It's a sickening feeling: The person you desperately hope will be your next manager calls you on your cell phone. You race out into the parking lot to answer the call, and to your delight he says, "Chris, we'd like to make you an offer to join our team." Hurrah! Your heart is racing. You've been in stealth interview mode for eight weeks and you're ready to get out of it.
Your new boss runs down the title, a bit about the role, and the projects ahead. Then he says: "We're offering you X, to start." The figure is lower than you expected; it's way lower. It's a great offer, except for the salary. The job is career nirvana, but the pay is pretty close to an insult. What do you do now?
The first thing to do in the face of a salary letdown is to stay calm. Perhaps it was naive of you to think that when you and the firm's HR person talked about compensation, three interviews ago, you had put that item to bed. You said you were looking for a position in the $X to $Y range. Now you've got the offer and the salary is $X, minus $10,000. No one told you, before this moment, that they were planning to make you an offer far below the figure you'd offered as a target. Maybe they think that every job-seeker shoots high and will take a much lower salary. Maybe you should have asked them what they thought about your target range. Anyway, it's too late for all that now.
After you've caught your breath, don't say, "I earned more than that six years ago." You say: "Thanks so much for calling, Bob. I'm very excited to be moving forward. I'm actually on my cell phone in the parking lot, so it's not the ideal setting for me to go over terms. Can I get you to put the offer in writing and e-mail it to me at home? I'd love to have time to go through it and review all the moving parts."
Bob will probably say something like, "Will do, Chris, but I need some kind of answer. Are you going to accept the job?" Here's where you say: "I'd like to, Bob. It's a terrific assignment, I really enjoyed meeting the team, and I'm excited to have the chance to work with you. Lots of aspects of the offer sound great. We're a ways apart on the salary. It's significantly below where I need to be."
Now, here's the hard part—clam up. You don't have to justify that statement about where you need to be. It's tempting to launch into an explanation, but don't do it. It's Bob's move. He may react in a few different ways, and make no mistake, Bob's reaction is important. If he says, "Well, that's all we can do right now, although over time…" you can decide whether or not to press onward.
If you don't mind a little negotiating and you're up for a challenge, you can make a suggestion like, "Gee, Bob, I'd love to keep talking about this if you feel I'm the right person for the job. I can't accept the job at that salary, but maybe putting our heads together we can get creative about bonuses and other things." If Bob is receptive to something like that, you're not out of the running yet.
There are Bobs who will shut you down cold and go on to the next candidate on the list. Those are people you don't need to work for. In that case, it's not the money, it's the take-it-or-leave-it attitude that should turn you off. My friend Mike got a job offer like that one time. He inquired about the company's ability to nudge the starting salary a bit higher and the hiring manager told him, "Look, Mike, I have three other people who want this job if you don't." Mike said, "Fantastic, you should offer it to one of those folks then," and hung up.
Of course, plenty of Bobs will play ball with you. In that case, take the time to put together some concrete ideas so that the next time you talk, you'll be prepared. It's not helpful to say, "I need more money." The more ideas you can put forward, the better your chances of a happy resolution will be. Here are some ideas to bat around:
• The company could give you a sign-on bonus, if they can't improve the salary.
• They could move your normal one-year performance and salary review up to become a six-month review instead.
• They could guarantee a performance bonus in your first year.
• They could cover tuition reimbursement from your start date, instead of after one year (the normal policy for many employers).
• They could give you a car allowance, if you're going to be using the car for business.
• They could give you extra paid vacation time, if they can't budge at all on the cash compensation.
You have to feel good about the company in order to take the job and a salary negotiation, while not everyone's favorite activity, is a good way to judge the company's willingness to play ball. It's not necessarily critical that you get exactly what you ask for. You may need to have a little flexibility, too. It is important that you feel you've been heard, and that the company engages in a good faith effort to get you on board. After all, they've already told you they want you. The only remaining question is: How badly?
And You're Worth It
Here are a few more things to keep in mind when the offer is great but the money is disappointing. It's easy to get miffed and think: "Hey, don't you know I'm worth a lot more than that!?" Well, maybe they don't know. It was your job, after all, to let them know your value during the interview process. If your talents didn't come across, don't be quick to blame the employer for missing those cues.
On the other hand, there are companies who routinely praise and underpay employees and build a high level of turnover into their hiring plans. Don't fall for that trap. Ask around, before you accept a job, to make sure you're not getting ready to be sold a bill of goods for the next few years. Ask about turnover, and ask what happened to the last person (and the one before that) to hold your job. Companies who treat people fairly will have an easy time answering your questions. Companies that rely on continual hiring to replace the continual quitters who can't live on the salaries the company is paying will never see your value.
If things work out and you accept the offer, thank Bob for his willingness to find common ground with you. If they don't, wish Bob well and don't be discouraged. There are plenty of employers who will see what you're worth and pay you accordingly, and after all, you only need one.