Negotiating Your Salary: Who Flinches First?

Last month, an e-mail list I'm on erupted into a debate about whose responsibly it is to name a dollar amount first during the job interview process: the applicant's or the employer's.

"It's the candidate's responsibility," typed several human resources professionals, hiring managers and recruiters on the list. "How am I supposed to move forward with interviewing you if I don't know what salary you're looking for -- and if, for that matter, we can even afford you?"

"Unfair!" cried a number of employees and career coaches on the list. "A candidate is damned if she does name her price and damned if she doesn't. Name a number too high -- especially when companies are slashing budgets right and left these days -- and you're eliminated before the next round. Name a number too low and you risk leaving thousands of dollars on the table."

The interview process would be infinitely easier if every job listing came with a price tag. But alas, the game is rarely played this way, even in a good economy.

Instead, interviewers routinely ask, "How much money are you looking for?" right off the bat. Candidates coyly reply, "My fair market value, which I'm sure is what your organization is paying." And everyone buys into that counterproductive "Whoever names a dollar amount first loses!" mentality.

So let's talk about the best way to play this price-naming game, recession be damned.

Know Your Worth

You'd think a person who's been in the work force five, 10 or 20 years would know what their market value is before they head into an initial interview or phone screening with an employer. But I hear from people every month who put off thinking about that magic dollar amount until the interview loop is over and the job offer's on the table. Even then, many candidates don't know what they're worth, let alone how much dough they'd even want to do the job.

If this sounds familiar, don't despair. Web sites like Salary.com and PayScale.com can help. Just be sure you're looking at salary figures for your industry, experience level and geographic location. The site Glassdoor.com, which lets workers post their salary anonymously, can also be a gold mine of information, as can many professional associations, which conduct surveys on what others in your field are making.

But what about the recession? Does our current economic roller coaster -- and the fact that companies are clamping down on spending -- have any bearing on your market value?

Across the board, it shouldn't, unless you work in an industry that has taken some serious financial hits. That said, scour the Web for any news on companies you're applying with. Also sniff around with your personal and professional networks. Better to find out before the interview that an employer recently instituted a companywide 25 percent salary cut.

When in Doubt, Deflect?

OK, so let's say you've determined what you're worth and you've just spent the last 30 minutes dazzling a human resources rep at a financially healthy company you'd like to work for. Predictably, your human resources pal pops that fateful question: "How much money are you looking for?" (Or, "How much did you make in your last position?")

This is where many career coaches advise you to tight-lip it or deflect the question with another question.

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