How To Counter a Low Salary Offer

Two women in the office.
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It’s hard to imagine something more deflating than nailing an interview for a job you really want, only to hear a number you couldn’t possibly settle for when it comes time to talk dollars and cents. Salary negotiations are the most delicate part of an interview — and a lowball offer only makes an already tense situation less enjoyable. The good news is, low initial offers are more common than you think, and they’re not the end of the world — or even the end of the interview — if you know what to expect and how to handle the situation. 

See: 14 Reasons You Didn’t Get a Call Back After a Job Interview
Find Out: 30 Odd Jobs That Pay Insanely Well

Go Into the Discussion Knowing What the Job Is Worth

Same as when you’re buying a car or renting an apartment, you should always do your homework before starting wage negotiations. 

“Research the industry standards and salary of jobs with similar job responsibilities to have numbers that back you up,” said Ashley Stahl, career expert at SoFi. “While negotiating, be able to speak to the industry standards that back up your salary requests.” 

Make Your Money Work Better for You

Also, remember that the strongest bargaining power is reserved for those who look for a job while they already have a job.

“The ultimate leverage in a new job negotiation comes if you’re currently employed,” said Rob Barnett, executive headhunter and author of “Next Job, Best Job.” “If you’re in a relatively stable situation, an outside offer has to be compelling enough to get you to jump ship. You have the leverage to let the new suitor know that you’re unwilling to leave for a lateral move.”

Learn: When These Big Companies Are Planning To Return To the Office

Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back

In terms of wishing they were anywhere else doing anything else, negotiating a lowball salary is right up there with public speaking and accidentally showing up to work without clothes for most people. That fear and anxiety — which is perfectly natural — has caused countless new hires to settle for less than they’re worth.

“Many people are afraid that negotiating their salary will cause them to lose their job offer,” Stahl said. “This is simply not true. Employers expect a counteroffer, so negotiation is low-risk. Remember that you deserve the optimum salary, so don’t underestimate yourself and be afraid to ask for a number that matches your value.”

Make Your Money Work Better for You

Practice Your Game Face No Matter the Offer

At the moment of truth, you should respond with the same poker face whether the offer is laughably low or higher than your wildest dreams.

“Cool is fine,” Barnett said. “Cold is wrong. If the offer rocks your world and it’s a lot more than you were expecting, don’t show those cards either,” Barnett said. “Don’t gush over a bigger offer than you were expecting. Continue to negotiate up because you’ve just found someone who wants to make you a happy camper.”

Keep Your Feelings — and Your Needs — Out of the Discussion

Your career and income are emotional issues — your discussion about them with a hiring manager is not. 

“I try to handle matters of money as if I’m placing my order at a sandwich shop — neutral, factual, and, most importantly, impersonal,” Stahl said. “Remember, negotiating your salary is strictly business. By accepting a job offer, you’re making an exchange of your time and energy for a monetary value based on the job market.”

When it comes to your own financial hardships or personal needs, keep in mind that hiring managers very well might care about your situation — but they’re not going to factor it into salary decisions. 

“No matter what personal stories you have about your life, or personal struggles you face, the weakest approach to salary negotiation is to ask for more money because ‘New York is expensive to live in,’ or because ‘you just decided to have another kid and the extra cash would be great.’ These things are personal and should be separate from the transactional nature of hiring talent for a specified role. No matter what challenges you’re facing, your salary should only correlate with the responsibility of your job, not your personal life.” 

So, What Should You Say?

So, what, then, should you say if the person across the conference room table comes back with a number that’s way south of what you were thinking? First of all, don’t lower the number you had in your head.

“Adjusting your opening demand in response to an employer’s extreme opening demand would be tantamount to offering a huge concession right from the start, without receiving anything in return,” said Lori B. Rassas, author of “The Portable Perpetual Paycheck” and “Negotiating Without the Nonsense.” So what do you do? First, you should ask the company to explain the basis for their proposal in the form of some objective evidence. You can explain that your research ‘indicates that this is out of line with what the market demands.’ If the company refuses to cooperate or provides you with an explanation that you don’t find acceptable, you can always decline to make a counterproposal ‘until the company is ready to make a serious offer.'”

If you’re not ready to walk away altogether, consider parroting the dialogue from these hypothetical negotiations: 

  • Ashley Stahl from SoFi: “The conversation could sound like this: ‘I’ve noticed the market is paying $40,000 to $55,000 for this level of responsibility in this niche, so I was just curious to see if this number is flexible? While I know $55,000 is a leap from the offer of $38,000, I’d love to perhaps at least meet halfway on the amount. Is this possible?”
  • Paul French, managing director of the recruiting agency Intrinsic Search: “This opportunity is a dream come true, but my target is closer to $70,000 to $80,000 base. Based on my experience and qualifications, and my market research for someone in this role, I believe this will be fair compensation. What do you think we can do to get closer to that?”

Remember To Look For Wiggle Room Beyond the Salary

The company you’re pursuing might not be able to go any higher in terms of salary — but that doesn’t mean you can’t squeeze more compensation out of the position. 

“Before you turn your offer letter into a ball, look beyond the salary,” said Maciek Kubiak, head of people at PhotoAiD, a biometric photography startup. “Perhaps you get other benefits and perks — such as tuition reimbursement, the ability to work from home one week each month, etc. — that offset the lower salary. Or, if you don’t, maybe there are some non-wage benefits you could apply for that would make the lower wage more palatable. You could ask for a signing bonus, health care coverage to start immediately if the company has a 30-day waiting period, extra vacation days, coverage of your moving expenses, etc. Play your cards and your chances right before you even think about turning down the offer. From my experience, I can confirm that salary alone does not ensure job wellness.”

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Last updated: Sept. 29, 2021 

About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.

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