Decoding Recruiters and Their Talking Points
Recruiters are sales professionals, not your new best friends. This is true when
- The recruiter (also known as a headhunter) is an external recruiter (a third-party recruiter or independent recruiter).
- An external recruiter is employed as a retained recruiter on an ongoing basis and is paid a set fee — much like a retained lawyer or accountant.
- An external recruiter is employed on a transaction basis as a contingency recruiter and is paid only when a submitted candidate is hired.
- The recruiter is an internal recruiter (that is, a company recruiter), who is staffed in a company’s human resources department and paid a salary.
All recruiters are engaged by employers to find people for jobs — not jobs for people. And they do it by being superb sales professionals.
Recruiters who deem you qualified for a position pass you up to a hiring decision maker, often the individual to whom you would report.
How can you tell when you’re being recruited with a song-and-dance to divert your attention from a chintzy salary? Look out for yourself by discovering the insider secrets straight ahead.
Tactics meant to sell low offers
When a company gives a recruiter a limited compensation budget to offer candidates, the recruiter’s job and livelihood depend upon convincing you, a qualified candidate, to take the “downpay” job offer by pointing out collateral benefits the job may or may not truly offer.
It’s a tough sell — so tough that employment consultants write industry articles for recruiters advising them on how to increase their offer acceptance rate, when, in the words of one prominent consultant, “your company pays crummy wages.”
The consultants’ suggestions include the following sales techniques and talking points:
- Offer “exploding bonuses” that shrink in amount the longer you take to consider the offer. (Don’t give candidates too long to think about accepting a job that pays under market.)
- For a management job, invite comradeship with the company CEO, who calls asking you to accept the offer, commenting, “You and I can build this company together.” In a variation, a potential coworker calls, urging you, “Join the team — it’s great.” (This, too, refocuses your attention from legal tender.)
- Make a great “higher-calling” offer. This tactic includes such rewards as a title, a telecommuting opportunity, training options, a socially responsible and environmentally friendly employer, the chance to work with new technology, and the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives rather than “just make money.”
- Reframe the discussion by speaking less of cash compensation and benefits and more of job stretch and growth opportunity.
Job stretch describes an environment in which you show what you can do on a larger stage — heftier operating budget, bigger challenges, and supervision of more employees. In baseball, a job-stretch move is from the minors to the majors.
Growth opportunity is the lure of future raises, promotions, and company growth. In entertainment, a growth opportunity move could be from stunt double to featured player.
In a funny kind of arithmetic, a recruiter may speak the language of “an overall increase of 30 percent” if you take the offered position. Here’s a typical breakdown of what the recruiter may really mean by that 30-percent figure: perhaps 15 percent for stretch in the job, plus likely long-term growth of 10 percent and 5 percent for a cash compensation boost over your last job. Do the arithmetic. And do due diligence before you buy that reasoning.
You’re not yet finished with the give-and-take of sophisticated salary negotiation. The recruiter has plenty of arguments in reserve, as the next section reveals.
Recruiter comebacks when you stick up for yourself
When you’re hot on the track of treasure and refuse to budge from your “show me the money” stance (“If this is such a great job opportunity, I need greater money.”), experienced recruiters may balk. They, who practically live in the salary negotiation space that you infrequently visit, are famous for classic comebacks. Here are five golden oldies with suggestions for countering their rejoinders.
- Don’t make the mistake of overvaluing compensation and undervaluing opportunity. (I appreciate your calling that important point to my attention, and I’ll bear it in mind.)
- If I succeed in getting the cash compensation increased, the company will probably want me to produce other candidates with more experience. (I hope not. But you have a fiduciary responsibility to your client to produce the best candidate for a fair price — and I’m that person, hands down.)
- We’re looking at other candidates who don’t share the level of expectations you express. Why should we consider raising the bar so high in your case? (I have the same level of performance expectations for the work I produce. I’m sure the other candidates know what they’re worth better than I do. Are you looking for an outstanding or a mediocre hire? If it’s talent you want, you should choose me because of my proven record in ___.)
- Prove your ability. Do a great job and you could get a sizeable raise next year. (I appreciate that and I admire your line of thinking about rewarding performance, provided promises for the future build on a fair market rate going in. I’ve done a lot of salary research and believe that a starting salary of $___would be attractive to me because my performance with previous employers has been exceptional. Do you think your client can confirm your progressive thinking about a future raise based on a starting salary of $___ and include that promise in the offer letter?)
- If I can get the cash increased, will you sign an iron-clad guarantee to take the position with no further haggling? (Yes, I am very interested in this position, but we need to clarify figures. How much of a cash increase and what benefits are included?)
The lesson: To avoid walking away wishing you’d come up with a better answer to recruiter comebacks than you did, plan your responses ahead.
New thinking for new times
Perhaps the hour has come for a rethinking of conventional wisdom extolling job seekers to take the long view. The 21st-century rate of company upheavals, mergers, downsizings, and other job-busters may mean that you won’t be around long enough to fully benefit from job stretch and growth opportunity.
Whether you choose to take the money and run or to put your faith in blue-sky projections of a rosy future, invest the necessary time learning the ropes of salary negotiation, to avoid being snookered on future offers.
A first step toward being shown the money is discovering what the market will pay someone with your qualifications. The next section, “Discovering Market Pay Rates,” shows you how to find out.
Discovering Market Pay Rates
Knowing your market value — the going rate for people in your industry with skills and a job description similar to yours — is the centerpiece for negotiating the compensation you deserve.
Finding salary information online
Discovering the market rate for the kind of work you do has never been easier than it is today. Among popular websites offering free salary survey information to job seekers are Salary.com (www.salary.com) and Payscale (www.payscale.com).
Salary.com also offers a modestly priced custom report for your specific situation. Why would you want to pay for something you can get for free?
Another very useful free resource is the job search engine Indeed.com (www.indeed.com), which reports actual salary ranges currently posted on job boards.
Generalized averages produced by online salary calculators aren’t always spot-on for specific companies and jobs.
Be certain to benchmark the job you’re applying for by job content — not just by job title. The same job title can mean different things to different people in different companies.
Handling salary boxes in online applications
Recently I was asked for a practical way to handle the salary requirement and salary history (two different things) questions when either or both are embedded as required fields in an online application. B.I. (before Internet), you could write “Negotiable” for salary expectation, to keep from under- or overpricing yourself. But most online applications won’t accept “Negotiable” (or “Open” or “Will discuss in an interview”) for expected salary as a viable answer, so that tactic is out history’s window. What now?
Jack Chapman (www.salarynegotiations.com) rides to the rescue. Salary consultant and workshop leader, Chapman is the author of the best-selling guide Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1,000 a Minute (Mount Vernon Press, 2011), my favorite book in the genre. Here’s what Chapman told me about working those windows:
Your self-interest is best served by putting whatever number in the salaryrequirement box that you think won’t get you screened out. The employer is essentially asking, “Can we afford you?” Since you won’t require anything other than a competitive salary, your answer, by putting in a competitive number, is “Yes, you can afford me.”
This strategy works nicely when the box is titled “Salary Requirements” or “Expected Salary,” but requires an additional step if it is labeled “Current Salary.” Once you’re in the interview, you’ll need to explain that you interpreted “Current Salary” to mean “Current Salary Requirements,” and if they want a “Salary History,” you’ll be glad to provide it later as needed.
Negotiating in the Moment
After all your salary prep, the time has arrived to reap your rewards: You’re in the interview room, and the back-and-forth begins.
But just when the interview is starting to fly, bam! — the interviewer lets go with a dangerous question that can severely clip your wings: How much money are you looking for? Should you name your price right then and there? Not if you can help it.
A salary request that’s too low devalues your abilities; a salary request that’s too high looks like you’re too big for the company budget. Both bids leave you out of luck. Be aware that some employers have already budgeted for the position, and the first offer is their best offer. They ask what you want merely to confirm that the money’s enough to interest you in the job.
Your compensation should be based on the value of the job someone wants to pay you to do, not on the value of the job someone has paid you to do in the past.
Giving and taking at the right times
Sure, you have a pretty good idea going in about the remuneration you’re shooting for, but you may discover wildcards while you’re in the interview. You knew, for instance, that the job requires travel, and you figured maybe 25 percent of your time would be spent on the road, but now the interviewer reveals the true travel requirement — 75 percent. Would that revelation cause you to rethink the money or reevaluate whether you should accept the job at any salary?
Moreover, if you have to talk salary too early in the interviewing process, a decision maker may not yet be sufficiently smitten with you to make the company’s best offer.
In the previous edition of this book, I posed a key question for salary negotiation: What is the single best thing you can do to receive a higher pay offer when you’re interviewing for a job? My answer:
Delay discussing salary until you’re offered (or nearly offered) a specific position.
Until you have the offer, the employer holds all the weight. Once you have the offer, the scales shift. You have something the employer wants, and you become equals negotiating a business proposition. From outsider, you have become poised to become the newest insider — a good place to be.
Learning to deflect salary questions until the timing shifts to your advantage can greatly influence the amount of money that you take from the bargaining table.
But although the advice to sit tight until the timing is right is still on the mark, doing so is easier said than done these days, says salary negotiation pro Jack Chapman. He explains:
In the l980s, it was easy to postpone the salary talk. That has changed over the years. Employers are more demanding or inquisitive or something. Yet the principle is the same — postpone when and if you can.
But when you’re pressured to talk money sooner rather than later, Chapman warns that digging in your heels and flat-out refusing to comply is a mistake. By being hard-nosed, you set up a power struggle that you can’t win. You’ll be seen as obstinate and hard to work with. A power struggle can cost you the job.
Nor should you move to the other extreme, in which you meekly cave in, tell all, and let it go at that. Just as a dogmatic refusal earns you a label of being too strong, a roll-over-and-scratch-my-belly response may make you seem too weak.
Moreover, when you’re too low or too high for the company’s budget, you hand the employer’s interviewing screener information to judge you by your price, not by your whole package of qualifications. Even in the final interview round, premature dollars talk may lead a decision maker to see you as too expensive without your being given an opportunity to justify your worth and negotiate.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to connect when you’re giving away your bargaining leverage too soon: Get a quid pro quo. I think of this kind of fair exchange as Chapman’s rule:
When you comply with an early request for your salary numbers, get markers in return. Something for something.
What markers do you want as IOUs for your upfront compliance? You want agreement that your early money talk won’t screen you out of further interview opportunities. And you want agreement that your salary discussion will focus on the market value of the position and not on your salary history.
To side-step the negative consequences of early revelation as much as possible, you want fair consideration. Here are Chapman’s illustrations of what you can say to get fair consideration in three interviewing situations
- Phone screening: Before I give you all that information, can I ask a question? (Yes.) I don’t know who you’ll hire, but from what I’ve seen so far, you should definitely at least interview me. If I’m forthright about all my compensation factors, can I be assured of an interview?
- Interview screening: Before I give you all that information, can I ask a question? (Yes.) I don’t know who you’ll hire, but from what I’ve seen so far, I would definitely like to participate in the second round of interviews. If I’m forthright about all my compensation factors, can I be assured of that?
- Selection interviewing: Before I give you all that information, can I ask a question? (Yes.) I’m a little concerned that we could lose a perfectly good match over salary expectations. And I’m confident that you’ll pay a competitive salary — which is all I need. Can you first give me your rough range, your ballpark compensation, and I’ll be candid and tell you how that compares?
If you’re too high or too low, Chapman’s approach gives you the opportunity to address the discrepancy in the interview process instead of having the employer decide behind closed doors with no input from you.
Understanding why salary questions come early
Some interviewers know exactly what they’re doing by front-loading the salary question; others may just be feeling their way through the process. The salary question comes up quickly when the interviewer
- Is trying to instantly determine your professional level, or is slyly probing to see whether you’ll be happy with the low side of an offer.
- Wants to test the market. The interviewer may not even have an idea of the position’s market value and is shopping candidates to simplify budgeting.
- Is open to paying whatever is necessary to get the right person and just wants to know what he’s in for.
Whatever the interviewer’s motivation for prying a salary disclosure from you, without a job offer, salary disclosures put too much power in the employer’s hands. That point was confirmed to me by an HR executive (who, understandably, wishes to remain anonymous): “While I may request salary histories from others, I never comply with that demand when I’m in the job market. Why not? I know a guillotine when I see one — I design them.”
So what should you do when the salary question comes at you too soon? What can you gracefully say to hold off a precipitate discussion? The following section, “Stalling Money Talk with Smart Replies” gives you a number of script lines to use in response to premature questions about your salary expectations. They’re followed by lines useful in sidestepping a salary history so low that interviewers will wonder why — if you’re such a standout candidate — you’ve been so grossly underpaid in the past.
Stalling Money Talk with Smart Replies
Don’t let a frog clog your throat when an interviewer presses for the salary discussion before you’ve established your value. Instead, answer along the following lines:
I’m sure that money won’t be a problem after I’m able to show you how my qualifications can work to your advantage because they closely match your requirements.
My salary requirements are open to discussion. Your company has a reputation of being fair with employees, and I trust you would do the same in my case. I don’t think salary will be a problem if I’m the right person for the job.
I’m aware of the general range for my kind of work, but I’d feel better talking about pay once we’ve established what specific performance goals the job calls for.
I’d be kidding if I said money isn’t important to me — sure, it is! But the job itself and the work environment are also very important to me. I wonder if we can hold the pay issue for a bit?
I’m a great believer in matching pay with performance, so I can’t speak with any certainty about the kind of money I’m looking for until I know more about what you need.
Money is not my only priority; I’d really like to discuss my contributions to the company first — if that’s okay with you.
I can’t answer that question until I know more about this job.
The amount of my starting compensation is not as much of an issue to me as how satisfying my filling the position will be for both of us. Can we talk more about what the position entails?
Before we get into the compensation issue, can you tell me more about the kind of skills and the type of individual you’re looking for to help you reach your goals? What do you expect the person you hire to accomplish within the first three months?
All I need is fair market value for the job’s demands, which I’m sure you’ll pay, so is it okay if we talk about the details of the job first?
As far as I can tell, the position seems like a perfect fit for me — tit for tat on your requirements and my qualifications. So as long as you pay in the industry ballpark, I’m sure that we won’t have a problem coming up with a figure we’re both happy with.
Before we can come to an agreement, I need to know more about your strategy for compensation, as well as confirm my understanding of the results you’re looking for. Can we hold that question for a bit?
Since pay includes so many possibilities for compensation, I’d like to first know more about your compensation plan overall and how it relates to the position.
I’m sure that you have a fair salary structure, and if I’m the best candidate for the position, we can work something out that we’ll all like.
I’m not used to talking money before a job offer; are you making me an offer?
My requirement is market within the area — shouldn’t be a problem. Can we put that off to the side until we decide if there’s any need to go further down the money road?
I will consider any reasonable offer. Should we talk about it after we’ve wrapped up the details of the job, and I’ve been able to show you what I bring to your company?
I’m paid roughly the market value of a (occupational title) with (number of years’) experience and the ability to (manage, or do something special). If you’re competitive with the market, there won’t be a problem with salary.
Downplaying a Low Salary History
You know that disclosing an undermarket salary history can jeopardize your negotiating power. Try these scripts to lessen the impact of having worked for too little money:
I’m uncertain how my salary history will help you, because salaries are affected by geography, benefits packages, and company priorities. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the going market value for the position will be more useful. According to my research, that’s a range of $X to $Y.
A biting-the-bullet answer: My salary history won’t bring us to any conclusive figures. I’ve been working under market value, and that’s one more reason I want to make a change. This job seems perfect for me. I wonder whether we could price the position on the basis of its worth to you?
I don’t feel comfortable limiting the discussion to my salary history because a large portion of my compensation has been in variable and indirect pay. I’ve received bonuses regularly based on my performance. What I think you’re really asking is how I plan to do the job you need done — can we talk about that?
If we discuss my salary history, can I say up front that I view this position as a new challenge that will require higher performance than my last? I’d like to think I’m worth more to you than to previous employers.
To get the best return on your negotiation when you’ve been working for less than market value, repeat after me: Focus on my worth, not on my past. Focus on my worth, not on my past. Focus on my worth, not on my past. Get it? Got it? Good!
Considering More Factors That Affect Job Pay
In addition to the timing of the offer, the size of the company influences how high the interviewer will bid for you. Although large companies typically pay more, small companies without formal pay structures are easier to negotiate with than corporate titans.
But even at huge companies where pay scales are cut and dried, your potential boss may have the latitude to cut you a better deal. In fact, some interviewers see your negotiation attempts at improving your compensation as a desirable trait — yet another indicator that they’ve made the right choice. Their reasoning: If you can look after your own best interests, you can look after ours.
Other factors identified by negotiation authority Jack Chapman that influence the size of pay offers include the following:
- Supply and demand: In employee-driven markets, salary offers tend to rise; in employer-driven markets, salary offers don’t rise and may even fall.
- Special skills: Skills in short supply may merit premium pay.
- Urgency: A company losing revenue because a job goes unfilled may offer higher pay.
- Recruiting fatigue: A company weary of failure in filling a position may ease salary limits.
- Salary compression: Concern that paying you a higher wage may lead to revolt by current employees can cause a company to stick rigidly to a certain salary.
Getting Your Worth’s Money
Oh, happy day. Your interviewer looks you straight in the eye and says, “We’d like you to join our team; I’m offering you a job, but before we go any further, we should talk about how much you’d like to be paid.” The moment of truth has arrived. You’ve got the offer. No more dodging the money issue.
To nab the best offers, follow the guidelines in the sections that follow.
Find a home in the range
The market rate that big companies typically pay for a job is often stated in a range with a minimum, midpoint, and maximum salary. Smaller companies may not operate on such a formal spectrum.
Negotiating doctrine has long insisted that he who goes first in a price negotiation loses. To follow classic counsel, when you’re offered (or virtually offered) a job and are asked to name your price, bounce the ball back into the interviewer’s court: Can I ask you to take the lead on this question — can you tell me your range for this position? (If you did your homework, you already know the range. You’re merely asking for confirmation.)
Most often the interviewer who doesn’t mind tossing the first figure on the table will respond with a straightforward answer. But anecdotes abound in recruiting circles about interviewers who try to save the company a few dollars by purposely misrepresenting the midpoint to be the maximum salary. For example, suppose you’re applying for a job that through research you’ve learned is budgeted at between $50,000 and $60,000. To your surprise, the interviewer claims that $55,000 is the maximum wage. And you know it’s really the midpoint. Hmmm.
Polite probing is one way to respond: I’m not sure I heard you correctly, or perhaps my research is wrong. Did you say that $55,000 (midpoint figure) is the high end of the range for this position? I thought it was $60,000, which fits in my range.
But when the interviewer bounces the ball right back into your court and you have to go first or look like a sock puppet, express your salary requirements in a range based on the going rate for the job: I’d be expecting salary in the range of ($58,000 to $65,000). I think that’s a range we can work with, don’t you?
Citing a range is good because it gives you haggling room and shows that you’re economically aware.
Not sure where you realistically should land in the range? Match your request to your experience level. The following guidelines show you how:
- Don’t ask for bottom of the range unless you’re a rookie. Even then, if you’ve worked while in school, ask for a two-striped corporal’s pay rather than a one-striped private’s. You’re positioning yourself as a top rookie candidate.
- A conservative school of thought recommends that experienced people ask for a pay point just above midrange — not only to show that you’re above average, but also that you understand the need to leave room for raises.
- Highly qualified candidates head toward the top of the company’s projected range where they belong.
Plot your salary history carefully
Bear in mind that salary is a cash figure; total compensation includes benefits and such variable pay as potential annual bonuses, stock options, and expected merit raises. Example: Last year I earned $42,000 to $45,000 compensation, based on a salary of $30,000.
When your salary history ranks you at the top or above the range of market value, you can afford to discuss that history verbatim.
When your history is less impressive, be less specific. State your figures in wide ranges so that you’re more likely to stay in the game for positions for which you’re qualified. Include figures slightly above and below the market value to cover all your bases. Usually this approach requires bundling your income figures for multiple years: For the past three years, I have earned total annual compensation ranging from $95,000 to $125,000 for my work in this field.
Some job seekers feel they should inflate their salary histories. That’s a risky idea — the odds of discovery are stacked in the employer’s favor.
Instead of misrepresenting your history to try to improve your lot in salary negotiations, try the following:
- Show compensation modules. List base pay and variable pay in one figure; give another figure for benefits; then add the figures together for the total compensation package.
- At executive levels, list compensation items line by line.
- You may be asked to back up your salary claims. Decide in advance what you will do if your interviewer asks you for tax forms or pay stubs. The request isn’t illegal, but you should anticipate whether you will comply.
- Some job seekers adamantly refuse to supply a salary history and give a middle-finger salute to requests for one. They look at their pay records as a supreme privacy issue and may feel that they’re grossly underpaid or wouldn’t be looking for another job. As one job seeker anonymously commented online: “I don’t want to work for a company that demands to know my salary. I want to work for a company that wants me and will do whatever it takes to get me.” I applaud that sentiment but know that a dogged flat refusal is unlikely to produce the most invitations to audition.
Stonewalled? Try to upgrade the job
When you’ve established what the position entails and you’re told you’ve received the best offer and that the job isn’t worth more, try to make the position more important in the scheme of things.
- Point out that the job requires more than the standard duties suggested by the job title — that the job’s content fits into a job description that merits a higher pay bracket. Clarify how you plan to minimize company costs through your performance. Explain how you’ll pay for yourself. By using this tactic, you more firmly establish your worth to the company and justify your performance-based reason for asking a higher price.
- Beef up the job. I once became one of the highest-paid managers in an organization by combining two positions and creating a new job title. An employer may be interested in considering a “two-for-one” who is paid a “one-and-a-half” salary.
Even if you don’t succeed in your upgrade move, you’ll have put your new boss on notice that you’re ready to see the money.
Use dramatic silence
What should you do when the interviewer offers you a salary on a lower level of the salary range for the position? Two words: Keep quiet!
As the interviewer finishes the offer and waits for your reply, let the interviewer wait for enough time to notice your silence. Everyone has trouble outwaiting 30 seconds of silence. Look at the floor. Keep your face glum.
These moments of nonverbal communication show your dissatisfaction with the offer, without a word to incriminate you as overly hungry for money. The interviewer may feel compelled by this uncomfortable silence to improve the offer — or at least open a dialogue in which you can campaign for other kinds of rewards.
Turn to words of last resort
When it seems as though the right numbers just aren’t on your radar, you have little to lose by trying a straightforward response:
It pains me to say this. While I’m very attracted to what we’ve been discussing, the figure you named is just not an incentive for me to join your group. The good news is that we’re both interested, so let’s keep talking. What do you think?
No flexibility? Make creative suggestions
In negotiating with a small company, you’re less likely to encounter fixed pay policies, permitting you to get creative about your compensation package. If a small company can’t afford you on a cash basis, what else do you want?
You have a wide range of options for sweetening an offer. Ask for some combination of the following:
- Additional paid vacations
- A company car
- Dental plan
- An early salary review
- An expense account
- Extra-generous mileage reimbursement
- Parking privileges
- Recreational or daycare facilities
- Stock options
- Tuition reimbursement
If you’re negotiating for a job that pays below $30,000 and you know the company’s salary cap can’t be raised right now, try to get a shorter work week or flexible work hours, and take a second job to keep a roof over your head. If your spouse can cover you with health benefits, maybe you can trade health insurance for cash.
Using the Magic of Market Value
You researched the fair market value of your work before negotiating a price. Slip those exact words into the discussion whenever you can — fair and market value are terms that people like. Remember, too, that you can always come down on your price — but coming up is almost impossible after you name a low figure.
Most of us want to get the most we can in return for the parts of our lives that we sell. Negotiating pay with skill and savvy can mean that you gain hundreds of thousands of extra dollars throughout your career.