How to negotiate your own salary

Let me start off by saying I have no idea. Certainly not when I don’t have the career experience that would allow me to gauge the monetary value of my labour and give me the confidence to demand it. I find the whole subject awkward (hence how I last ended up working for 6 months without a contract!). I was recently forced to deal with it head-on, though, when I found a job application for which I could actually consider myself vaguely qualified (not requiring a PhD and 10 years of experience as Director of a UN agency). It all seemed great till I scrolled to the very bottom of the page:

“Salary: commensurate with education and experience.”

No range, no hints, nothing. In your application you are required to state your minimum salary requirements.

This seems somehow dishonest to me. Like a way for the company to pay people less than they are really prepared to, by assuming applicants would rather undersell themselves than risk alienating potential employers with a too-high demand.

Which is pretty much the thought process I had. On the one hand, I thought, I’m way on the bottom of the career ladder, so I can’t really be asking for too much and if I do, they’ll just laugh at throw out my application. Would I genuinely jeopardise my chances by going too high? On the other hand, the role is quite intensive and I should be rewarded for the high level of work I’d be expected to do. It’s just not fair if they pay me less than they had earmarked because I was afraid to ask for more.

And then this “commensurate with education and experience” thing was particularly troubling. I had less experience than was required but far more education than called for. How was I supposed to juggle that? I had to start making complex mental calculations:

Salary= (overeducation –underexperience +responsibility load + working on weekends – flexibility of hours – great value of experience)* (stress of being expected to actually know what you’re doing)/ (fear of employer laughing hysterically once they see your demands).

Finally, I turned to my favourite friend in crisis situations: Google. I tried searching for what the average pay for my job title was. It didn’t help one bit since the position exists in fields as diverse as biological engineering and IT management…I could be both a prince and a pauper. I tried again, being more specific. No results.

But then I found a fabulous little site ( where employees can anonymously post their salaries. Some people from the particular organisation concerned had done just that. It would’ve been too good to be true to expect a person with the same position as on offer to have posted their earnings, but it at least gave me some idea. But then it began raising new questions: am I worth more than an accountant? Less than a Design, Monitoring and Evaluation Officer? More mental arithmetic.

Finally, I picked a random sum, hesitated, typed it in the application, hesitated again, did some more googling, and finally clicked Send.

But now it’s phase 2 of the anxiety: With every day that goes by without a response, instead of just assuming they discarded my application as usual, now I have to worry that they read it, laughed heartily at my presumptuousness, and then threw it away. Did I miss out on a great chance by being greedy? And it doesn’t end there. If I’m ever lucky enough to get the position, every long night I have to work, every Saturday given up, every person’s mess I’m expected to clean up, I’ll wonder whether I undersold myself.

I just wonder what the point of this is. Why can’t companies just be upfront and state what they’re willing to pay you for the job they expect you to do?


10 thoughts on “How to negotiate your own salary

  1. Yesterday I was talking to a friend of mine who had to answer to the same question… During an interview. If I was her I would had probably hang up the phone accusing the bad network in CAR.
    Looks like we all have to prepare ourselves to some arithmetic.
    I really do not know what is the real point of this. However, we have to recognize that by asking the expected salary they have a good advantage: If they are interested in your application but you have asked higher that what they are willing to give you they just have to try to negotiate a lower salary. Take it or not. If you have asked less than what they were ready to give then they can just say “great” and save some money.
    …And we are screwed. 🙂

  2. I will try to give you an idea from the employer perspective.
    1) not every employer is there to screw you – a lot of time goes into finding /training a new employee.
    It is easier for larger companies / corporations, but for smaller companies it is a drain on resources. It is very important to try to find the right person, one that not only will be able do his /her job well but will also stay with the company for a long time. As I said a lot of time (read money) is invested on training a new employee ( I can go more in depth if required).
    2) while it is important to know what your salary is in the marketplace ( and is a great site), know what you will be happy with and start from there.
    Been honest with oneself is the name of the game. The best thing to do is not to compare yourself to others in your workplace. Also be prepare to be creative. You may be open to other forms of additional remuneration that would be easier for a company to add to your base salary. Maybe a cell phone paid by the company, transport, extra time off, professional courses paid (to advance your career), magazine subscriptions, etc. These are all items that you would probably pay out of your pocket after tax, so there would be a saving to you (and therefore can be classified as an increase to your salary) and companies are more inclined to accept to pay it as it is a deductible cost to them (please note, different countries have different rules).
    3) at the moment companies are in the driver’s seat – sorry for you, but with the global turmoil going on, companies are in the stronger position at the moment.
    It is not always like that. In the late ’90 and early 2000s, the ball was in the employees’ court. That said, if you are prepared, reliable, think out of the box, in short, an asset, be sure your employer will go the extra mile to keep you (see point 1).
    4) it is a two way street – like every other relationship in life it must work both ways.
    Sometime it is better to be honest and admit that a certain job /company is not the best match for you and let it go or don’t go for it. This is easier to say than to do but is the darn truth. If you are nor captivated with a job / company, how can you give your best (again, I can expand on this point if needed)?
    5) not all employers are created equal – learn to recognize the bad ones.
    That will come with time and experience and will save you lots of time / pains.

    Best of luck to you all and feel free to ask for more info.
    Me? After a month of going through resumes and interviews, we finally found a decent candidate for a position our company needed filled. Let’s hope she is the real thing.

  3. Thanks Lalli and, rest assured, I will be harassing you for more advice later! My problem, though, is that the company gives you so little information to work with, yet you’re supposed to use that to thoroughly sell yourself. In this particular case they wrote: “salary commensurate with experience and education and with excellent benefits”. Even just giving some idea of what those benefits are would help immensely when trying to assess what you could negotiate for, but they tell you nothing at all.
    They’re basically asking you ‘what do you think you’re worth’, but you have no real idea of your negotiating power, so it just adds an unnecessary burden for the jobseeker. Why can’t they just put the salary range they are willing to pay, with the lower end being for lesser qualified candidates? (indeed I did some more research on this particular organisation and in previous job postings that is indeed what they did). I recognise that in this economic climate the employers rule, but it shouldn’t stop them being open and honest. If they want to not pay not very well for a difficult job they can just say so and will still get lots of qualified applicants, seeing as we’re all fighting to get into the market!

    • From my experience I have noticed that when we ask applicants for their salary requirement there is an average min/max. For the few odd ones – if they ask too little, it is natural for me to think they have not a clue what is required of them and for those asking too much (even if they say they are open to accept a lower salary), I know they probably were in a much higher position and will look for a similar one asap which will leave me soon searching for a replacement.
      Just give them a range of salary requirement, it will be up to them to decide how to reach that number. Stay within what you think is an average min/max. You really do not want to be the odd one out.

      Generally the difference between a min and a max acceptable to us is about $10k for salaries up to $85K (hope this can help), for higher salaries it is really more up to the person’s caliber.
      That is why doing some research on sites like is a good idea. Still remember, when you do salary research don’t look only at the amount, make also sure the companies you are checking are similar in size and work type to the company you are applying to.

      The best thing during an interview is to be as relaxed as possible (but still eager), open to questions and trying to answer as well as you can. Very important: YOU DON”T NEED TO RUSH.
      I prefer a candidate that will take a moment to reflect on my question and then deliver a well thought out answer vs one that will rush to give an answer no matter what they are saying (you would be surprised how often that happens, it is a major turn-off).

      Also when they ask if you have any questions at the end of the interview don’t be afraid to ask.
      Ie.: what the scope of your job will be (if you still have some areas that are not completely clear to you) or what are the mid/ long term chances of advancements etc. Also always prepare at least a question ( an intelligent one, please) that will tell the interviewer you have done some background research into the company. Make sure you ask in a constructive way vs a confrontational one and then trust your instinct. Coming across as relaxed and prepared will give you some real advantage. Type of question never to ask at first interview unless they bring up the subject: how much vacations will I have or what are the working hours. There will be time for those issues at a later date when you are refining the contract.

      You may want to rehears with a friend, it may sound stupid but it is helpful.
      Now stop worrying about salaries and apply at as many jobs you are interested in as you can.
      The more interview you do the better you will become at it. Be positive and confident.

  4. Thanks Lalli! I’m about to enter an intense phase of job-hunting on the field, so I’ll try and bear all this in mind! I’ve never really had to interview for previous jobs before, so it should be interesting…

  5. I think it works like that everywhere, and it seems that more and more companies are starting to follow that path. As I recently moved back to Poland, after studying and working abroad for over 4 years, I have only a vague idea of how much should I ask for when filling in job applications.
    What looks even more ridiculous, when I set up accounts on job searching websites – with a wide range of different positions and types of companies posting there – I am forced to state how much I would like to earn. In what position? For what kind of company? What would my responsibilities be? Why in the earth would they require a person to state the same salary expectations for tens of different kinds of jobs one can apply for through this website?

  6. Exactly! Things are stacked against the applicant, which I understand in this economy, but at some point we need real information and details. Also, ultimately, it would save companies from considering applicants who were a bad fit, if they were upfront about what they’re expecting and willing to give in exchange.

  7. As a modest contribution to this much necessary debate, I would simply like to add that, when it comes to international organizations, things are a bit different than in the private sector (NGOs included). In fact, on international public side, it all depends not only on your profile, but also on the kind of contract you’re going for: fix-term or similar (generally from six months up) might be subject to specific salary ranges that the employer will not be willing to exceed. On the other hand, when it comes to short-term specific appointments, things are generally negotiable. Consultants, in particular, still have the possibility to negotiate their salaries, and there are certain trends to assess that. Within the UN as well as the EU, there are specific norms that are kept from the applicant.
    First time I found myself confronted to this “state your salary expectations” was during a phone interview: even though I stated a price far below my real hopes, the employer still tried to divide it over 5 times! I later got to work with those people in a totally different position, just to find out that they had actually already set a budget for that job I had been interviewed for, and were just asking because of procedure requirements. This happens when the position is not ‘unique’, i.e when there are several positions with the same title and responsibilities within a same team (either country team, or even more locally). It is not too surprising, given that truly following the negotiation path in such cases would probably end up paying (possibly very) different salaries to people with more or less similar backgrounds, doing the same job, in the same context, and in relation with each other…. Pretty easy to guess the kind of team-spirit breakages that could give way to…

    However, when the job is a bit specific and therefore cant really be compared to another’s in the same context (‘expert’ consultancy, for instance), international organizations are mostly open to negotiate. Even though there are standard indicative ranges (which are of course kept from the applicant), those are commensurate to years of education and professional experience, regardless of the fields (it is often up to the recruiting team to assess the relevance of your field of expertise to the given job). Master’s degree in IR or in agronomy open opportunity to different levels of flexibility on the employers’ side, within the min/max stated in the standard range sheet, simply because of how much more rare one profile is than the other.
    Then again, if the consultancy offer spells job duration in days, it is in your interest as a qualified applicant to state your salary expectations in days too. Don’t be afraid to dissociate daily living allowance and daily work remuneration: this is common practice. It shows that you know the rules of the game, and makes the employer think twice before coming at you with a dishonest counter-offer. One should also be aware that financial expectations does not influence the hiring decision as much as technical skills (weighting systems)… I have to cut it here, til next time. Cheers to all!

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