How To Navigate Tricky Salary Negotiations

Career Transitions, Get That Job, Interviewing
02/22/21 - Jérémy Chevallier

Why are we as professionals worth what we’re paid? This question can have as many answers as there are people to ask it – and each of our own answers is unique, but there are similarities.

Are you having difficulties with tricky salary negotiations? If you’re looking for advice on how to deal with a prospective employer who doesn’t seem to want to pay you what you’re asking for, here are some things to think about:

Hard No Vs. Counter Offer

Hard “no”s mean they no longer have an interest in you. But, if you’re getting a counter-offer, you’re hearing “we want you, but at this compensation.” Make sure you have clarity on this fundamental difference before going down any assumption rabbit holes.

If it’s not clear from their words or behavior, you may need to ask them outright:

“I’m not sure whether you’re rejecting my offer, or making me a counter-offer. Could you please clarify?”

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask this, and will usually result in a more straightforward answer than their previous communication. Just remember: a hard rejection is different than a counter-offer.

Realistic Salary Expectations

There’s always the chance you’re asking for a higher salary than any company is willing to pay. Have you done your compensation research? If not, go search your target job title(s) on PayScale.com and Glassdoor.com/salaries. Make sure you’re within the right range.

A note about location-based salaries:

Location only matters if the company isn’t hiring remotely. If you’re negotiating salary with a fully remote company, do not let geography influence the number. It does not matter whether you decide to live in an expensive city or low-cost rural area.

If you know your asking rate is in the correct range, it’s time to dig into why the employer isn’t thinking along the same lines as you.

Women working on papers on a table

Understand Their Reasoning

The better we understand others’ beliefs, motivations, and limitations, the better equipped we are to move forward towards an outcome we’re happy with. To understand why someone might not say “yes” to the salary you’re asking for, we need to first understand the factors that people use to make buying decisions.

This isn’t a faceless company we’re referring to. This is one (or more) human being(s) reaching a conclusion based on the information they currently have. Based on the information you have, why do you believe they decided not to say “yes”? (If they shared their reasons, do they make sense to you?)

Here are some common reasons they might be:

They might simply be negotiating

Negotiations are a game, not a war. We negotiate based on a belief that we can earn more—or pay someone less—and we’re usually right.

You probably want more money, not less. And they’d like to pay less, not more—if they can. Basic supply and demand will dictate a general range of salaries, and buying decisions always mean “What I’m buying is worth more to me than what I’m paying for it.”

Assume good intentions and try to play the game—not the war.

They might not be able to afford your rate

Sometimes, organizations can’t afford to pay us what we’re worth. This is common with local (“mom and pop”) businesses, early-stage tech startups, and nonprofits funded by grants and donors. There are usually alternative benefits to making less in these roles: local business owners can teach you a lot about business; startups offer equity—worth a lot if the company succeeds; nonprofits help you have your student loans forgiven.

If an employer literally can’t afford what you’re asking, your decision will be: are you willing to take less?

They might not think you’re worth it

Though we don’t like talking about it, this is probably the most common one. We don’t always do the best job of “selling ourselves,” or, as Christopher Lochhead puts it: “being the only choice.”

Think carefully about this part:

Have you proven that you’re worth what you’re asking? This doesn’t necessarily come in the form of work experience on a résumé. You simply must make the other person believe that you’re going to be worth more to the company than they’re paying for you.

Remember, we all make buying decisions based on a belief that “What I’m buying is worth more to me than what I’m paying for it.” The employer is no different, and will only agree to your rates if they believe you will “pay yourself off” over time. (By the way, this is not to belittle or reduce human beings to pure economic value—we are valuable far beyond the dollars we generate or save.)

Make sure your personal website and online/social presence (at the very least, LinkedIn) are resounding testaments to the quality of work you’ve produced, the value and contributions you bring, and what it’s like to work with you.

Then, make them an offer to prove it:

“Let’s start with one project together, so I can prove I’m worth this rate. If you still feel otherwise afterward, pay me what you felt it was worth and we’ll part ways as friends.”

This is incredibly powerful in tricky work and salary negotiations, and has personally resulted in some of the best professional relationships I’ve ever had.

They might just be low-balling you

Some companies string candidates along, make low-ball offers, and end up hiring the person who will take the least amount of money to do the job. Red flags can include: not providing clear reasons for rejecting your asking price; taking a long time to respond; appearing unprofessional in other ways throughout the interview experience.

Ask yourself honestly whether the company (and the person(s) you’ve been interacting with) seem serious about this process. If you’re seeing some of these red flags, take Jenny’s advice and run, Forrest, run.

A plant growing in soil as coins

Stay Confident During These Tricky Salary Negotiations

Remember that there are other fish in the sea.

Even when you’re navigating tricky salary negotiations with your absolute dream employer, remember there are just as great of companies out there. You may not know of them yet, but they’re out there. Don’t let a scarcity mindset or fear of missing out dictate your decisions.

You are a valuable person! You are worthy!

This one company does not define your value as a human being or as a professional. The overall market will give you signs if you’re off-track, but rejection by one company does not mean you’re not valuable.

You just need to find the employer that will take a chance on you for what you believe you’re worth.

Jérémy Chevallier headshot
Jérémy Chevallier

I was a tiny kid until late high school, which taught me how painful it is to be the underdog. I’ve been driven by equity and justice ever since. This life experience has defined my adult self more than almost anything else. In short, I thrive on helping people gain equity and agency in their lives. I specialize in helping people discover and do work that makes them come alive.

Latest Articles from Jérémy Chevallier
Related Articles

Can you relate? You’re right out of high school or college, you’ve got the whole world ahead of you, you’re daydreaming about your new career and feel like you have a myriad of career choices in front of you. It feels all lined up, everything is in place, there’s a plan. And then life happens […]

Read More
women networking

Does the idea of working to develop strong networking skills make you feel uncomfortable? Many people react to the idea of going to a networking event with as much enthusiasm as taking a test – a test that they don’t know how to study for. And when you approach networking as if you’re a product […]

Read More