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Career Corner: Pick a Number, Any Number

Salary negotiations and searching for a job can make you feel like a discount item on the shelf. – Courtesy photo / FASTILY (CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Angela Copeland

Sometimes, you want to feel like your work means something. You want to feel like a person who is performing a craft. You want to feel like a professional. Somehow, looking for a job can make you feel like a discount item on a shelf at a big box store.

The salary is an area where companies have lost their way. During your first phone call with a company’s HR department, the recruiter will ask you how much money you make – or how much you want to make. Recruiters will tell you that they’re simply trying to understand whether or not you’re inside their budget.

But, this is the thing. Companies have a wide band they can pay employees. Asking this question is like a game of chicken, where the company is hedging their bets to try to get a good deal. But, how much are they saving on this exercise? Is it worth the cost of upsetting a candidate?

Years ago, I shopped for a new car. I went to a typical car dealership where I was treated like prey. Then, I went to a Saturn dealership. Saturn was a completely different experience. There was no negotiation. There was no pressure. If the car worked for you, it was yours. If not, no problem. Despite that Saturn no longer exists, ask anyone who owned one what the experience was like, and you’ll find out just how positive it was.

Along similar lines, Glassdoor.com recently revealed that a ten percent pay increase only raises the likelihood of employee retention by 1.5 percent. So, what does this mean?

It means that employees are looking for the right job. They aren’t looking for the highest paying. They’re looking for fit and a lot of fit comes in the form of feeling like you’re treated with respect. Asking salary right out of the gate is the very opposite of respect, and it diminishes you and your work experience down to a price tag – one number. 

The good news is certain states and some cities are beginning to outlaw questions about your pay history. These laws are changing quite a bit, so you’ll want to look at what’s fair game in your area but the good news is that these new laws are shedding light on this important issue. Asking pay history can mean that if you’re underpaid today, you’ll continue to be underpaid in the future. Some companies are getting rid of the work history question completely, as the laws are changing. 

But, it won’t stop them from asking how much you want to make. Before you answer this question, do your research. Although it doesn’t feel like it, answering this question in the first call can weaken your negotiation power later.

Perhaps in the future, companies will begin to share their budget first. It would allow you to focus on fit, and ensure companies are paying everyone fairly.

Angela Copeland, a career coach and founder of Copeland Coaching, can be reached at copelandcoaching.com.