Note: If you’d like a practical primer on negotiation, read my previous post on negotiation first — it tells you exactly what to say in a bunch of situations. This post is longer and more academic, but of course I include some practical tips and teach you what to say in a few situations, as well.
At interviewing.io, we’ve coached hundreds of people through salary negotiation. We’re good at it — our average user gets $50k more in cash, and we have a 94% success rate.
Having done this a lot, we’ve seen our users make the same two mistakes, over and over, BEFORE they start working with us. These mistakes are costly and make it harder for us to do our jobs. Our advice is applicable to everyone, but I wrote this post primarily to share with interviewing.io’s user base, so that future clients of our negotiation service don’t shoot themselves in the foot.
These are the two things you must avoid. Both involve how you talk to recruiters at the start of your job search, way before there’s an offer:
In this post, I’ll explain why these two mistakes routinely sabotage salary negotiation efforts and what to say to recruiters instead. In a nutshell, if you can just be in “passive information gathering” mode (more on that later) for most of your recruiter interactions, you’ll be golden. It’s hard to not to share info about your job search with your recruiter, especially as you build more rapport with them, but we’ll tell you exactly what to say instead.
Before we get into all of that, I want to go over two foundational things about negotiation.
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
I used to be a recruiter. I ran my own agency, and I also worked in-house before starting interviewing.io. That means that I’ve had to struggle with the tangled incentive structure that comes with being a recruiter (see the section called “You should write down your principles”). There’s always a tension — recruiters are, by and large, good human beings who genuinely want to help their candidates, but they also have an employer they’re beholden to, as well as a comp/bonus structure that rewards certain behaviors, some of which run counter to candidates’ best interests.
There’s some distinction between in-house recruiters and third-party recruiters (recruiters who work for an agency that does placement, rather than a specific company that’s hiring engineers).
My general policy with third-party recruiters is to not tell them ANYTHING and to always deal directly with the companies they introduce you, once you establish a point of contact there. You should assume that anything you tell your recruiter is going to get back to every company you’re working with. Why? Because their primary objective is to place your butt in the seat of one of the companies they’re working with, and they will do whatever they need to do to make the deal happen. Often, those things will run counter to your interests.
A big misconception that many candidates labor under is the idea that because third-party recruiters get paid every time they make a placement, their interests are fundamentally aligned. At a high level, this is kind of true, but once you dig into the details you'll see a lot of nuance.
A recruiter, depending on market conditions, gets anywhere from 8%-25% of the candidate’s base salary when they make a placement. In the current climate, it’s around 10%. However, that cut is going to the recruiting agency as a whole rather than to the individual recruiter — you will almost always end up working with large agencies rather than a sole-proprietor shop where the owner gets to take all of it home.
Let's say that you get an offer with a base salary of $150,000. You talk to your third-party recruiter and tell them that you would like more money. The recruiter may go to the hiring manager and try to advocate for you, but they're not going to push very hard because the incremental difference in their cut is going to be pretty small and to them the thing that matters most is getting butts in seats. After all, they're evaluated on the number of hires they make, first and foremost, independent of comp. Understanding that, let's do the math anyway. Say that they’re able to risk closing the deal and get you $165k. Before, the agency would have gotten paid $15k. Now the agency gets paid $16.5k. That incremental $1.5k isn’t worth risking a deal over (even a few thousand dollars would not justify jeopardizing the deal). On top of that, the individual recruiter is only going to maybe get a few hundred dollars total from that increase. So for them the difference really isn’t worth it. Third party recruiters are incentivized to get the deal done, not to risk the deal by negotiating hard for you.
Moreover, because they’re incentivized to get the deal done, you should assume that your recruiter will share anything you share with them with the company or companies they’ve introduced you to. If you tell them that a company is your first choice and that you’re tempted to accept, they will likely share that with the company and may even recommend that they not raise your comp, since you’re already so enthusiastic. If you share that you’re not very interested in a company, and the recruiter has other candidates they’re presenting, they will prioritize those candidates’ experience over yours and will possibly tell the company not to invest in you as hard.
What about in-house recruiters? In-house recruiters may or may not get a bonus for hires that happen on their watch; it depends on the company. But if they do, that bonus is generally NOT tied to your compensation, and in some cases, they may get a bigger bonus if they’re able to negotiate you down. At big companies, in particular, in-house recruiters follow a playbook. They’re trained to make offers within specific bands, and they’re trained to mobilize such that they don’t lose candidates to other big companies — if you wave a Facebook counteroffer in front of Google, they will act. If you tell them you’re interviewing at a startup, they will not, because they know that startups don’t pay as much. They’re actually evaluated on how well they follow the playbook. Because of that, there is no reason to assume that their incentives align with yours. They’re incentivized, first and foremost, to follow the rules their head of department sets for them. This is true for how they evaluate candidates, who they let through, and how they read resumes. And it’s definitely true for how they negotiate.
If you’re interested in peeking behind the curtain on how recruiters think, I interviewed three of the best ones in the industry recently. You can watch that below:
Probably because of bad books and airplane magazine ads (for those of you old enough to remember those), people often think that negotiation is all about saying the right thing, or how firm your handshake is, or any other amount of silly nonsense. The reality is that negotiation is all about preparation and leverage.
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Preparation and leverage means doing the work to make sure that you have multiple offers, that all your offers come in at the same time, and that you don’t tip your hand too early. Laying this foundation is 80% of the work. You’ll need to slow some companies down, speed some companies up, and hold off questions from recruiters until you’re ready to negotiate, and not before. If you do this right, the actual negotiation part will be easy and almost a foregone conclusion.
Is it possible to negotiate when you don’t have multiple offers and when you haven’t done the foundational work? Sure, it is, and we’ve sometimes had success with our users doing that. But it’s much harder, and the ceiling on how much more money you can get is lower.
With all that out the way, let’s talk about how the two biggest mistakes people make and how to not make them!
You’ve probably never been arrested, but if you’re like me, you’ve watched a lot of police procedurals on TV. You know the bit where they read the suspect their Miranda rights? They start like this:
You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…
Talking to recruiters is exactly the same, and one of the biggest mistakes we see our users make is sharing information too early. This is generally the only mistake we can’t walk back — once you share information, you can’t undo it, and sharing information actually has no upside, only downside. When you’re ready to negotiate, you’re doing so deliberately because you already know the state of the world, and you’re choosing to reveal the parts that set you up for success. Before that, you’re just revealing stuff that can be used against you.
Specifically, do not share with recruiters anything about your salary history (though it’s illegal in many states to ask this directly, there are indirect ways of asking, and many still do), your salary expectations, where else you’re interviewing, and how far along in the process you are with other companies. In short, don’t share any information about money or other interviews.
The main question recruiters ask up front about money is: “What are your compensation expectations?” They claim that it’s because they want to make sure that you’re not so far off in your expectations that interviewing with that company would be a waste of time. This is a nonsense reason — very few companies pay so much below market that it would be a nonstarter. Those companies know who they are, and they know to give you a heads up that they pay below market. Moreover, with the recent advent of companies sharing salary bands, you’ll have some idea if they're grossly below market before you interview. The real reason recruiters ask about compensation expectations is so that they can use it against you later in negotiations.
As such, if you answer this question with a number, you set an artificial ceiling on your offer. Do not even utter a single number to a recruiter until you’re ready to bargain. Do not go on levels.fyi and comment on the ranges listed for your level, even if you’re currently underpaid and an average offer from them would be life changing. Do not say a number first — ever.
You can see exactly what to say when you get asked about compensation expectations in the section called “How to handle recruiter calls” below.
The most obvious way to lose leverage is revealing information about money. The other way to lose leverage is by sharing information about where else you’re interviewing. If you share this information, you risk prematurely scaring off smaller companies because they don’t think they can win in a bidding war with FAANG. You also risk cornering yourself into a situation where the company knows your options are limited, and they might be inclined to lowball you as a result. Finally, you risk getting an exploding offer to try to force you to make a decision before you’re ready.
Below are some examples that I hope will drive these points home.
Let’s say that you’re currently interviewing at Google, Meta, and two startups (let’s call them A and B). You’re at the onsite stage with Google, you’re doing technical phone screens at both startups, and you’re just doing your first recruiter call with Meta. This is actually a very strong position to be in!
Of course, your Meta recruiter asks you about your comp expectations and where else you’re interviewing.
If you reveal your comp expectations, it will be hard to walk them back:
If you reveal that you’re at the onsite stage with Google and talking to some startups, here's what will happen:
Though you started in a strong position with multiple interviews, including at companies that are known to pay well, you’ve now weakened that position by sharing details.
Here’s another thing that could happen in this scenario. Let’s say that it’s the same set of companies as above, but this time you’re talking to the recruiter from startup A. The recruiter asks you where else you’re interviewing.
If you mention that you’re interviewing at both Google and Meta, they might get spooked.
Here’s a different example. Let’s say that you work at a startup, and you’re up for a promotion soon. You figured it’d make sense to see what’s out there as well, so you’ve started interviewing with another startup.
Your recruiter asks you in your first call about where else you’re interviewing and what your comp expectations are. You may be tempted to mention that you’re up for a promotion because that feels like it’ll give you leverage — if you get a promotion, the startup will have to work harder to entice you to leave, after all. Not so fast!
If you mention that you’re up for a promotion:
If you mention that you’re not interviewing anywhere else, that’s just a giveaway that you have no leverage:
The details may differ in your case, but the fundamental mechanics are the same. When you reveal information before you know what hand you’ve been dealt, it can only hurt you. I’m struggling to think of a scenario where revealing something has been beneficial.
I suppose the one exception to revealing information is this: Sometimes it can be useful to give your recruiter a rough estimate for when you’ll be collecting offers, e.g., “I’ve just started interviewing. I expect to get through all my interviews and onsites in the next 6 weeks and start collecting offers 2 months from now. Does that timeline work for you?”
This technique can be helpful for aligning expectations up front and then keeping recruiters off your back, as they won’t need to chronically text you to make sure you haven’t taken another offer yet (we’ll talk more about texting with recruiters in the next section). But note that even in this example, we’re not actually revealing any information about where you’re interviewing, how long it’s taking, or compensation. You’re just setting a timeline based on hypotheticals without giving out any details that can be used against you later. When you share the actual timeline you’re working with, you no longer control the timing of your job search, and a huge part of negotiation is controlling timing so you can make all your offers come in at the same time.
“Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”
-Unknown officer at the Battle of Bunker Hill
Just like not revealing information too early, you also want to avoid negotiating too early. They’re two sides of the same coin.
Think of it like a hand of cards. At the beginning, you have no idea what you’re going to draw. The longer you wait to negotiate, assuming you’ve timed things correctly, the more information you have. Then, when you’re ready to negotiate, you can look at your hand and selectively share information that puts you in the strongest position. For instance, if you have a high base salary from one company, a great equity package from a public company, and a signing bonus from a third company, you can strategically share those portions of the offers without sharing the weaker parts. Each negotiation is different, and it’s hard to give catch-all advice, but that’s generally the situation you should set yourself up to be in.
With that in mind, I’m a firm believer in negotiating when you’re ready and not before. Until you know what else is on the table, it’s really hard to 1) have the bravado that comes with actually having multiple offers (this is possible to fake, but trust me, it’s hard) and 2) negotiate effectively — you will never know as well as your recruiter what salary bands are like, what market comp is, and so on. They do this all day. This may be your first or fifth time doing it, but there’s massive experience and information asymmetry. There are two ways to combat this power imbalance: have as many of your interactions be asynchronous as possible (we discussed that earlier) and do everything you can to negotiate when you’re at the point of maximum information, and not before. Daniel Biales, one of our former negotiation clients, explained the latter really well.
When I received a low offer, my first inclination was to start the negotiating process. Aline helped me to realize that this was not the best course of action. The problem with this approach is that I wanted to start negotiating before receiving my highest offer. If I negotiated an increase then, I would have had to renegotiate when I received the higher offer. This will cause negotiating fatigue for you and the company. They will be less likely to negotiate a second time because they don’t know how many times you will ask them for more. First, focus on strategies to draw out your decision. Then, when you have all your offers, start negotiating. There may be a couple of back and forth communications, but they will be over a short time span rather than drawn out.
Let’s review our first example again. Imagine that you’re interviewing at Google, Meta, and two startups, A and B, just like before. Startup A makes you an offer: $160k base, 0.1% of the company in options over four years, no signing bonus. You react to it and say that you were hoping for a signing bonus. The recruiter comes back with a $10k signing bonus quickly and pressures you to make a decision, saying that they have other candidates waiting.
By starting to negotiate, you accelerated their timeline, and this is going to make it hard to go back and ask for more signing bonus.
You try to stall, and then a few days later, Google makes you an offer that includes a $25k signing bonus. You’re still excited about the startup for reasons other than compensation, but now you have to go back to them and say that you actually got a $25k signing bonus at Google. They are unlikely to move again.
So, don’t negotiate until you’re ready. It’s hard to walk things back.
That doesn’t mean it’s not possible to negotiate in stages and gradually start bringing up all your offers. In my experience, however, this is a much more difficult maneuver, takes way more experience, is much more stressful for the candidate, and often ends up with the same results as laying a solid foundation and just negotiating once at the end.
So what do you say when you get asked pointed questions by your recruiter about your comp expectations or where you’re interviewing? And how do you delay negotiation until you’re ready?
Until you’re ready to negotiate, your default mode should be “passive information gathering.” This means that you listen rather than talk. I coach all of our negotiation clients to be in this mode when they get on a call with a recruiter.
In all the snippets below, you’ll notice that they end with the same sentence: I promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.
This is deliberate, and it’s there because it’s disarming. Fundamentally, recruiters ask you all of these questions because they don’t want to lose out on you and have you go to another company. If you can speak to that worry head-on, there’s not much they can say back.
For questions about comp expectations at the beginning of the process:
At this point, I don’t feel equipped to throw out a number because I’d like to find out more about the opportunity first – right now, I simply don’t have the data to be able to say something concrete. If you end up making me an offer, I would be more than happy to iterate on it if needed and figure out something that works. I promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.
For when a recruiter provides you a salary range and asks you to comment on it at the beginning of the process:
Thank you for sharing that with me. Right now I don’t know enough about the opportunity to value it concretely. If you end up making me an offer, I would be more than happy to iterate on it if needed and figure out something that works. I promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.
For questions about comp expectations at the end of the process:
It sounds like there’s an offer coming, and I’m really excited about it. I’m not sure exactly what number I’m looking for, but if you’d be able to share what an offer package might look like, then I will gladly iterate on it with you if needed and figure out something that works. I promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.
For questions about where else you’re interviewing at the beginning of the process:
I’m currently speaking with a few other companies and am at various stages with them. I’ll let you know if I get to the point where I have an exploding offer, and I promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.
For questions about where else you’re interviewing at the end of the process:
I’m wrapping things up with a few companies and in process with a few more. I promise to keep you in the loop, and I promise not to accept other offers until I have a chance to discuss them with you.
I said it in the beginning, and I’ll say it again. Negotiation isn’t about saying the right thing. It’s about laying a foundation: not revealing anything until you’re ready to negotiate, not negotiating too early, and making sure that you’ve set yourself up to have multiple offers.
Then, once those offers come in, you swoop in with sharp precision, negotiate once (possibly with just your top choice company), and be done with it.
If you’ve set yourself up for success, done the foundational work, and haven’t made the mistakes in this post, the negotiation will feel like a foregone conclusion.
If you need some hands-on help navigating salary negotiation, sign up for our salary negotiation package. You don’t pay anything unless we get you at least $15k in cash compensation (at which point you pay the greater of 10% of the delta or $3k), and we’ll be with you every step of the way, for every recruiter call, every email you need ghostwritten, and every strategy discussion. Unlimited sessions, unlimited help, whatever we need to do to get you results.
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