us.
People are trained to think that a job is something you compete for, that employers have the power in the equation. Or if people don't think that, they think that power in negotiation comes from competing offers only, and otherwise they don't have much leverage.
I once heard it said that in romantic relationships, whoever is more willing to leave has more power. The same is true for negotiation. So your power in negotiation can come from:
- Willingness to stay at your current job until the right thing comes along
- Willingness to leave a current job and job-hunt full time if you are underpaid and they won't approve a raise
- In demand skill set
- Knowledge that the market is tight
- Awareness that the role you are being offered has been unfilled for a while
- Niche domain knowledge
- Willingness to say no, no matter what
I encourage you to say no early and often. No to interview processes that are long and arduous if you don't know if the pay is worth it. No to recruiter conversations if they won't reveal the pay range or benefits. You are never obligated to finish an interview process just because you started it.
Talking Early Numbers
Companies are all over the map in terms of talking salary. I've seen recruiters send me the range in the very first cold email, I've had people who would have me pry the information out of their cold dead fingers only after I'd signed my life away. It can be hard to develop a consistent system of salary boundaries when recruiters are so all over the place. Below is my advice for some common pit-stops in the early negotiation process.
Applicant system where salary is a required field: Put 0 or n/a depending on what the form allows. Nice try recruiters!
First Call/Desired Salary: Much like jobseekers are trained not to give away numbers, some recruiters are too. Some will say they are flexible for the right person, or pay "market rate", or that the pay depends on where you fall in the company leveling guide, which they can only tell you after more interviews. In general it is worthwhile to play this game, using phrases like:
- "I can be a little flexible for the right role, but could I ask the general budget?"
- "I've honestly been seeing ranges all over the place in my current job search and it is going to depend a little bit on the total benefit and comp package. Can you tell me anything about that?"
- "You know, I just started my job hunt and haven't really had a chance to crunch the numbers on the going rate for my experience. If you have an idea for this role though I can work on that and get back to you with something firm"
It is possible to be completely likeable while denying the recruiter the information that they want. Don't feel bad, they're used to it.
First Call/Current Salary: For starters, be aware if your state prevents this question being asked. But don't fret, even if you aren't in one of those states we aren't going to answer. My personal favorite is to say "I think that comp details are actually covered by my NDA" (Non-Disclosure Agreement). Totally out of your hands! Some people will share things like that they currently are underleveled and are changing roles to get a salary more in alignment with their expertise. To me, that's overkill, and shares that you may be in a vulnerable negotiating position as you are currently underpaid. My advice, is keep it simple, and make a third party (NDA) the bad guy in why you can't share the information. Others will advise you to answer "I'm not really comfortable discussing it". I like that answer less, because it's a job hunt - obviously money will come up. It seems disingenuous, and imo less like you are interested in cooperating with them. Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but that's my honest opinion.
Verbal Offer Stage
A lot of companies do this thing where they will want to get a baseline agreement on the numbers before drafting up an offer letter. As someone who has had to edit zillions of offer letters after negotiations changed the base pay, I sympathize with this impulse.
That being said, if you are wondering when to start negotiating hard, verbal offer is a great time! And also a dangerous one.
Dangerous, because sometimes the details of the verbal offer miss critical information, or in your excitement it is hard to keep the details you are being told straight. Two examples from my own life of verbal negotiation misfires:
- I once thought an offer included stock grants instead of stock options - one would have been free stock, the other is just an agreement to let me buy stock
- I once named my asking salary as 1-1-5 (verbally) and I think the recruiter misheard because the offer came back at 1-5-5 (not kidding!)
Takeaway: get the written offer as soon as you can. It is fine to say "So far this is sounding reasonable but I will want to see everything in writing". If there is one thing you read about negotiation (other than this post, of course) it should be this fabulous article. The author, Haseeb Qureshi, says something to the effect of "not being the decision maker". I love this idea! I am single but I always borrow the line "let me run it all by my family". The recruiter just doesn't know that means my pitbull.
Written offer & getting to the finish line
At this point, maybe you are sick of negotiation. You may have already negotiated several times just for this job! But hey, you're almost done.
You might wonder, "How long/hard can I negotiate at the offer stage? Aren't things pretty final?"
Well, let me tell you about a Project Manager candidate I was once responsible for recruiting. She managed to get something like 50k additional comp after negotiations were already down to the wire. (As the recruiter, it was SO STRESSFUL haha). So anything is possible.
That said, to paraphrase the fabulous article I mentioned earlier, companies are motivated to negotiate by believing that you are winnable. If you have too many "volleys" of back and forth, they may start to believe you are just leveraging them against another offer or not really interested in the role. If I had to give a completely random rule of thumb here, probably more than three volleys on the main stuff (base pay, stock, bonuses) may start to seem like you are not interested.
You can save yourself some rounds of back and forth by making the first volley a significant ask. There is something called the anchoring effect which describes the phenomena that humans tend to be unduly influenced by early information. Basically in this scenario, it means that the point of reference becomes your negotiation point instead of theirs. They may be inclined to try to "split the difference". This is the most common response I saw in recruiting to negotiation.
- We offer 85k, candidate asks for 100, we come back with 93
- We offer 120k, candidates asks for 150, we come back with 135
And on and on. So a big bold number here sets the stage for what "meeting in the middle" looks like. If you want a paraphrased version of what I usually say here, following the Habeeb article about being winnable, it is something like this:
I'm incredibly excited about the idea of joining the team. I know that with my background in a and b, I can make an immediate impact on projects d, e and f. I'm confident that we can find something that works for everyone, but because I am looking at multiple offers I wanted to know if x is possible. If the pay could be x, I can sign on immediately.
Why those elements?
- Communicate that I'm winnable
- Remind them of the value they see in me
- Take the adversarial element of negotiation away by reminding them you are motivated to find something mutually beneficial ("works for everyone")
- Give them a specific end state ("could sign on immediately")
And boom! That's it. Cradle to grave, that's how I approach negotiation.
Gotchas and special cases
Q) What if the place has strict salary bands?
A) Some places really do, some don't. Still negotiate. Unfortunately, I have heard of numerous cases where people are told this to find out exceptions can be made but just weren't for them. Also, you can sometimes negotiate to be brought in at a higher title. I saw this happen all the time as a recruiter. No joke.
Q) What if the place says they don't negotiate?
A) Same answer as above, sometimes that is entirely made up. If they stick to it, it is your call whether it is worth proceeding.
Q) Can I negotiate other things than salary?
A) YES! You can also negotiate an earlier time to revisit your salary than annually if it is lower than you want. While you can negotiate things like conference budget, bonuses, etc there are certain things that are harder than others. Many companies I know do not vary on PTO. It is difficult to track if it is irregular between employees and could cause resentment if it came to light that someone got more.
Another one I would get asked a lot by veterans was if salary could be increased if they don't need healthcare. Usually, the answer is no since if someone changed their mind at any time, the workplace still would be on the hook to provide healthcare.
Aside from those two items, the sky is the limit though!
Q) Can my offer be revoked for negotiating?
A) Actually...yes. There is actually a lot of bad information out there on this. People say "Oh that never happens!" as if it is that simple.
It has happened - to me. After being a recruiter for years. So not someone approaching the negotiation in an insulting way, naturally. I know other people it has happened to. Most all of them were part underrepresented groups in tech.
The bottom line here is yes sometimes it happens although it is very rare, but it is not something that you should let stop you from negotiating. As upsetting as it is when it happens, it is a blessing - it is the reddest of red flags about that org. Run, do not walk away from that place.
Q) What if neither party budges in the game of don't-name-a-number chicken?
A) I tend to throw out a ridiculous number to get them to talk, bonus points for a bafflingly huge range. It usually gets a reaction out of them but also doesn't give much information away. Example: you expect the job to pay 60k, but the recruiter and you keep going back and forth in the won't-name-a-number dance. Eventually you give up and say "I'm seeing 80-120 for these types of roles". The recruiter will likely balk and blurt out something that tells you where they are out of surprise.
So that's it! That's just about everything I would want someone to know when approaching negotiation. If I can encourage you to do anything it is to make yourself comfortable with the process, whether using any of my tips helps you feel prepared or reading from other sources does. It doesn't have to be adversarial, it can be something really positive, and it certainly shouldn't be built up to be this magical thing only certain people can do. Go forth and negotiate!
And if I missed any Q & A topics you would like covered, feel free to drop them in the comments and I may add them to the post.
Top comments (4)
It might help to add the currency and markets. Reading "30k" we might think of thirty thousand EUR before finding a dollar sign later in the post. There has been some recent discussion about wages on twitter, it often depends on the cities and countries, wether it's remote, full-time, permanent etc. Even moving from the Netherlands to Germany seems to make much of a difference for some people looking for jobs in information technology.
I'd say take 30-50% off if you're in Europe, that's the part your employer pays into the social systems that simply do not exist in the US (like healthcare, pension, disability, unemployment, ...)
Yeah excellent point, I did go ahead and add something to note my frame of reference - I know the US salaries can sound very strange to folks in other parts of the world
This was good info.