When a job application asks for my salary requirements, what should I tell them—and will this impact my ability to negotiate if I get offered the job?
I don’t want to put something too high in case I put myself out of their target salary range, but I don’t want to go too low and cheat myself out of what I’m worth.
Can I leave it blank? What is your advice in this situation?
The short answer to your question is that you should include in your job application as high a salary requirement as you can reasonably justify. I’ll explain the “why” in a minute—but first, let’s talk about the “how.”
Do your research to get your number—learn as much as possible about the position and comparable salaries from local and industry sources and job sites. See if you can get any insider information, too. Try looking for salary information on the company’s website or doing an informational interview with the position’s recruiter.
You’ll likely come up with a range, and you should put the highest number in that range that applies, based on your experience, education, and skills. And yes, that’s a little aggressive—but bear with me.
Next, I recommend writing “(flexible)” or “(negotiable)” next to your number. If you have room to do so—for example, in your cover letter—stress again that your salary requirement is flexible or negotiable and that there are so many working parts to compensation—benefits, job title, opportunities for advancement—that you’re certain you can find a way to satisfy both of you if you’re a good fit for the position.
Now, I realize that making an aggressive initial offer can be a scary proposition. So let me explain the reasoning.
First, when the value of an item is uncertain—as your services to a prospective employer are—the first number you put on the table acts as a strong “anchor” that will pull the negotiation in its direction throughout the entire bargaining process.
Professor Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University has explained the anchoring phenomenon this way: “Items being negotiated have both positive and negative qualities—qualities that suggest a higher price and qualities that suggest a lower price. High anchors selectively direct our attention toward an item's positive attributes while low anchors direct our attention to its flaws.”
By stating a salary requirement that is lower than your prospective employer might be willing to pay, you not only cheat yourself out of more money, but you might come across as unsophisticated or unprepared. By stating a salary higher than they might be willing to pay, you risk little harm, so long as you indicate that your salary requirements are flexible. And at the same time, you are communicating that you already know your skills are valuable.
Just as important as anchoring high, the second benefit of giving a number at the high end of your range is that you give yourself enough room to negotiate if you’re offered the job.
Research has proven that people are happier with the outcome of a negotiation if their bargaining partner starts at point A, but reluctantly concedes her first couple of requirements before saying “yes.” So, by stating an initial salary that leaves room for negotiation (I recommend room for at least three concessions, or back-and-forth conversations), you’re more likely to get what you actually want.
By far the best advice on making an aggressive opening offer is that contained in Galinsky’s short article, “When to Make the First Offer in Negotiations?” The three major takeaways are these:
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Aggressive
Galinsky’s research shows that people typically tend to exaggerate the likelihood of their bargaining partner walking away in response to an aggressive offer, and that most negotiators make first offers that aren’t aggressive enough.
2. Focus on Your Target Price
Determine your best-case-scenario outcome, and focus on that. Negotiators who focus on their target price make more aggressive first offers and ultimately reach more profitable agreements than those who focus on the minimum amount they’d be satisfied with.
3. Be Flexible
Always be willing to concede your first offer. In doing so, you’ll still likely get a profitable deal, and the other side will be pleased with the outcome.
Remember, there’s little to risk if you put out the highest number you can justify, but there’s a lot to lose if you don’t.
This article is part of our Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our experts are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask an Expert in the subject line.*
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