Why You Should Never Give a Salary Number First

By Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter

Every negotiation guide and expert will tell you: never give a salary number first. This advice is almost universally applicable, with very few exceptions.

The Rare Exceptions

Consider a scenario where your previous salary was inflated due to an economic bubble, and you’re negotiating after it has burst. Mentioning your previous salary might anchor your new salary higher, making the transition less drastic. This strategy, though it might feel disreputable, is exactly what employers do when they ask for your salary history. They use your past, often lower, salaries to justify offering you less than your current market value.

The Golden Rule: Never Give a Number

“But I don’t want to seem difficult,” you might think. You’re not being difficult or unprofessional. Employers are used to dealing with negotiation-savvy candidates. They often view those who give a number too quickly as less competent. Successful people in business negotiate regularly. Offering a number too soon signals to hiring authorities that you might lack critical negotiating skills.

Common Objections and Responses

  1. “I really need a number to move the process forward.”
    • What you should think: “This is a tactic to compromise my negotiating position.”
    • What you should say: “I’m more concerned with ensuring we’re a mutual fit. If we are, we’ll be flexible with the numbers. If not, the numbers won’t matter.”
  2. “This form needs a number.”
    • What you should think: “This is another tactic to compromise my negotiating position.”
    • What you should say: “If it’s necessary for the system, put in $1 for now. We can discuss real numbers later once we’ve established fit.”
  3. “We need to determine if you’re an appropriate candidate for the position.”
    • What you should think: “They’re trying to get me to reveal my hand.”
    • What you should say: “Let’s focus on why I am a great fit for this role. Here are some ideas and past successes that align with your needs.”
  4. “We can’t proceed without a number.”
    • What you should think: “They’re pushing me to compromise.”
    • What you should say: (If you’re an engineer) “I’d hate to walk away over this. The opportunity seemed great. The hiring market is tight; I can help connect you with other candidates.”
    • What you should say: (If you’re not an engineer) “Salary is just one part of the total compensation. In terms of total compensation, we’re looking at something like [insert number based on previous package plus 5-10%].”

The Underlying Strategy

Never giving a number first is about maintaining leverage. When you hold back, you allow the employer to reveal their range first, giving you the upper hand. This approach ensures that you aren’t anchored to a low starting point and can negotiate from a stronger position.

Conclusion

Understanding the psychology and strategy behind this rule is crucial for effective salary negotiation. By never giving a number first, you maintain control, demonstrate competence, and maximize your potential compensation.

Ⓒ The Big Game Hunter, Inc., Asheville, NC 2024

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