Great Job Offer -- Except for the Pay

Here are some options you can follow if the job sounds right, but the compensation isn't even close

By H.J. Cummins

Q: I am a businesswoman entertaining a job offer from a company I really like. Here's the problem: The salary is way below expectations. In fact, it's about half of what I now earn for approximately the same job. I want to make a counterproposal, but how do I do that without sounding outrageous? Or, how do I turn down the offer without offending? T.L., Denver

A: Both counter-offer and "thanks, but" are possible without stirring outrage or offense, our experts say. But you need to play your role a carefully scripted scene at a time.

For openers, find out if this salary gap is the yawning divide it appears to be. "The most important thing for people to consider is total compensation," says Maryanne Wegerbauer, author of Job Offer! A How-to Negotiation Guide. That means being absolutely clear on the value of your current package -- not just salary, but benefits, company car, annual bonus, and the like. Maybe the offer has enticements that can help make up the salary difference.

Also, know what you're worth. (available right here on the Careers channel) will give you a good ballpark figure to start with, says Carol Poore, author of Building Your Career Portfolio. Feedback from your trusty network of colleagues, and some recruiters in your industry, will help you fine-tune that figure -- factoring in your age, experience, and the location of the new job. In addition, learn what you can about the company, our experts say. It may have a reputation for low-balling on all first offers.

In fact, approach the offer assuming it's low, says Sheila Wellington, president of Catalyst, a businesswoman's advocacy organization, and author of Be Your Own Mentor. Research shows that women tend to accept or reject offers outright, according to Wellington. You need to learn to play like men, and that means joining the negotiating game. The beauty of negotiation, Wegerbauer adds, is it that clarifies your priorities: For example, you may find yourself comfortable backing off a bit on salary if the company comes up with an extra week of annual vacation.

Here are some ways to improve your haggling techniques. For one thing, be aware of trends in compensation, Wegerbauer says. Today, for example, bonuses have replaced stock options as the hot addition to base salary. Depending on your circumstances, you may also want to bring nonfinancial considerations to the table, says Poore. A pay cut might look less ugly if it comes in exchange for a 32-hour week -- so you can be home with a new baby, or pursue a passion for Viennese Secessionist art.

If you simply can't come to terms, Wegerbauer counsels tact so gracious that it will make the jilted suitor still want to be friends. Express your admiration for the good things in the company that attracted you in the first place, and your appreciation for the time, energy, and attention expended on the talks with you. Offer a hope that perhaps sometime in the future you may be able to work together in some way.

In short, leave your would-be bosses with the impression that their time with you was well invested. If you play your role right, you leave open the possibility of a sequel -- where the company gets the girl after all.

Have a question about your career or workplace issues? E-mail us at, or write to Ask Careers, BusinessWeek Online, 6th Floor, 2 Penn Plaza, New York, NY 10121. Please include your real name and phone number in case we need more information. Only your initials and city will be printed. Because of the volume of mail, we won't be able to respond to all questions personally. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

H.J. Cummins has covered workplace, personal-finance, and work and family issues for more than a decade at Newsday/New York Newsday and Minneapolis Star Tribune

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