Lowball Salary Offers: A Working Guide

I get lots of mail from job-seekers who want to know the perfect juncture in a job-search process for the Salary Discussion. I'm glad to get these inquiries, because nailing down a salary range is not a trivial matter in a back-and-forth job-search conversation. However, all of these folks looking to pinpoint the Ideal Time for the Salary Conversation are in great shape—they're people I don't worry about. It's the ones who decide never to have the conversation at all who scare me.

There are people on the job market who believe that if a position sounds challenging and the interviews proceed well, the job offer will have to be reasonable, too. When I have the opportunity to talk with these folks face to face at a workshop or speaking appearance, I'll ask them: "Don't you see that one of the reasons the whole process goes so smoothly, the interviewers are so courteous, and the praise heaped upon you is so rich and varied is that they're planning to give you a lowball offer?"

"You're just a cynic," they answer.

Simple Faith

Job-seekers like these believe the right answer to the question "What are your salary requirements?" is "I'm sure that whatever you offer me will be fine." These folks don't lack self-esteem, and they're not expecting to jump into low-paying positions. They simply have faith in a system of manners and protocols that, sad to say, died out long ago—or at least can't be taken for granted.

Some of the job offers going to smart and capable people today are downright insulting. I talked to a friend of mine over the phone last week. Four years ago, I hired her for a spot in my business. She reminded me about that offer.

"You offered me $43,000 a year," she told me, "and what I remember about it is that you apologized for the salary. You said that it was clear I was worth more, but that the position wasn't especially senior, but that if I wanted it, it might be a great way to learn in a fun environment. So I took the job. I remember your apologizing for not being able to pay me more in that job. I appreciated that."

"It sounds like there's a punch line coming," I said.

"There is," she replied. "Last week I was offered a job at $37,000, and by now I have seven years of post-college marketing experience and half of an MBA under my belt. The funny thing is, there was no apology for the salary. Far from it. The lady said 'There are a million marketing people on the market so you should grab this opportunity while you can.'"

Stories like hers, along with my observations on how 2009's job market is developing, have compelled me to create the Liz Ryan Salary Offer Taxonomy. Here's the rundown:

Delightful: An offer at the top of the mental range you'd created—one that surprises you in a good way.

Perfectly Acceptable: Pretty much just what you expected and what you feel is fair for your background.

Less than Sensational: Slightly disappointing, because it's lower than what you believe your skills merit.

The Frustrater: Quite discouraging, in that the job itself seems great and worth doing, while the salary is far under your expectations.

Gobsmacked: An offer so stingy it causes your jaw to drop and your brain to say, "What kind of chump did you take me for, anyway?" It sends a flush of righteous indignation across your face and body. It's not so much a job offer, as an insult to your professionalism and experience.

What can you do if you're hit with one of these insulting job offers? You can, of course, tell the hiring managers or HR representatives where they can shove their offer, and move on. Nonetheless, you must acknowledge that the Gobsmacker could have been avoided if you had broached the salary topic earlier. It's easy to be lulled into a false sense of security when the people you're meeting seem businesslike and worldly. "They'd never try to rip me off!" you think. Oh yes, they might, and there's nothing worse than learning the bitter truth after investing six or eight weeks in the process.

Next time, be sure to bring the topic to the table early. A second interview is the perfect time to do it. But since that won't help you if you've got one of these Gobsmacked offers in front of you right now, here are some ideas for salvaging something of value, after the shock has worn off.

Go back to the hiring manager and say: "Thanks so much for the offer. The job seems terrific, and I'm thrilled to be moving along in the process. We've had some kind of miscommunication along the way, clearly. I'm focusing on opportunities in the $XX range, and the offer I've received is obviously way below that number. If you're set on this type of salary range, I'm not your hire, but it may make sense to talk about having me consult with you as you get your new plans under way and your new hire up to speed."

Suggest taking the job and performing it on a 20- or 24-hour-a-week schedule if that suits you. If the manager says, "We're strictly looking for a full-time person," you can wish him or her well and get out of Dodge. The key to these alternative resolution approaches, in my experience, is goodwill. It won't help you to sound miffed or affronted. There's a big communication gap; that much is clear. Can it be surmounted? Since you didn't raise the salary question earlier, you must take some of the blame as you talk with your prospective boss. "I should have begun a conversation about salary earlier, I can see," you'll say. Resist the temptation to say "I earned more than this in 1994" or "My daughter in grad school earns this much." Don't make it a personal issue. It's business.

Try to get the cheapskate—er, that is, the manager with whom you've had a communication glitch—to see things your way. Of course, it's doubtful that you'll be able to negotiate a full-time salary offer upward by 40% or 50%, once the lowball offer has been extended. But you can talk about a results-based bonus, ownership in the company (if it's very small), and other perks.

With job offers, the big question is: Am I going to want to work for this company? Remember that miscommunications happen, so it pays to learn how to convey our value more effectively.

But there are companies out there—my young friend and many other job-seekers have been running into them right and left lately—that don't care so much about what you've done or can do. Mostly, they're concerned with the question, "How cheaply can we hire this person?" and this doesn't bode well for you or for them.

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