Five responses to one treacherous question: Your “minimum salary requirements”

Ever applied for a job online? If so, you’ve probably been asked to provide your “minimum salary requirements.” And what did you say? Whatever your answer, it was risky. Because the question is nothing short of a minefield: Too high, and your application will get binned before your browser closes. Too low, and your wish will probably get granted.

It’s a treacherous question, so there’s no surefire answer. But some simple do’s and don’ts can diffuse at least a few of the landmines, making at least this small corner of life negotiable. So I will shortly offer five tips for responding to this treacherous question.

But first, let’s answer a possible objection to the whole premise. Isn’t the opportunity to state your salary requirements a golden opportunity to make the first offer, as I’ve often advised? No. Because you’re not yet included in the discussion, and first offers only help once you are. Before you even think about anchoring the other side, you need to convince them to seriously consider your application. Since you’re not yet there, I’d suggest the following five strategies.

  1. Try to get included: Ironically, the best solution to the salary question is to get there right now if you can—to get yourself considered at least informally before you state any salary numbers. Though you can’t always do it, sometimes you can: sometimes you do have opportunities to contact an organization and pique their interest before completing an online application. If you find yourself in that fortunate situation, make the most of it! If they’re already interested before your application arrives, your salary number probably won’t scare them off.
  2. Try to skip the question: Oftentimes we can’t get included beforehand. We really want the job but just don’t know anyone at the company. In that case, you might consider skipping the salary question. It’s a simple strategy and not always possible (see the little red asterisk). And even if it is, it’s not always riskless, as the recruiter may just bin your incomplete application. But if they didn’t require a response, you have to figure they had a reason. Presumably, they wanted to give you the opportunity to abstain. Consider taking it!
  3. Try to answer with words: Sometimes you’ll see the red asterisk next to a text box. The beauty of text boxes is that they allow text. Hence the opportunity to type something like, “I would appreciate the chance to discuss salary once I learn more about the role.” It’s often worth a try. And do type something like that rather than or “…” or “TBD” or “:)”.
  4. Don’t provide a range: Sometimes people see the text box and perceive the opportunity provide words but feel psychologically compelled to provide numbers. I’d try to counteract that compulsion if you can. But if you can’t, then I’d provide a single number. I wouldn’t provide a range, especially one with the higher number being your goal and the lower number being your bottom line. Because then you can pretty much count on getting your bottom line. Although you could provide a higher range, that strategy in this situation is probably too risky.
  5. Do your homework: Sometimes the company’s sneaky programmers not only insert the red asterisk but also require you to enter a number. Worse yet, they require you to pick a number from a drop-down list. Well, then you’re pretty much cornered. So what number should you provide? The best you can do is your homework. Plenty of websites provide plenty of information on the salaries associated with various roles and companies (e.g., Vault.com). Plenty of nodes in our social networks could provide such information or at least connect us to someone who can. So, if you have to provide a number, there’s no substitute for careful research, which will hopefully surface a number larger than your bottom line. And if you’re confident in your number, state it with confidence, knowing that the company has probably benchmarked against Vault.com at some point or another.

Life is not risk-free, and neither are these strategies. But I do hope they help you diffuse a few landmines, or at least tiptoe gingerly between them.

Have you tried any of these strategies yourself?

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Negotiation success through graduation platitudes

The graduation season is upon us! Setting aside all of the reasons for joy and celebration, that can only mean one thing: so is the season of the platitude-laced graduation speeches. And while few of us enjoy platitudes, many of us would probably acknowledge that they contain nuggets of wisdom. Why else would wise people keep repeating them?

Thus, in the spirit of the season and in hopes of making life more negotiable, I thought it might be useful to investigate whether the most common platitudes contain any nuggets of wisdom about negotiation. So here are five common platitudes and their implications for negotiation—all of which are surprisingly informative and eerily consistent with negotiation research:

  1. Dream big: With this omnipresent platitude, speakers advise graduates to set their sights high, shoot for the stars, aim for their most cherished objectives. And when the going gets tough, should they quit? No! Double down and try again. Well, that’s exactly what negotiation instructors have advised their students to do for decades: set aggressive targets reflective of ideal goals, then continue to doggedly pursue them—creatively if necessary—without ever giving up or giving in.
  2. Don’t look back: Quickly on the heels of the first platitude, many speakers offer the second, suggesting that graduates should not only dream big and persist, but also resist the temptation to regret “what could’ve been.” In an eerily similar vein, negotiation research suggests that people should focus on their target while bargaining, but then evaluate the agreement against their bottom line, the goal being both a great outcome and a negotiator who doesn’t look back in regret.
  3. Do what makes you happy: This common platitude advises graduates to look beyond the socially sanctioned markers of success (e.g., a big paycheck) in order to pursue their true motivations—the factors that will truly dictate their happiness or lack thereof. In very much the same spirit, Getting to Yes and nearly every negotiation course it inspired advises negotiators to “focus on interests rather than positions.” When negotiating, that is, try to satisfy your true, underlying motivations (your interests) by going beyond surface-level positions—many of which inevitably involve money.
  4. Thank the people who got you here: Speakers often ask graduates to pause their aspirations and thank the people who got them this far. Similarly, I have argued that that life is only negotiable when we occasionally stop negotiating long enough to express gratitude for the people around us.
  5. Always wear sunscreen: Perhaps this one hasn’t quite reached “platitude” status, but it sure got popular a few years back. We could dig pretty deep into the underlying meaning, but let’s just go one level deeper than the words: don’t forget to take simple steps that protect you from bad outcomes. There are lots of ways to go wrong in negotiations, but negotiation research has long shown that negotiators without alternatives almost always get burned.

So the platitudes in those graduation speeches actually turn out to capture numerous nuggets of negotiation wisdom. Something to ponder the third or fourth time you hear a speaker telling you to “dream big.”

Getting to no: Three more reasons that you might want to disagree

Even before the first class in my negotiation courses, I always ask my students to read Getting to Yes. Indisputably the most influential book on negotiations, it breaks down the misconception that negotiations are necessarily combative, presenting four principles to help readers identify win-win solutions instead.

It’s a great book, and that’s why I assign it. But in the first class, I also tell my students that it’s got at least one major problem: its title. Because “getting to yes” implies that the goal of negotiation is reaching agreement. And often it is, but sometimes it’s not. If my students don’t learn to tell the difference, they open themselves up to calamity.

And the same goes for you—and me, and everyone else. Knowing when to get to no—when it’s actually better to walk away from the table instead of reaching a crummy agreement—is essential for making life negotiable. So let’s consider three common situations when you should consider setting your cooperative instincts aside, agreeing to disagree instead:

  1. When you’ve got a better alternative. If you can buy a car for $20,000 at another dealer, don’t pay $21,000 for the same car at this one. Pretty obvious, right? Yes in theory, no in practice. Although we know we shouldn’t agree to something obviously inferior, many of us still do. We can’t resist the sweet smile of dealer sitting across the current table. Or we’d feel guilty abandoning him after taking so much of his time. Or we convince ourselves that it’s not really worth a thousand dollars to deal with another car dealer, even though it definitely is. All of these issues contribute to the agreement bias: our well-known tendency to agree to inferior deals. Luckily, now that you know about it, you won’t have to do it.
  2. When the process or outcome would be questionable. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooking, but something about the whole affair just doesn’t smell right. Perhaps the deal is prefaced upon a conveniently omitted fact. Or it would damage a really important relationship. Or it would make you tremendous amounts of money at a vulnerable party’s else’s expense. Although the temptation is to charge ahead, chances are that you’d eventually land in hot water—with your own conscience if no one else. Another good time to walk away.
  3. When you need more time to decide. Sometimes you’ve got a perfectly good deal cooked up and it seems perfectly ethical, but you’re still not sure you should settle. Why? Because you don’t have a better alternative at the moment but suspect you will soon. Perhaps you found a nice little house and are tempted to make a nice little offer, but you’re secretly afraid that a nicer, bigger house might come on the market if you waited a week. Negotiations are not static occurrences; they take place over time, which means your alternatives can change with time. Although there’s no perfect way to know what the future will bring, few of us having a perfectly clear crystal ball, the suspicion that you might have a better alternative tomorrow is a good reason to get to no today.

These are just three examples, but they highlight an important fact that will make life negotiable: agreements are nice, and reaching them is often a nice goal. But our real goal is achieving outcomes that make us and the people around us happy. When our current negotiation won’t do that, we’re best off walking. In praise of disagreement again!

Have you ever walked away and known you did the right thing?