What Not to Say When You're Negotiating Salary

Businesswoman talking in the office
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When it comes to negotiating salary, what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say. If you’re a poker enthusiast, you’re already familiar with the phenomenon: The person who blinks or sweats or otherwise loses her composure is going to lose the hand. The same could be said for a in a salary negotiation.

To maintain your poker face and get the salary you deserve, you need to practice the art of being quiet unless you have something important to say. Your goal is to speak up only when it’s time to build your case—and not a second before. This is true whether you’re negotiating a new job offer, trying to get a pay raise at your current job, or making a counter offer.

Make a plan, and practice your pitch so that you’ll be comfortable when it comes time to sit down with the person holding the purse strings. There are also a few statements that you should avoid making. We summarize them here and then expand on them below.

Don’t Say
  • “I need more money.”

  • “I can’t afford my expenses.”

  • “Here’s what I made at my last job.”

Do Say
  • “The salary range for my position in this market is $X–$Y.”

  • “I’m able to solve X problems, and people who can do that are worth $Y in the market.”

  • “No, thank you” to an offer that’s too low.

"I Need More Money."

Salary negotiations aren’t about whether you need more money, or even whether you deserve more money. They’re about whether you can get more money. This means understanding the market and your place in it, and that leveraging that information to your advantage.

PayScale’s Salary Survey generates a free salary report based on your skills, education, job title, and location. Get the data, and you can make a case for why you’re worth a raise. (Short version: you’re able to solve X problems, and people who can do that are worth $Y in the market.)

"I Can’t Afford My Expenses."

Your expenses, like the rest of your personal life, are your business and no one else’s — least of all, your boss’s or the hiring manager’s. Oversharing not only won’t get you more money, but it might also cost you your colleague’s respect, and that has a much heftier price tag down the line than any missed opportunity for a pay raise.

Bringing personal details into a negotiation tells the other person a few things about you, and none of them good. For example, you might expose yourself as someone who can’t manage their personal budget, which will make a manager think twice about putting you in charge of the company’s money. Even if your personal situation is no fault of your own, trading in TMI during a salary negotiation shows that you don’t have a good sense of professional boundaries, which might make the boss feel uncomfortable working with you.

"Here’s What I Made at My Last Job."

This is a tough one because employers love to try to get prospective hires to share their salary history. (At least, where it’s legal. Several cities and states, including Philadelphia and Massachusetts, have enacted or are considering legislation that would make it illegal to ask candidates about their previous salary.)

Your salary history is irrelevant. The employer should be setting compensation for the role based on the duties that are involved in the job, as well as the qualifications needed to do the work. They might also consider factors like market competition, pay-for-performance, and other things that would give them the most bang for their compensation dollar. But your previous employer’s compensation plan (or lack thereof) shouldn’t come into it.

Further, if you’re female or just starting out your career or both, you have very good reasons not to share your salary history. It’s very possible that you were underpaid by previous employers, and felt compelled to take lowball offers because you didn’t feel comfortable negotiating.

If a hiring manager tries to get you to give your salary history, you can turn the question on its head by asking for the budget for the role. Failing that, you can stall by saying that you need to learn more about the job and its duties before you’d have a good idea about what’s appropriate. But whatever you do, avoid naming your price.

One Final Note About Negotiation

Body language speaks louder than words when it comes to professional interactions, so in addition to making sure you’re saying the right things, you want to convey the right message with your posture, expressions, and gestures. You might consider asking a friend to help you do a practice interview—and filming it, so you can see how you’ll come across to hiring managers during the interview and negotiation phases.

Avoid poor (or too persistent) eye contact, hunched postures, fidgety gestures like picking at your clothes or hair or tapping your feet, or anything that makes it look like you’re nervous. Remember that you have a right to be paid appropriately for your work and that it’s in your boss’s and employer’s best interests to do so. If you can go into the interview regarding the other person as a negotiating partner, instead of an adversary, it will be a lot easier to relax, smile, and make your case.

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