On salary negotiations and talking to tech recruiters

How should you respond when a recruiter asks you the question you know is coming - “what salary are you looking for”? And other musings about salary negotiations for tech jobs based on real life experiences. This article is a brain dump on what I learned about salary negotiation over the years.

How do you handle the initial “pre-offer” discussions?

Well the answer is - it depends! If the question is asked before an offer is on the table, you have all the more reason to say you want to wait before talking about that. You want to delay until you know this is the right job for you. If an offer is on the table, it is a little more tricky to avoid the question. Before you have an offer, you could either:

  • (1) Say something like: “I am sure we will find a number that will work for both of us, and based on my interview performance I expect you will value my talent appropriately. I will wait for your number;”
  • (2) Give a number that aligns with your current compensation (note - it is illegal for recruiters to ask about current compensation in CA!);
  • (3) Shift the conversation to expectations instead of current compensation, after all your current compensation is only relevant if you are doing the same exact job for the same company. Your new role is different, and you are probably exploring a position with more responsibility. For example, you can ask about the culture of the company, the composition of the team, the role you would play.

Any variation of (1), (2) or (3) is fine!

Most of the time, they already have an offer prepared, and option (1) will lead them to that rapidly. Now this may make you feel like you are anchoring the conversation (low), but don’t be deterred. Anchoring is only a concept that I find relevant in bidding when the two parties are not able to communicate emotions and thoughts besides numbers; you can generally move away from the initial number easily. This is even more accurate because recruiters are generally able to work within a range, and they are not penalized for going to the top of their range (i.e., it probably isn’t worth it to them to lose you by refusing to move from the bottom of the range, when there is a whole middle ground where a deal could be reached).

If you went with (2), change the convo to (3) as soon as you can. With (3) you have a wide range of ways to expand the conversation and work together to reach an agreement. Finally if you want to get out of giving a number and disclosing your current compensation, read through the agreement in your current job’s offer and see if there is anything about confidentiality; there generally is. You can use that to support your position that you do not feel comfortable giving the recruiter a number.

What about when the recruiter finally presents you with their first offer?

When they finally give you specific numbers, acknowledge the offer and try to express appreciation (even if you may be initially disappointed). They worked hard with their compensation team to produce the offer. However, no matter what happens (even if you are over the moon), do not accept anything on the spot. No reasonable person would make a major life decision like that on the spot without thinking about it (unless maybe you are a fan of the show Married at First Sight !).

Consider that number, let it sink in, and don’t hesitate to introduce silence to think. Say that you will get back to them and at that point absolutely make sure that you have the information you need (in addition to the compensation) to make the decision, that includes:

  • Meeting the manager
  • Meeting the team
  • Meeting the XFN partners
  • Gathering data about the team (like team health surveys) -The company’s benefits package
  • If the equity is something you don’t understand well, get details about it and take the time to understand it, the value of the company and future prospects
  • The PTO policy, etc., especially anything that may differ from your current situation
  • The start date and all of its implications, notably: on (1) reviews, (2) bonuses, (3) raises, (4) vesting, and (5) refresher eligibility
  • The remote work opportunities - which is more important than ever before
  • The job title and level, and what that means for your career
  • And whatever else may be relevant and important to you personally!

After you have gathered all this information and had time to sit with the numbers, it is time for you to think about your current situation, this prospective situation, and where the number puts you in the future. Whether the number is in a range you are comfortable with or not, I would encourage you to push back.

The number one rule to remember is: the negotiation has not started until at least one person has said “no”! No can come in many forms, but some are more pernicious than others. Does “we don’t negotiate,” “we have a policy of giving only one offer,” “this is our final offer,” or “this is it,” actually mean no? Not necessarily, dig deeper, try to understand what is driving and supporting their statement.

During the conversation, someone needs to say “no”, otherwise it isn’t a negotiation

For example “we don’t negotiate,” could mean “we don’t negotiate anything … outside of standard bands for level to avoid creating inequity in the pay of our employees and make the workplace fair.” In which case you would have to know: (1) where you are in the band, (2) if there is room in the band, or (3) if you could be considered for another level / another band. Or it could just mean, we don’t negotiate on base compensation but we have flexibility on equity.

At this point the relationship you have built with the recruiter comes into play, because you need to have some level of trust so that you can both collaborate on the approach. You need to understand what constraints they are working with and help them build up your case. You should only consider accepting the offer once you are comfortable with the overall package. The threshold will depend from person to person, for me, to be comfortable with the result I need to feel like: (1) I am having a honest conversation with the recruiter (2) There is little to no room to negotiate further (3) The compensation reflects the value of my work, and I have compared the overall package with at least one other offer for a similar role that was in the same ballpark (4) The title seem fair for the value I would bring (since companies use different leveling and titles, the title could technically be lower than current position or other offer, as long as it seems fair)

Getting to this point may take back and forths, so the key is to remain patient and calm. The worst thing you can do is to make a rash decision and have to renege your offer (i.e., sign the offer and go back on your “promise”), or accept a lower offer and feel undervalued for your talent. Both of those will create animosity and are not a good outcome for either of the parties. You don’t want to build a reputation as someone who wastes the recruiter’s time and burn bridges with that employer or other employers, as word gets around.

Should you embellish numbers or info about competing offers?

It depends on your inclination towards lying and how badly you would feel about it. I personally think that it is both impractical and not necessary. Take into consideration that, when you lie about your current compensation or offers, you need to remember what you said for future conversations. The more complicated the compensation structure is and the farther your comp is from what you want, the more elaborate the lie will have to be.

This can become complicated, so if you are going to lie, at least do it right. Keep detailed notes about what you have shared and be consistent. Again my advice is just not to do it, it is easier to have to remember just one thing.

Would lying get me higher numbers?

Not necessarily! Especially due to the constraints tech recruiters are working with (see above). This may vary in other fields.

Do you really need a counter offer to get a higher number?

If you have one, yes, it can help reach a higher number, but you need to leverage it in the conversation. If you don’t have one, it depends on (1) the policy of the company (2) the relationship you have with the recruiter (3) the esteem they have for the job you hold and (4) if you are interested in lying.

Consider the following scenario: the company you are interested in tells you that the max offer they can give you without a competing offer from another company is $80k. If this is a firm policy and you have no counter offers, your best bet is to try to convince them that you have a good reason to bypass the policy. A way of framing that could be “I am really super interested in your company, and I didn’t think I needed to interview at all your competitors to get a fair offer. If that is what it takes I will do it, but it will take time. Do you mind if I talk to the hiring manager about that?” At this point, you can try to convince the hiring manager that it would be advantageous to start sooner, and get them to argue with the recruiter to bypass the policy, or offer a different level, etc.

If the policy is absolutely inflexible, and they have a ticking bomb offer that prevents you from interviewing anywhere else, then this company is probably not a place you would want to work at. You haven’t even started and they are already not ready to have a fair conversation about the comp and will not give you a fair chance to negotiate.

You can threaten to abandon the process, and I would recommend doing so if you can take the risk. Generally, they will bypass the policy at this point, or they might be too big to care about you.

Another angle to consider if you don’t have a counter offer is to get them to consider your current position as a counter offer. This only would make sense if your current position is in the same domain at a similar level, and the prospective employer respects your current company.

How do I use counter/competing offers in the process?

Some companies rely on competing offers to justify changing the offer they are making to candidates. Some go so far as to ask for proof of those counter offers. Disclosing offer details to other companies is generally prohibited by the NDA that you signed and asking you to provide proof of competing offers is urging you to break that contract. It also leads to price fixing by tech companies for the labor market. I systematically refuse to provide such proof and generally stop the conversation when that happens. I wouldn’t want to work at a company that pressures me to behave unethically before I even join!

If you are comfortable disclosing numbers from competing offers, maybe it will help the recruiter push for a better offer. Revealing your current compensation should be OK (check your contract), but California prohibits prospective employers from asking for it, so you would have to volunteer that information yourself.

At this point, you may be thinking that my approach of not sharing a lot is counterproductive, especially if you have great counter offers to leverage.

This is based on your individual circumstances and comfort level, so I would leave it up to you to decide what you are willing to share, and what you think is reasonable. You could give the recruiter a range? Refer to data online? But at the end of the day, the key detail to keep in mind is that every job is different, so it makes little sense to compare compensation reported online to your offers. You have to develop an understanding of the responsibilities, how they vary from job to job, and what the market is willing to pay for your talent. The better way to do this is to interview at multiple companies and get a feel for where you are leveled and how you are valued.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself if a recruiter is unreasonably rigid and not respectful of your needs, but you also have to be ready to walk away.

What are some of your negotiation horror stories?

People tend to worry a lot about a negotiation going wrong! Their ultimate fear is that the recruiter will stop the conversation and say: “no, you are unreasonable, we are rescinding the offer and not moving forward.” But, this isn’t in the recruiter’s interest (or yours)! I have never heard of this happening. The worst experience I had was with a recruiter (at Tesla) who was disrespectful in the negotiation phase and impossible to work with. She yelled at me about not giving her my current compensation. Digging deeper, it seemed to be a reflection of their work environment and culture. This led me to stop the process altogether and let the hiring manager know why. I did not want to join a work environment that seemed toxic and couldn’t make a positive first impression.

Several times, I have stopped the conversation and refused to move forward in the offer discussion. This happened notably once when a recruiter at one of the most well-known tech companies asked me to record another recruiter or send screenshots showing them an exact counteroffer. I asked them if they were comfortable with me recording them and sending the conversation to other recruiters and they were not. I decided I didn’t want to work at a company that felt like they could bully candidates with unfair practices because of their big name.

Besides these horror stories, I also worked with truly wonderful recruiters with whom I am in touch regularly and who are doing a terrific job. Those recruiters spent time trying to understand deeply what I wanted from the job, my situation, and made the stressful experience of finding a job so much better. I don’t hesitate to put my friends in touch with these awesome recruiters! The biggest takeaway is take the time to build relationships with the recruiter you are working with, because it will help make the process easier for both of you. Help them build a case for you, but don’t be scared to know your value and walk away too!

  • My framework to evaluate equity (I am planning to write about it later this year)
  • Where to find reliable number about compensation online (I am planning to write about it later this year)
  • How to compare complex compensations package