in Career

Should you wait for a written offer before you negotiate your salary?
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You’ll usually get an informal job offer before a written one, and you’ll typically negotiate the details before receiving a written offer. Here’s how.

The question

Is it better to negotiate a salary before or after a written offer?

I have been verbally offered a position, and on the phone, the company HR specialist asked me to fill out the salary information in my application (I had left it blank), and also asked me for my most recent pay level, my salary expectations, and what the lowest salary I would accept would be. I countered the last question by asking what they were prepared for. He named a figure that corresponds to my most recent annual salary, which was two years ago. I have been consulting in the last two years, and translating consultant rates to annual salaries is an imperfect science.

Do I wait for a written offer to provide reasons why I am worth $X, or do I provide such information before the written offer? On the one hand, providing a detailed justification for a number described on the  phone comes off as somewhat defensive. On the other hand, I’m not sure of the internal process. What difference it could make to provide my rationale for higher salary before or after the written offer–and why? Thanks for any thoughts.

My answer

Get the offer in writing if possible, but if they make you a firm verbal offer you can counter via email (which allows you to put their offer into writing—see below).

Don’t divulge your current salary or desired salary if you can avoid it

The main issue in a salary negotiation is that you’re at a huge informational disadvantage. The company knows a lot more than you do since they know what they’re willing to pay for your position, what they’re currently paying other similarly qualified candidates, etc.

If you tell them your current or desired salary, you’ll exacerbate that informational disadvantage. Instead, keep that information to yourself whenever possible and force them to make an offer without the benefit of knowing your current salary.

How to avoid sharing your current or desired salary can seem mysterious, so here’s what I recommend.

Most companies (usually the recruiter or hiring manager) will ask you what I call “the dreaded salary question”:

“So where are you right now in terms of salary, and what are you looking for if you make this move?”

This is really two questions in one: What’s your current salary, and what’s your desired salary?

Give an answer like this:

“I’m not really comfortable sharing that information. I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company and not what I’m paid at my current job.

I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation.”

They may be persistent, but if you divulge either or both of these numbers, you will likely cost yourself money.

This forces them to name the first salary in the negotiation

If you resist the dreaded salary question, then they will name the first number in the negotiation. In your case, they’re verbally naming it, but haven’t made you a written offer. If you can confirm that the verbal offer is a real offer, then you can counter in writing, essentially turning their verbal offer into a written one.

Replying to a firm verbal offer with a written counter via email essentially converts their verbal offer to a written one

Here’s how that might look as an email sent to a recruiter in response to a verbal offer made by a hiring manager. This is pretty long, but it’s an example from my book and it’s easier to just give the full example than try to excerpt it:

To: Brittany [recruiter]

CC: Katherine [recruiter’s manager]

Subject: Josh Doody ­ My thoughts on Tom’s verbal offer

Hi Brittany

I hope you had a great weekend!

I’ve been considering Tom’s offer over the weekend and everything sounds good, although I would like to discuss the base salary component.

I think I’m a particularly good match for this position, where I would add significant value to ACME Corp. and to the Tom’s Practice from Day One. I have a strong technical background and have built and managed teams of technical people. I am exceptionally good with clients, and have taught short courses on building rapport with and managing clients. I have an MBA and have successfully managed many portfolios of business in the Widget Making industry over the past seven years. I’ve been working with [Partner Company] for over two and a half years, and have experience with many of their partnership managers and leadership team. I have a strong technical writing background and can both create and delegate the creation of good collateral quickly and efficiently.

All of these qualities contribute directly to the core components of this particular position, and that’s why I’m excited for the opportunity to work with Tom and his Practice in this capacity at ACME Corp.

Tom offered $50,000 and I would be more comfortable if we could settle on $56,000. I feel that amount reflects the importance and expectations of the position for ACME Corp’s business, and my qualifications and experience as they relate to this particular position.

Thanks for your time, and I look forward to talking with you on Monday morning at 10:30 ET!

All the best


Notes pertinent to your original question

The next-to-last paragraph (“Tom offered…”) re-states their verbal offer in writing, so I’ve pretty much turned their verbal offer into a written one and countered in the same email.

You mentioned making your case in writing—note that I did that in the giant paragraph that starts with “I think I’m a particularly good match…” I have specific reasons for making that a single, very-long paragraph, but I won’t go into those here 🙂

That email example and the dreaded salary question are excerpts from my book, Fearless Salary Negotiation. You can get “How to ace your next interview”—a free chapter—and learn more at How to ace your next interview. The chapter goes into a lot more detail about how to prepare for the dreaded salary question and excel at interviews.

Or you can get the full book here: Fearless Salary Negotiation: Get it here