5 Salary Negotiation Rules You Should Always Follow

Finessing how and when you bring up salary in the interview process comes down to communication—how to start the conversation or respond to questions, if your interviewer brings the issue up first.

Interviewing for a job can feel a lot like dating, a situation that requires you to choose your words carefully and where timing is, very often, everything.

When it comes to asking about—and negotiating—the salary for a new job, it’s important not to start those discussions too soon or too late, or you could wreck your chances of being hired.

Career experts are conflicted on the topic of timing. Some feel it’s never too soon to ask about salary, others advise saying nothing until an offer is on the table–then you can close the deal.

Finessing how and when you bring up salary in the interview process comes down to communication—how to start the conversation or respond to questions, if your interviewer brings the issue up first.

Here are five rules that will help you navigate the issue of salary during an interview:

Don’t introduce the topic first.

The topic of salary will probably come up at two points during the interview process–initially and when an offer is made. Even if things are going great and you think you’re going to get an offer, don’t start talking turkey. It could actually remove you from consideration altogether. As longtime coach Roy Cohen has said, bringing up salary at the first interview is “like saying on a first date, how many kids do you want?” Until you have an offer, salary discussions are premature (and somewhat meaningless, since you aren’t yet negotiating over the job).

Deflect questions about salary requirements or history.

Although you aren’t raising the issue of money, the employer certainly might. Of course salary is important to you, but your initial response should be to politely deflect as much as you can. Let the interviewer know you are open to negotiation and that you’re confident you would be able to reach a mutually agreeable figure when the time comes.

If you get pushback from the interviewer, who is looking for something more substantive, explain that you’re not comfortable giving a specific figure this early in the interview process. Stress that to you, compensation is more than salary, and that your main interest is in the career opportunity and making sure it’s a good fit. If you’re asked about your salary history try to be similarly vague with your answer, answering that it’s not possible to compare your most recent or current position with this one because the roles are different, as are the companies, with different compensation structures, benefits and performance evaluations.

Know what you’re worth in the market.

Even before your first interview, you should have researched what comparable positions at other companies are paying, in both salary and benefits. Payscale and Glassdoor are good places to look for salary information. If you work with a recruiter they should be able to give you an accurate salary range. Take a look at the value of certain benefits, such health and dental, flexible work hours, stock options or tuition reimbursement. If you get an offer, you’ll be in a much better position to negotiate in a way that encompasses all the parts of your compensation.

Raise the salary topic on your second interview.

If you’re invited back for a second interview then you can broach the salary question. You don’t have to ask for specifics, but knowing if you and the employer are in the same ballpark is important if you’re going to move forward in the interview process. Ask if this is an appropriate time—and if you’re speaking to the right person—to have a conversation about the position’s salary.

Keep it simple at this stage and say you’re focused on positions in a particular base salary range and would like to know if the position for which you are interviewing is in that range. That should be enough information for you to gauge if the position will pay what you are seeking (or close to it). Remember to make sure you say “base salary,” because total compensation includes bonuses and employer paid benefits. This gives you room to negotiate if the company makes an offer.

Don’t play games.

When you get the offer, it’s best to be straightforward during negotiations, because it wastes a lot of time and energy to engage in a game of cat-and-mouse. Instead, by knowing your worth in the marketplace–and to this employer—you can make a clear decision. And remember if you’ve gotten an offer that means they want you, so you’re in a strong position to ask for what you want too.

About the Author

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist who writes about entrepreneurship, technology, small businesses and the workplace. She was a career columnist for the New York Times and is a regular contributor to the paper's small business section.