Last time, I told you what I think about the question "What is your current salary?".

Let's talk now about a very different beast, the question about your salary expectations.

TL;DR

If you are at risk of being underpaid, I think your goal should be to let the company make you an offer first. You should focus on not shooting yourself in the foot, and a safe strategy to do that is to dodge the question of salary expectation until you have an offer.

There is a lot to unpack, so let's get started!

This advice is for devs at risk of being underpaid

I told a friend of mine about this strategy I am about to describe. Her answer:

Interesting, but, I wouldn't do that. You know, I worked in sales before. I'm a project manager and I'm used to crushing numbers and talking about money. That's part of my professional skills actually!"

That makes a lot of sense, my strategy is not relevant at all for her.

If there was a universal strategy for handling salary negotiations, then it would be a universal formula that everyone could apply. It follows that salary negotiations would not be necessary anymore. That would be great, but it's obviously not the case. So let me narrow down.

My target users in this article are the developers at risk of being or staying underpaid.

Maybe I should not write this in a public article, but I don't actually care about using the most advanced negotiation tricks to maximize my salary. Once I'm paid a fair salary, I put more value in working with colleagues who are smart and nice.

On the other hand, I care deeply about not being underpaid. Not only that, but I also care about my colleagues not being underpaid. Let's avoid those awkward conversations at the water cooler. By extension, I wish that you, my readers, to not be underpaid.

Being underpaid sucks, and not only for material reasons. Let's admit that you don't need money because you live with your parents, or your wife earns more than you. Fine. That would still suck, because if you are underpaid, your skills and opinions would also be under-valued. Most companies work implicitly with the assumption that the Highest Paid Personal Opinion is the best. You don't want to work at a place where your voice will not be heard.

Who is at risk of being underpaid?

Here are some criteria:

  • You have a history of being underpaid - see "What is your current salary?".
  • You struggle with imposter syndrome, feels not legitimate.
  • You think your future boss will do you a favor if he hires you, instead of seeing a recruitment as a mutually beneficial transaction.
  • You haven't done salary negotiations since a long time... or ever!
  • You don't really know the salary range for people like you, or worse, you think you know but your numbers are wrong.
  • You are uncomfortable talking about money. "When the money question comes up I either go blank or panic. You probably have a lot of experience with that subject but for me it's terrifying" (see comment).
  • You have never negotiated an offer after you received one, the companies where you worked always proposed you more than you asked for.
  • Your economic situation is not great, you really need this job or else...
  • You are not good bragging about your accomplishments.
  • Or simply you are a woman and under the influence of the gender gap.

Given those circumstances, you are at risk of being underpaid. Because you are likely to shoot yourself in the foot during the salary negotiation. And remember that the negotiation starts the minute you give a first number.

Goal

Your goal is to let the company make you an offer first.

Strategy

Your strategy is surprisingly simple.

The company will ask for your salary expectation.

That's perfectly normal and there is no way around it.

But you have the right to doge the question.

Do not negotiate against yourself.

You have power, your willingness to work at that company. Or to deny them your labor.

(Thank you Phil Lembo)

At that point, you may ask yourself: how the hell do I dodge that question?

Tactics

There are lots of ways you can dodge the question, when asked about your salary expectation.

It doesn't really matter how you do it.

What's important is that you commit to not answering.

So let's talk tactics:

What's your salary expectation?

You could just be transparent and ask the company to make you an offer.

At the best companies it could work, but probably it's a stretch.


If you feel confident, you can also return the question

I don't know, what's the budget for this position?


Here is the recommended answer from John Dosh who wrote the book on the subject: Fearless Salary Negotiation

"I don’t have a specific number in mind for a desired salary, and you know better than I do what value my skillset and experience could bring to your company. I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation".

This answers works because:

  • You don't give a specific number
  • You earn time
  • It's true, the company would not have a job opening if it had not decided on a budget already
  • It's true, the compensation depends on what kind of responsibility you will have, so what not nail that down first?

Here is a good line recommended by @recursivefaults

I’m more interested in finding out if we’re a good fit for one another. If we are, I promise we’ll find a number that we both like.

This answer works because

  • You don't give a specific number
  • You earn time
  • It's true, the focus of any step of the hiring process should be to see whether there is a good mutual fit
  • It's simpler, if the previous answer is uncomfortable for you

Here is another valid one from @fullstackcafe

"Thank you for that question. Hey, I'm just an engineer, I'm sure you know the market better than me, so I trust you to evaluate my skill set first and if we are a great fit to circle back to that topic".

This answer works because:

  • You don't give a specific number and you earn time - yep, you got the idea now
  • It's true, lots of engineers rarely talk about money. Maybe every three years when they change jobs. Contrast that with the company who should Always Be Hiring.

And now my personal favorite:

Recruiter: What is your salary expectation? You: "I don't have one". Recruiter: (blank) You: (blank) Recruiter: But at least a range no? I need a number to continue. You: "Look, I know you want to be fair. You have salary ranges for employees with a given skillset and responsibility, right? I don't want to be paid less than everybody else. I don't want to be paid more than everybody else. Just give me something in the middle."

This works because:

  • The company will have a hard time saying: "No, we want to be unfair and pay you less than everybody else". And the very hypothetical case that they do, the advice applies that "You don't want to work here".
  • The company is reassured that I will be fine with a salary expectation in the right ballpark that they have budgeted. The process can continue.
  • Still, you didn't give a specific number and earned time.

❓Can I really do that?

Yes.

It won't work everywhere, but you only need to be hired at one company.

❓Saying those answer feels awkward

Yes.

That's a sign you need to suck less at salary negotiation, and the only 3 ways to do that is to practice, practice. and practice

❓Should companies ask for salary expectations?

Yes, of course.

A company cannot have a job opening without budgeting it.

Let say unlike me, mediocre developer, you have refined your skills so much that you are now a 10x developer.

If you push that fact to its logical conclusion, you should ask for a 10x salary.

(I'm joking, but if you do that, definitely tell me how it worked out!).

Now, obviously, you are way outside the budget that was planned for this position.

Is the company ready to give you that 10x salary?

Maybe yes, but probably not.

Continuing the hiring process with you would only waste everyone's time.

❓ Why not anchoring the salary expectation with a high number ?

Anchoring is a powerful technique when done right. Therefore it's often recommended to just say a high number, that will serve as a basis for further discussion.

In my opinion, anchoring is more risky than Just shut up and be happily surprised !.

Anchoring is good if you anchor it to the "right" number. If you anchor too high, it will raise a red flag at the company and may cost you the job. If you anchor too low, you are doing self-sabotage. Also you cannot fake being confident talking about money. They will feel your stress, they definitely felt mine.

By just shutting up, you are safe in all cases and get the stress of getting the number right out of the way.

Another issue is that you would typically do the anchoring at the start of the hiring process instead of earning time.

❓Why is it important to earn time?

Giving up your salary expectation on the first call with an HR person is especially bad, because at that point the company has invested very little in you.

You are a random candidate in their job board.

As the interview process goes forward, if there is a good mutual fit, your perceived value will raise. They now know you. They like you. They want you.

❓ Does that mean I don't have to do my homework?

Nope, do invest some time learning about the typical salaries in your area.

Knowing your happy number and your walk-away number will strengthen your position.

You don't have to tell them though.

How you research salaries is another topic. Everyone knows about https://www.salary.com/ and https://www.glassdoor.com/, and by any means use them, but I am not sure how much I trust them. It seems to me that there is a big selection bias.

A complementary tactic that worked well for me was simply to... text 3 friends in our sector and ask for their opinion. "Hey, I am interviewing at XX. How much do you think I should ask?"

❓ I got an offer, what do I do now?

First: congrats.

Ask them to send you a written offer.

At that point, you may decide to make a counter-offer.

(Personally I didn't, but it's your right to do so).

Read more: Counter your job offer with this counter offer calculator and salary negotiation script

❓ Won't the company takes advantage of me if I say nothing?

Possible but unlikely.

Hopefully if you come far enough to have an offer, you are at a good company that wants you.

There is the pressure of the job market, they know you are interviewing at other companies that may make you an offer that match the market.

You know your walk-away number and happy number and are allowed to negotiate the offer.

❓Is there a way we could avoid this game altogether?

Yes.

My dream would be that more companies dare to be like Buffer.

Buffer is a big proponent of salary transparency. They have a Transparent Salary Calculator and even publish the salaries from every employee, up to the CEO.

Imagine how less stressful it would be to have the salary negotiation out of the way, because there is a formula for it!

I think lots of developers would love such a deal.

In fact when Buffer first publishes its salary calculator, they got a huge amount of candidates who wanted to apply.

Companies, if you have a hard time hiring, maybe try to be bold like Buffer!

📚 Where do I Go from Here?

Patrick McKenzie aka patio11 has written an incredibly liberating article on salary negotiation. You will not see the world the same way after you read it:

https://www.kalzumeus.com/2012/01/23/salary-negotiation/


Read the book Fearless Salary Negotiation. Josh Doody not only wrote a very insightful book on the subject, but he also published it for free on the internet.

https://fearlesssalarynegotiation.com/book/


If you want to learn more about negotiations in general, the best book on the subject is probably Negotiation Genius: How to Overcome Obstacles and Achieve Brilliant Results at the Bargaining Table and Beyond from Deepak Malhotra and Max Bazerman. This book proposes both amazing stories and a very practical framework to understand how negotiation work, and is just a delightful read.

This post is also available on DEV.