How to Handle Interviews and Salary Negotiation

How to Handle Interviews and Salary Negotiation

A lot of people ask me for negotiation advice, especially during their interview process. This is probably the #1 thing people say they're bad at when it comes to interviewing and which stresses them out.

This is largely because of the asymmetric information involved. How many salary negotiations does the average person really undertake, especially if you're younger than 30? Whereas the people you're negotiating with have probably been through this process numerous times.

I became much better at negotiation after I became a hiring manager and got to see the other side of it firsthand, including the candidate selection process and having a better sense of budgetary limitations.

We'll start with interviewing in general because that's the first hurdle to clear before you should ever worry about the money too much.

You need to understand your own goals for whatever your next job is. What do you want?

It's okay to be almost entirely focused on compensation (if that's really the most important to you) but it might be short-sighted. You should be playing a longer game than just a year or two out.

Where do you want to be in 10 years? What excites you? What motivates you?

These questions are VERY hard to answer especially when you're younger (in your 20s) because you don't understand the possibilities as well, nor do you have hands-on experience with the day to day minutiae of things you might think you want, but you should ponder anyway.

Also, all of this advice presumes that you're at least passably good at what you do given your experience level. It's okay to not be confident in your skills yet but you should still have confidence in yourself. You're smart. You can learn. You want to build toward something.

But let's assume you don't know yet and you mostly just want a job that offers you as much money as possible for your experience and opportunities to build useful skills (which is a great baseline).

The first thing to understand is that job postings are wish lists created by an employer, and possibly not even very accurate ones. They're often written hastily and sometimes even by someone without knowledge of what the job really entails.

They're a description of the candidate someone thought they'd LIKE to have, but as with any negotiation, what someone says they want and what they'll accept are two different things. Often they map only loosely to the real skills for success on a given job.

This is not me encouraging you to apply for jobs you're not qualified for.

This is me encouraging you to apply for jobs you really want regardless of the stated qualifications, even if you only meet some of them. You don't know what they really want until you talk to them.

And you also have no idea what their candidate pool looks like, what their urgency to fill the role is, and what their willingness to train someone up might be. All of these factors influence who they'll consider.

The best time to look for your next job is when you already have a job that you're demonstrating a level of competency at. The only real reason to leave is if you're dissatisfied with your comp or your work environment, assuming that a move is in line with your goals.

If you're in a work environment you hate, think deeply about what you hate about it and LOOK FOR A NEW JOB. One of the best predictors of work success is a good rapport with your boss. That's it. In the real world it matters a lot for all kinds of reasons I won't get into.

But blindly hopping without any real goals or movement toward a conscious career path is a good way to wind up with a sketchy looking resume of the type people warn against. This isn't the mark of death people say it is, but it's sure not ideal.

The fact that you care enough to read this thread is already a great sign. You are thinking about what you want and trying to learn to be better at something. But once you've identified the type of job you want, don't limit yourself to a small set of companies.

The more information you can get, the better. Talk to people who have that job. Ask them what industry salaries are. Ask them how much they make. Ask them what they think the role that you want should start at. Ask them what skills are the most valuable.

Use this information to know where you need to brush up and position your resume in a way that it highlights those valuable skills. Think about the experience you've had and how it might apply to the skills and tasks of the job you want.

DO NOT LIE ON YOUR RESUME OR IN INTERVIEWS. This can get you fired and is very bad form. Not only that, but a savvy interviewer will be able to suss it out and you don't want to be in over your head anyway. Nobody benefits from you lying, including you.

But you can do all kinds of things that offer skills that you can honestly discuss in the context of an interview that demonstrate commitment and interest. Wanna be a project manager? Find some project to manage and talk about that. It doesn't have to be paid or even fancy.

Once you get called up for an interview, this is where the magic happens.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is assuming this is an adversarial exchange (you vs the company or hiring manager) when in fact it's a collaborative exchange.

You're both after the same thing: A good fit for the role at a price that satisfies both of you. Understanding this and having confidence in your skills and aptitude is the best possible mindset for walking into an interview.

Ideally you're delighted about one another.

It's like dating in many ways. If you come off as needy or desperate or you're purely looking at things from a selfish perspective, it's going to be a turn off. If you're not self-confident, it's a red flag that you DON'T really think you're capable of doing the job.

Once you're in the interview, it's only partially about demonstrating the necessary skills. It's MUCH MORE important to build rapport with the people interviewing you. A likable candidate with average skills has much better odds than an arrogant asshole with amazing skills.

This is why honesty and humility are both important, and it goes both ways. Especially when you're talking to the hiring manager (your future boss) you need to be thinking "is this someone I want to work for"?

Lots of people end up in bad jobs (or bad jobs for them) because they're anxious and have a scarcity rather than an abundance mindset. This can be hard to avoid given how important our livelihoods are to us, which is why I recommend looking for a job before you need it.

But the truth is that there are always new opportunities. You don't want to take a job where you don't like your manager, your manager doesn't like you, or you're desperate and trying to get anything you can for the money (if you can avoid it).

The goal is to persuade the interviewers that you're a GREAT candidate for the job and someone they want for the role. You almost certainly won't know their real feelings about you, so just try to make the best impression you can, be confident, and don't downplay yourself.

In an interview, everyone is selling themselves (at least a little). If you tried to sell someone a thing and kept apologizing for the features it didn't have, you're creating a negative impression. Be honest about your best qualities and ready to explain how to bridge gaps.

This is a critical step for the negotiation because the interview process is where your leverage comes from. You want them to want you. If they don't, you'll have a harder time negotiating (and do you really want a job where they don't really want you?).

The more they think you're a GREAT candidate for the role, the better your odds of negotiating a higher salary will be. You don't even have to be the best candidate. You just have to be a good one that they want (2nd or 3rd choice is often fine if 1st refuses).

A lot of this impression comes down to signalling that you'll be a good person to work with rather than having the right laundry list of skills. This is why the rapport and a demonstration that you're motivated is more important than nailing all the job requirements.

This stage is CRITICAL because you never have more leverage than before a company has hired you and when they want you for a job because you're much likelier to walk away now than once you're in a role. Everyone knows this.

Even if your manager loves you they may be bound by company policy or politics when it comes time to give you a raise or a promotion that will cap what they can give you. But these rules are looser during the hiring process.

There are all kinds of things that can happen here. If your salary goal is out of band, they might be able to adjust the title up a level or seek an exception. They might have another role that fits. They're not likely to offer you these kinds of things once you're hired.

The classic advice of "don't give your current salary" applies because they'll try to peg to that if they can, but there are lots of ways to dodge this (Google it). If they force you to give a number before talking to you, you can give them a soft target.

And then say that you'd really like to discuss hard numbers after you know more about the job and what they're looking for. This is an entirely reasonable request and signals that you care more about fit than money (which is a good signal).

Next step is to have really good data about what this job is worth and how developed your skills for the role are. You should have uncovered their needs during the interview process. I hope you asked lots of questions about what success looks like in this role.

Don't just trust a Google search and pay scale sites. Those rely on self-reported data and are gameable. Also talk to people who are doing this job or ideally MANAGING people in this job in your area. Get a feel for market rates via primary research and networking.

I like to figure out what a reasonable range is and then target the top of that range. Don't get nervous if it's a large jump from your current salary. This is the best way to shoot yourself in the foot. You're negotiating for this role, not your last role.

If you're within a reasonable range and you're already past the interview process (negotiating for the role) giving them a number on the high end of the range is very unlikely to cause you to lose the job. Negotiation is normal and they still want you.

Most people don't feel confident doing this, so pick a number you feel comfortable with and add 20%. Your ask should feel a LITTLE uncomfortable to you. If it feels totally reasonable, you're either a narcissist or you're probably leaving money on the table.

In most cases, if it's too high, they'll just tell you that and make you a lower offer. This isn't a slam on you. They're playing a game with you. They have a budget and you have a target. If you ask in a way that's respectful you're not going to piss them off.

If they ask for justification (which they probably won't, salaries are ego-driven and individual) you can just say that you know you do great work and that's your target. In an ideal case, if they like you a lot, they'll just give you what you asked for and everyone is happy.

Remember that they're anxious too. They've invested a lot in you at this stage in terms of time and effort. They don't want to lose you and they know that coming down 30-40% from your target is likely to send you packing.

If they do make an offer that far away from your stated target, I would seriously consider walking away or ask them for more information about why they're coming in so low. Uncover their objections (just like in a sales process).

But if this happens at this point, it's usually one of three things:

1) Severe budget restriction

2) You've wildly misjudged local salaries

3) They don't respect you and think you'll take a lower offer

If they cite the budget or pay bands within the company (case #1), you can press on asking for a title adjustment or an exception because you believe you're worth it. Again, do this very respectfully. Be confident in your value and inquire about that as a possibility.

If they tell you that no one makes that much money in this role (#2), hopefully you've already validated whether that's true or not. Either way, you're probably at a sticking point. If they're lying, you don't want to work there. If it's true, you won't come up much.

But if you suspect it's true and have evidence you're not delusional about local salaries, you can say something at this point like, "It's less than my target, but I'm still very interested. Is there anything else we can do to bridge the gap?" Make them answer.

The third case (#3) is the worst and is likely to affect you most earlier in your career or with shady employers. If they try to convince you you're not good enough for that fair market salary and should take 30-40% less, walk away. Salaries are made up and individual.

This is a MASSIVE red flag. Think about the signal this sends. "We want you for this job, and we agree that some people are worth this amount, but you aren't yet." Why would they hire you for a job you can't do? This is a terrible way to start a business relationship.

In most cases, companies will probably come back with an offer 10-30% below your stated target. This is good and fine and normal (and why I told you to bump your ask 20%). This is where standard negotiating advice comes in. At this point, you've got it if you want it.

We're also not talking about THAT much money in the big scheme of things for either you or your employer (but more for them than you). There's a few things you can try here depending on what's important to you.

If they're actually coming in at a target that feels good to you, you can just accept. 10-20% down from your inflated target is still pretty good and everyone should be happy if things have been conducted well until now.

But if the gap is really important to you and they're below your actual target, you should go through the same process I described above to find out what the issue is. Then tell them you want time to think about it.

Come back in a day or two with a new target. Do not just ask them, "Can we come up any higher?" You're asking them to negotiate against themselves. Unless they're dumb, they won't do that.

Again, you need to be friendly and collaborative with this. Your messaging should be, "I'm really excited about the offer and thrilled to come work with you. I'd still like to be a little closer to my target. Can we make (5-20% down from your initial ask) work somehow?"

At this point they'll usually either tell you it's the final offer or come back with one more better offer that's likely to be the final one and you'll need to make the decision for yourself. Remember to consider the job holistically.

Hopefully you REALLY liked the hiring manager, and if you felt a strong rapport with them it might be worth coming down slightly on your target. Again, having a good manager relationship is priceless and will open doors for you.

Remember that job satisfaction is about more than just money. But if you're not getting what you really want, you need to walk away and politely decline, telling them that you appreciate the offer but it's just not going to work at that salary level.

This is okay (abundance mindset, remember?)! Sometimes this may even trigger them to reconsider. But if you walk away you shouldn't expect this. There are lots of jobs out there and lots of ways to make money. Don't settle. Try a new approach. You'll be happier for it.

The ultimate goal of any interaction like this is for both you and your employer to feel great about having you in role, and once you're in, any mild discomfort from the negotiation process will quickly be forgotten.

Advocate for yourself. No one else will.