Ask the Headhunter: How to deal with an unfair job offer

Nail the employer down on the salary terms to begin with, or end the discussion. If they balk, it's better to know up front.

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community over the past decade.

In this special Making Sense edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards, or salary negotiations. No guarantees—just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.


Question: I applied for a new position at a mid-sized company. The benefits are good, but during the phone interview they disclosed that the salary range started at $45K. I said this was low for my range of $55K-$65K. HR indicated an unwillingness to discuss salary and said they wanted to see if we were in the same ball park. Being only $10K higher, I felt we were and we moved forward.

Two face-to-face interviews followed, totaling four hours. I met about 10 employees. Shortly after my second interview I received an offer from the HR Manager for $50K — $4,900 under my target. I countered, taking care to support my request by reiterating my value to the company, asking for $60K, figuring we would settle in the middle.

Within hours the HR manager replied with a flat rejection, advising me to consider the whole package. "To offer anything higher would not be in line with the other positions in the career path."

My question: Am I done here? Have I reached the "take it or leave it" stage? Should I counter again to request a signing bonus? If so, do I request it of HR or the hiring manager. I'm not even sure the hiring manager was informed of my original counter offer. Regrettably, I neglected to copy her. Any advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated. My last full time position ended in 2012 and at the time I was making $48K.

Nick Corcodilos: What you were making last is immaterial. (See "Should I disclose my salary history?") What matters is what you're worth to this organization, and how important it is to you to get an income. I compliment you for stating your desired range up front. (See "How to decide how much you want.")

If HR knew your desired salary range "would not be in line with the other positions in the career path," why did they waste your time? HR bungled this — they drew you into interviews under false pretenses. (See "7 Mistakes Internal Recruiters Make.") Other than being clear about your desired salary, the only other thing you could have done to avert this was to be even more assertive, and get them to say it out loud – "We have no problem with an offer between $55K-$65K if we make an offer at all. Let's go ahead with our interviews."

The other problem is the hiring manager, who clearly let HR waste her time, too. Please see "Hand-walk the offer," a wake-up call to managers.

Job applicants tend to be too meek about money. This is why I advise people to forget about being so deferential. You're about to invest a lot of time, effort and emotion. Nail the employer down on the salary terms to begin with, or end the discussion. If they balk, it's better to know up front. Anything else is dangerous wishful thinking.

What they've done is a classic sales tactic: the salesperson sticks a foot in the door to force their way in. If they can get you to listen to their pitch for hours, they know you're likely to justify doing something you don't want to do (buy something or accept a deal you don't really want) because you invested all that time. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book, and a well-documented phenomenon in social psychology.

Now – what to do. Forget about HR. They already disrespected you and deserve nothing more. It's the hiring manager you need to talk to. But I would not call to complain. I'd call to reiterate your interest in the job and in working together. Be totally positive.

How to say it:

"I've thought about our discussions, and I believe I can improve your bottom line by doing X, Y and Z. I want to work with you and your team – I think we're a great match, and I want to thank you for deciding to hire me."

You're making a commitment to the manager here. Don't try negotiating unless you do that. You need to give the manager the reasons she needs to get you the money. Then proceed.

How to say it:

"However, there's the matter of the terms. I want the job. I want to work with you. However, I'm perplexed. When I first talked with HR, they asked my desired salary range and I was very candid that it's 55K-65K. They decided to go ahead with our meetings. However, HR has made an offer below the ballpark we acknowledged. I'm ready to come work for you tomorrow – and I think I could add $x to your bottom line. (Make an estimate that you can defend – this is important! See "How do I prove I deserve a higher job offer?") I'd be glad to discuss the salary with you if you still want to hire me — and I'm glad to compromise on a reasonable compensation package."

Then be silent and see what the manager says. Many managers will fold quickly under the pressure of HR – that's what destroys organizations. If this manager really manages her operation, she may go to bat for you. It all depends on how much she wants you and how potent she is. If she demurs, then I'd drop them like a hot potato. Don't waste your time.

Of course, if you need the income, I'm the last person to tell you to forego a sure thing, if you're willing to take less money. That's up to you. But they're only going to budge if the manager takes this up. I'd avoid HR like the plague at this point because they've already revealed how they operate – without integrity.

In the end, it's really up to you. But if you approach them the way I'm suggesting, you must be ready to walk away if they aren't reasonable about negotiating. Use your best judgement and do the best you can. I'd love to know what you do and how this turns out. The only person who can make this happen is the hiring manager.

The reader follows up: I wanted to follow up, Nick. The hiring manager did not respond to my request for a conversation about salary. Instead I received the following email from HR.

Good Afternoon [name],
R____ forwarded your recent email to me to respond to you. All employment offers are communicated thru the Human Resources office; however all hiring decisions, including the salary offered, are discussed and agreed upon by the hiring Director, COO and Human Resources Manager. Before I responded to you, I met with R____ and F_____ again to discuss your request for reconsideration of the salary offered. It was agreed that we had that the offer was appropriate based upon your qualifications and requirements of the position.

So, Nick, that is where we stand. I am blown away by their unwillingness to even discuss salary. I have not given them a final answer yet, but now I am very concerned about who I would be going into business with if I accept the position. I really appreciate your feedback and your moral support. I am glad I tried. I think I would have always regretted it if I hadn't and as it turns out, I am wiser for it.

Nick Corcodilos: I agree. It's troubling that the manager did not respond to you directly. What this reveals to me is a highly regimented management structure where personal responsibility and accountability take a back seat to bureaucracy.

Good for you for trying to negotiate with the manager. I'm not suggesting you should turn down the offer, but please read this anyway: "Turn down that job offer." While you consider your final decision, the issue is that you tried to negotiate, and they didn't give you the courtesy of a discussion after they ignored your salary range to begin with. Note the passive voice in the e-mail you received – classic HR: "It was agreed that…" It seems no one is actually responsible.

I think you did the right thing, and you have closure. Whatever you decide, if anything I said helped, I'm glad.

Dear Readers: What would you do at this point? Would you accept the job and the salary? Or would you move on to the next opportunity? Have you ever invested a lot of time with an employer who misrepresented a job — after you were candid about what you were looking for?


Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth "how to" PDF books are available on his website: "How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you," "How Can I Change Careers?", "Keep Your Salary Under Wraps" and "Fearless Job Hunting."

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

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