Surviving the Salary Negotiation Minefield
How to Say What You're Worth and Get Them to Pay It

By Vickie Elmer
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007

It's the question job-hunters want to dodge: "How much do you expect to earn?"

What if you answer with a number that's too high and rule yourself out? Or how about one that's too low, dooming you to a salary that's less than you could have received?

But interviewers keep asking, because they need to stay within budget or want to screen out applicants who are well outside an organization's targets.

So how to respond?

Try "an enthusiastic noncommittal answer that focuses on the opportunities," said Robin Polangin, a career and leadership coach at My Authentic Career in the District.

One approach she suggests: "Salary's only one part of my evaluation of how well this job fits my goals and career. What range did you have in mind?"

Or perhaps, "I'm very passionate about this job because . . . ," then fill in the reason. Follow with the confident assumption, "If we're the right fit, of course we're going to find the right salary," she said.

Ann Boland, an executive recruiter who co-chairs the D.C. chapter of the International Association of Corporate and Professional Recruitment, agrees with this approach.

"Your goal is to buy time to learn as much as you can before committing to a target salary. Even asking for 24 hours to give it some serious thought can give you enough time to run the numbers so you don't rule yourself out or sell yourself short," she said.

It's important to start with a good grasp of what your job commands in the market, said Dennis M. Sawyers, senior human resources consultant at Nonprofit Human Resources Solutions.

Browse job listings or look up data on salary or job hunting Web sites or through a trade organization's compensation surveys. Ask others in your field -- they may not tell you their salary but they will give you a range of what people earn.

Even armed with that knowledge, a candidate may want to turn tables and ask, "What is the range for the position?" Sawyers said. If that range is acceptable, indicate it and move on.

It also helps to know what your requirements really are. "Know your bottom line," Polangin said -- what you need to live comfortably or well and what compromises you'll make for the "ideal position." That salary range of your own will be helpful even if you never tell anyone else.

Some candidates may be tempted to pad their salary history so they can justify a higher starting pay. This is dicey at best because most employers will verify salaries -- and most applications have a line that says false information provided could be grounds for dismissal.

If you aim to go much higher than your current level -- or are willing to go much lower -- be clear about that, and why it is justified.

If you feel you're worth 20 percent more than what you earned at your last full-time salaried job, you're going to have to demonstrate your worth -- and that means showing proven results, Sawyers said. You also will want to be clear about how your talents will benefit the new organization and how your approach fits theirs.

For many candidates, health-care benefits, extra vacation or a "dynamic hiring manager" may be as important as a top-of-the-range salary. "It's not just a straight what-I-take-home figure," Sawyers said.

Still, in most situations, it pays to deflect any serious discussion of compensation and benefits until the end of whole process.

"You're more likely to negotiate a higher salary or extra benefits once they've decided you're the best candidate and have more invested in you," Polangin said. That's when the discussion can turn to a signing bonus or some other extras; it's also when you're more likely to reach that top-of-the-range salary.

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