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Cover image for Q: What is your salary expectation? A: I don't have one, make me an offer!

Q: What is your salary expectation? A: I don't have one, make me an offer!

jmfayard profile image Jean-Michel Fayard πŸ‡«πŸ‡·πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΈπŸ‡¨πŸ‡΄ ・Updated on ・9 min read

Last time, I told you what I think about the question "What is your current salary?".

Let's talk now about a very different beast, the question about your salary expectations.

TL;DR

If you are at risk of being underpaid, I think your goal should be to let the company make you an offer first. You should focus on not shooting yourself in the foot, and a safe strategy to do that is to dodge the question of salary expectation until you have an offer.

There is a lot to unpack, so let's get started!

This advice is for devs at risk of being underpaid

I told a friend of mine about this strategy I am about to describe. Her answer:

Interesting, but, I wouldn't do that. You know, I worked in sales before. I'm a project manager and I'm used to crushing numbers and talking about money. That's part of my professional skills actually!"

That makes a lot of sense, my strategy is not relevant at all for her.

If there was a universal strategy for handling salary negotiations, then it would be a universal formula that everyone could apply. It follows that salary negotiations would not be necessary anymore. That would be great, but it's obviously not the case. So let me narrow down.

My target users in this article are the developers at risk of being or staying underpaid.

Maybe I should not write this in a public article, but I don't actually care about using the most advanced negotiation tricks to maximize my salary. Once I'm paid a fair salary, I put more value in working with colleagues who are smart and nice.

On the other hand, I care deeply about not being underpaid. Not only that, but I also care about my colleagues not being underpaid. Let's avoid those awkward conversations at the water cooler. By extension, I wish that you, my readers, to not be underpaid.

Being underpaid sucks, and not only for material reasons. Let's admit that you don't need money because you live with your parents, or your wife earns more than you. Fine. That would still suck, because if you are underpaid, your skills and opinions would also be under-valued. Most companies work implicitly with the assumption that the Highest Paid Personal Opinion is the best. You don't want to work at a place where your voice will not be heard.

Who is at risk of being underpaid?

Here are some criteria:

  • You have a history of being underpaid - see "What is your current salary?".
  • You struggle with imposter syndrome, feels not legitimate.
  • You think your future boss will do you a favor if he hires you, instead of seeing a recruitment as a mutually beneficial transaction.
  • You haven't done salary negotiations since a long time... or ever!
  • You don't really know the salary range for people like you, or worse, you think you know but your numbers are wrong.
  • You are uncomfortable talking about money. "When the money question comes up I either go blank or panic. You probably have a lot of experience with that subject but for me it's terrifying" (see comment).
  • You have never negotiated an offer after you received one, the companies where you worked always proposed you more than you asked for.
  • Your economic situation is not great, you really need this job or else...
  • You are not good bragging about your accomplishments.
  • Or simply you are a woman and under the influence of the gender gap.

Given those circumstances, you are at risk of being underpaid. Because you are likely to shoot yourself in the foot during the salary negotiation. And remember that the negotiation starts the minute you give a first number.

Goal

Your goal is to let the company make you an offer first.

Strategy

Your strategy is surprisingly simple.

The company will ask for your salary expectation.

That's perfectly normal and there is no way around it.

But you have the right to doge the question.

Do not negotiate against yourself.

You have power, your willingness to work at that company. Or to deny them your labor.

(Thank you Phil Lembo)

At that point, you may ask yourself: how the hell do I dodge that question?

Tactics

There are lots of ways you can dodge the question, when asked about your salary expectation.

It doesn't really matter how you do it.

What's important is that you commit to not answering.

So let's talk tactics:

What's your salary expectation?

You could just be transparent and ask the company to make you an offer.

At the best companies it could work, but probably it's a stretch.


If you feel confident, you can also return the question

I don't know, what's the budget for this position?


Here is the recommended answer from John Dosh who wrote the book on the subject: Fearless Salary Negotiation

"I don’t have a specific number in mind for a desired salary, and you know better than I do what value my skillset and experience could bring to your company. I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation".

This answers works because:

  • You don't give a specific number
  • You earn time
  • It's true, the company would not have a job opening if it had not decided on a budget already
  • It's true, the compensation depends on what kind of responsibility you will have, so what not nail that down first?

Here is a good line recommended by @recursivefaults

β€œI’m more interested in finding out if we’re a good fit for one another. If we are, I promise we’ll find a number that we both like.”

This answer works because

  • You don't give a specific number
  • You earn time
  • It's true, the focus of any step of the hiring process should be to see whether there is a good mutual fit
  • It's simpler, if the previous answer is uncomfortable for you

Here is another valid one from @fullstackcafe

"Thank you for that question. Hey, I'm just an engineer, I'm sure you know the market better than me, so I trust you to evaluate my skill set first and if we are a great fit to circle back to that topic".

This answer works because:

  • You don't give a specific number and you earn time - yep, you got the idea now
  • It's true, lots of engineers rarely talk about money. Maybe every three years when they change jobs. Contrast that with the company who should Always Be Hiring.

And now my personal favorite:

Recruiter: What is your salary expectation?
You: "I don't have one".
Recruiter: (blank)
You: (blank)
Recruiter: But at least a range no? I need a number to continue.
You: "Look, I know you want to be fair. You have salary ranges for employees with a given skillset and responsibility, right? I don't want to be paid less than everybody else. I don't want to be paid more than everybody else. Just give me something in the middle."

This works because:

  • The company will have a hard time saying: "No, we want to be unfair and pay you less than everybody else". And the very hypothetical case that they do, the advice applies that "You don't want to work here".
  • The company is reassured that I will be fine with a salary expectation in the right ballpark that they have budgeted. The process can continue.
  • Still, you didn't give a specific number and earned time.

❓Can I really do that?

Yes.

It won't work everywhere, but you only need to be hired at one company.

❓Saying those answer feels awkward

Yes.

That's a sign you need to suck less at salary negotiation, and the only 3 ways to do that is to practice, practice. and practice

❓Should companies ask for salary expectations?

Yes, of course.

A company cannot have a job opening without budgeting it.

Let say unlike me, mediocre developer, you have refined your skills so much that you are now a 10x developer.

If you push that fact to its logical conclusion, you should ask for a 10x salary.

(I'm joking, but if you do that, definitely tell me how it worked out!).

Now, obviously, you are way outside the budget that was planned for this position.

Is the company ready to give you that 10x salary?

Maybe yes, but probably not.

Continuing the hiring process with you would only waste everyone's time.

❓ Why not anchoring the salary expectation with a high number ?

Anchoring is a powerful technique when done right. Therefore it's often recommended to just say a high number, that will serve as a basis for further discussion.

In my opinion, anchoring is more risky than Just shut up and be happily surprised !.

Anchoring is good if you anchor it to the "right" number.
If you anchor too high, it will raise a red flag at the company and may cost you the job.
If you anchor too low, you are doing self-sabotage.
Also you cannot fake being confident talking about money. They will feel your stress, they definitely felt mine.

By just shutting up, you are safe in all cases and get the stress of getting the number right out of the way.

Another issue is that you would typically do the anchoring at the start of the hiring process instead of earning time.

❓Why is it important to earn time?

Giving up your salary expectation on the first call with an HR person is especially bad, because at that point the company has invested very little in you.

You are a random candidate in their job board.

As the interview process goes forward, if there is a good mutual fit, your perceived value will raise. They now know you. They like you. They want you.

❓ Does that mean I don't have to do my homework?

Nope, do invest some time learning about the typical salaries in your area.

Knowing your happy number and your walk-away number will strengthen your position.

You don't have to tell them though.

How you research salaries is another topic. Everyone knows about https://www.salary.com/ and https://www.glassdoor.com/, and by any means use them, but I am not sure how much I trust them. It seems to me that there is a big selection bias.

A complementary tactic that worked well for me was simply to... text 3 friends in our sector and ask for their opinion. "Hey, I am interviewing at XX. How much do you think I should ask?"

❓ I got an offer, what do I do now?

First: congrats.

Ask them to send you a written offer.

At that point, you may decide to make a counter-offer.

(Personally I didn't, but it's your right to do so).

Read more: Counter your job offer with this counter offer calculator and salary negotiation script

❓ Won't the company takes advantage of me if I say nothing?

Possible but unlikely.

Hopefully if you come far enough to have an offer, you are at a good company that wants you.

There is the pressure of the job market, they know you are interviewing at other companies that may make you an offer that match the market.

You know your walk-away number and happy number and are allowed to negotiate the offer.

❓Is there a way we could avoid this game altogether?

Yes.

My dream would be that more companies dare to be like Buffer.

Buffer is a big proponent of salary transparency. They have a Transparent Salary Calculator and even publish the salaries from every employee, up to the CEO.

Imagine how less stressful it would be to have the salary negotiation out of the way, because there is a formula for it!

I think lots of developers would love such a deal.

In fact when Buffer first publishes its salary calculator, they got a huge amount of candidates who wanted to apply.

Companies, if you have a hard time hiring, maybe try to be bold like Buffer!

πŸ“š Where do I Go from Here?

Patrick McKenzie aka patio11 has written an incredibly liberating article on salary negotiation. You will not see the world the same way after you read it:

https://www.kalzumeus.com/2012/01/23/salary-negotiation/


Read the book Fearless Salary Negotiation. Josh Doody not only wrote a very insightful book on the subject, but he also published it for free on the internet.

https://fearlesssalarynegotiation.com/book/


If you want to learn more about negotiations in general, the best book on the subject is probably Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond from Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman. This book proposes both amazing stories and a very practical framework to understand how negotiation work, and is just a delightful read.

Discussion

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bloodgain profile image
Cliff

Yes, yes, yes, 100%!

You're going to be afraid that this won't work somehow, but don't be. You might get the occasional recruiter who acts astonished that you won't give them a number, but it's usually an act. For one thing, companies are well aware that we smart enginerding types have clued in on the information disparity inherent in salary negotiations and don't want to share our salary history -- which should be irrelevant, anyway -- and are beginning to expect them to make a "fair" offer first.

I've actually gotten less pushback from this excellent strategy than I did using the "anchoring" strategy of starting with a high number. And I didn't get much pushback on that strategy, either, because the recruiters and HR knew exactly what I was doing and why. The thing is, it doesn't matter that they know, the strategies work even when the other party is aware of them.

Also, I have to ask this question in phone screens, but I'm always hoping the candidate will dodge it. Few do. Some of them have a good idea what the market rate is. Some of them ask a little higher, either to anchor or because they think they are excellent candidates -- and they often are; we get some really good ones. But some ask for way, WAY too little. As in, they should probably be asking for nearly twice as much. Or better yet, keep their mouths shut and be pleasantly surprised! Very often, these turn out to be weaker candidates who were already on the fence. Majorly undervaluing your worth and showing that card can actually hurt your chances, too!

If I haven't lost you yet, let me offer a couple of real-life stories that prove you have a lot more power and room to negotiate than you think:

1) A coworker/friend was interviewing with a company in town that wanted him because he had lots of experience and a great track record. They were known for recruiting high-end talent and paying well. A friend that used to work with us was also interviewing with them. They were both pretty likely to get an offer. My coworker made 2 requests between being told they wanted to make him an offer and getting it in writing: I want -- negotiable -- and you have to hire both of us -- non-negotiable. They agreed immediately to make them both non-competing offers, but said we can't do , but we can do and put you on a fast-track to raise that and add bonuses. The other friend got a similar offer. Both accepted.

2) When I was working with my current company about an offer, I said that I would rather let them to make an offer first. No problem. They came in with an OK number, but it wasn't quite worth leaving my existing position, as I was expecting a promotion with a small boost soonish. So I told them that I had noticed a recent uptick in engineering salaries in our area that I expected to continue and that I was in no hurry to leave my current position, so I needed an offer at least 10% higher. Boom, done, no problem. I accepted, but we ran into some issues between their closing contract negotiations with prime contractors and some personal life things for me, so I ended up pulling out of the offer a couple months later (I was expecting some delay in starting). About 8 months after their original offer, they reached back out again saying they had immediate job openings, no need to reinterview, and they were ready to make an offer that started on my schedule. I requested a $5K sign-on bonus this time and a 2 week gap between the jobs. They gladly met that, and also added another 2.5% to the salary without me asking since it had been over 6 months. I accepted and started in November. In December, I received a small pay bump with everyone else when their rates adjusted, plus a Christmas bonus, and I got a small performance bonus in February. The next year, I got a 7.5% raise, Xmas bonus, and an even better performance bonus since I'd been there longer. So clearly, I had not pushed them hard at all on my salary offer. And this is a small company that had 85 people when I first talked to them. We had 150-160 a little over 2 years later, which we've kind of hovered at (because 2020), and I'm on the interview team. Our turnover is near the bottom of the industry. People want to work for us, and they still negotiated with me.

Now, in the first case, we're talking guys with 15-20 years of experience here with solid histories in my industry. They had all the leverage. In my case, it's a Master's and 10+ years (at the time), but I did not have significantly more leverage than anyone else except they scouted me (through LinkedIn), I have a well-written resume, and the competition for all types of engineering talent in my area had been hot for a couple of years (and remains so). You have slightly less leverage if you're a new grad, but you're going to get a standard offer from most companies. Sometimes I'll just skip the salary question and make the recruiter do it if he insists. But even if you've just got 2-3 years in with even 1 solid contribution on your resume, you have a plenty of room to negotiate!

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Cesar Aguirre

Great article, thanks. Often, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot because of rushed salary expectations. Yeah, I would like to see more transparency around salaries in all companies and clear path on how to get to the next stage

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Eric Smith

I really like this article. I'm curious - what is the evidence that these techniques work? I've tried them before - a little - and what I usually get is "yes but you have to put something down." The HR person won't take no for an answer.

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Cliff

They will take no for an answer, trust me. If they won't, you probably don't want to work for them, because if they won't be flexible with people they're trying to recruit, how do you want to bet they treat employees? That said, if you're really pressed and have to, go in with a decent idea of what you should get, then give them a number significantly higher. This is a well-proven negotiation strategy called "anchoring". If they say "that seems kind of high," say "Well, I'm negotiable on that, but I'd have to see an offer with the full benefits package and everything included to decide." I've had companies offer me nearly $20K less than my "requested salary" when I used this tactic, so it won't block an offer. But by starting high when pressed, you've set the negotiation around a higher target value, which is to your benefit.

One catch is on black-hole application systems that won't let you leave it blank. If you can put words, just say "negotiable". Otherwise put $0, because it's an obvious non-answer. If that's not allowed, try something else obviously dodging like $1, $1000, or $999999.

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Jean-Michel Fayard πŸ‡«πŸ‡·πŸ‡©πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§πŸ‡ͺπŸ‡ΈπŸ‡¨πŸ‡΄ Author

What is the evidence that these techniques work?

Experience

  • The experience of lots of people who have followed the tips from Patric MacKenzie and from fearlesssalarynegotiation.com/book/
  • Personal experience. I have those techniques in practice since the last two years and it did make a difference. Not the first times though, you have to practice to get better at it.

I also have a more theoretical answer. I wrote last an article Contributing to open-source is like dancing Tango where I explain that if you really want to master the dance, you have to practice and understand it as both a follower and a leader.

The same principle applies here. If you understand what happens on the hiring side, the tactics become obvious. Well of course if I want to create a job opening, I will decide for a budget for it. Of course I won't pay anyone less than my budget, and not much more either. Of course, if I'm a looking for someone good for months already, without success, I won't be mad because the candidate defends its right of negotiating its salary.

The book Fearless Salary Negotiation spends lots of time explaining how hiring works on the other side FYI.

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Paolo

This is helpful thank you. i just have one scenario that i personally encountered, they ask me " what is your currently salary" or "what is salary from your last job". i did answer this and i guess i made a mistake because if you are underpaid from your last job they will probably offer almost the same.

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scroung720

Great article Jean-Michel. It is nice to spread this knowledge. I really hate businesses that underpaid employees. There is an industry of people getting rich just because developers doesn't have this kind of information. This article is pretty important for every junior.

I have an interesting anecdote about this topic:
At some point of my career I was giving advice to a young programming consulting company. I was in the office of a big financial corp helping the guys who have outsourced job position. This big company was working with multiple consulting companies we knew guys from others companies. Eventually a new just graduated went into another team. Few months later we were talking about salaries. We realized he was getting paid x2 less than average and even with an extreme case of 5x less.

Here is where the plot twist goes this underpaid boy was relative of one director of the company. He told his relative the amount that he was getting paid and he told us that his relative told him that they were paying x12 was he was getting paying for each programmer in the team. What happened next big corp cancelled the contract with that specific consulting company and moved the boy to work with us.

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Jason

Personally I enjoy interviewing. The salary question ALWAYS comes up, it has to. There is no shame in asking β€˜whats the salary band/range for this position?’. If it becomes a game of chicken with β€˜you first!’. Then use the research that you’ve ALREADY DONE and state β€˜well what you’r asking for and market rate indicates to me a range of $X-$XX.’ If you have discovered that the range is $85-$95 but they will only go to $78? Do you really wanna work there?

But i need a job NOW!! I got bills to pay!! I get it, my @ss has been there too. But by God you create that 3-6 month rainy day fund and never put yourself in this situation again.

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Juan David Nicholls Cardona

Awesome tips, thanks for sharing mate! <3

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Abe Dolinger

Great followup, and you've started a wonderful conversation. Well done!

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