What should you do when a salary offer is lower than you expect?

Paul Levy; Author/Blogger; Former President and CEO, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center

Here’s the deal. By the time a company or a hospital or somebody else decides they want to hire you, they’ve spent a lot of time and effort finding the right person. And, yes, they might come in with a specific job offer: “We’d love you to join our firm. We think you’d be great for this firm. We’re happy to offer you X number of dollars.”

The main thing they want to do is close the deal. They want you to say yes. If at that moment, you respond by saying in a pleasant way: “Thank you so much. I’m honored to get this offer. I love this company or this organization, too. I think I could bring a lot of value. However, I’m concerned that the salary offer you’ve made is a bit low compared to what the market is paying for this position.” Instead of the number that they raise, you might say, “I was thinking something more in the range of Y instead of X.”

Now, if you do it in that way, just the way I did it, it’s friendly; it’s respectful. You’re not hiding the fact that you want to join them. In fact, you’ve told them you do want to join them. But you’re being forthright based on the research you’ve done about the position and the marketplace that you think the offer is a bit low.

The likely response — well, there are a few likely responses. One is, “Oh. You might be right. Let me review this; maybe we can offer you more.” Another response might be, “Well, you might be right in general about that, but in this company, we have a very strict salary scale and for purposes of internal equity, this is the most we can offer you.”

Either response is fine because you learn something. (Most places, by the way, expect you to negotiate and will be able to come back and offer you a little bit more.) But let’s say they say, and it’s really true, that they can’t pay you more. (By the way, right now we are just talking about money — there are other things to talk about, too.) You might say at that point, “Well, I understand that, and I wouldn’t want to be paid more than other people of my rank because I don’t want to create resentment in the firm. I respect that.” You might say, “What’s your policy in regard to signing bonuses?”

Again, you haven’t asked for a signing bonus — you’ve said, “What’s your policy?” That’s a respectful, inquisitive thing to ask. At which point, the person might say, “Oh yes, sometimes we offer signing bonuses” — in which case you’re going to get one. Or, they might say, “Well, we generally don’t offer signing bonuses,” at which point you could say based on your research, “I’m a bit surprised because I know other people in the field do.” And you get quiet at that point, and you wait for the response. Again, you’ve been pleasant, respectful, non-aggressive, not greedy, just representing yourself well. Who knows? You might end up with more money than you thought.