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Liz Ryan Headshot

Lowball Salary Offer? Here Are 10 Ways to Bridge the Gap

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"I'm terrified," my friend Belinda told me. "Why?" I wanted to know. "The guy I've interviewed with three times just left a message on my cell," she said. "I'm almost positive he's going to make me an offer."

"How is that terrifying?" I asked her.

"He's a great guy," she said. "I love the product, I love the mission. I like the guy and I like his team. I'm afraid they're going to lowball me on the salary offer."

"What makes you say that?" I asked her.

"Oh, he told me how he and the other execs took huge pay cuts to join the company," said Belinda. "I'm certain he was setting me up for the usual pitch -- take the job and we'll eventually get you to something like a market salary. I'm not doing that. I just want to know whether they're going to be five thousand low, or fall off the bottom of the chart entirely. It's driving me crazy, wondering."

"Geez Louise, girl, you're driving yourself crazy," I said. "Call the man, already!"

Belinda called. The offer was $7,500 less per year than what she could accept, and she wasn't being greedy. "I know he wants me, but they're not able to budge on the salary very far," she told me.

"Do you want the job?" I asked her.

"I want the job with a reasonable package," she said. "Okay, Belinda," I told her, "let's make a list. We'll give your hiring manager some other ways to make up the gap between the offer he gave you and your market value."

Here are the 10 base-salary-alternatives Belinda and I included on our list that day. She ended up getting an extra week of vacation, a $3,500 sign-on bonus and a guaranteed minimum bonus at the end of her first year. (I henpecked Belinda into getting all the extra goodies in writing, in a revised offer letter.) Assuming that Belinda banked the sign-up bonus where it could earn a decent interest rate (which I doubt she did) she may actually have come out ahead.

10 Non-Salary Perks to Negotiate for When a Job Offer Comes in Low:

  1. Sign-on bonus. Hiring managers love sign-on bonuses because they keep your base salary in line with some salary-grades chart posted somewhere in HR. The sign-on bonus is a one-time thing, so it doesn't bump up your salary and thereby bump up every salary increase you'll receive at the company. Most of the sign-on bonuses I see go to employees earning 40,000/year and up, and range from 500 to over 15,000. The sign-on bonus is paid to you with your first paycheck.
  2. Guaranteed bonus. A guaranteed bonus is a one-time payment that is agreed upon up front and paid to you later. It might come at your 90-day mark on the new job, or the six-month or one-year mark. Make sure that if you negotiate for this piece, your revised offer letter specifies that if you're dismissed from the company other than for cause (say, in a big layoff), you still get the bonus.
  3. First-year performance bonus. Some companies that don't otherwise pay performance bonuses will include a first-year, guaranteed bonus if you meet certain objectives during your first year. That way, you and your manager are both delighted if you hit the target and get paid.
  4. Extra vacation time. Vacation time is essential for you and doesn't cost your employer any cash. If the salary offer doesn't knock your socks off, see if you can bridge some of the gap with extra vacation time.
  5. Tuition reimbursement. Tuition is pricey. If your employer can't meet your salary requirements, get the firm to commit to an agreed-upon sum for tuition reimbursement every year for X number of years (or get agreement that the company will pay a flat sum or some percentage of whatever degree or certificate you're working on).
  6. Professional development funds. Professional development budgets have scaled way back, unsurprisingly. If your next employer can't pay you what the market says it should, get agreement for a conference or two to keep your chops (and networking) sharp!
  7. Business-class or first-class travel. If your new job has road warrior status, don't forget to negotiate for Business Class or better, and for airport club memberships if you'd use them. If the job requires frequent travel and the company is one of those that steals its employees' frequent-flyer miles out from under them, don't take the job.
  8. Stock options. Back in the early Internet days, you couldn't hire a high school intern into a tech start-up without offering stock options. These days, employees take stock options with a grain of salt and a dose of reality, but they still take them. If you're working for a start-up, the stock options are one of the principal reasons to take the job. Don't leave them to chance!
  9. Association Memberships. Some of the most professionally valuable association memberships have hefty price tags attached to them. If you're interested in broadening your career scope and growing your network, get your employer to fund your association dues.
  10. Car allowance. Car allowances are standard in many large organizations, where employers believe that it isn't good for their brands for their middle and senior-level folks to drive around in beaters. Car allowances can range from one or two hundred dollars a month to bajillions for super-lofty executives. If your job requires you to pick up clients and drive them around (as many sales jobs and lots of non-sales jobs do) why not negotiate for a transportation upgrade?
  11. How do you broach the subject of improving a less-than-sensational job offer? When your hiring manager shares the offer details with you, say "Wow, thanks, Stan! I'm excited to get started. I have so many ideas. One thing -- we're a ways apart on salary. Is now a good time to dig into that?" Your posture stays upbeat, forward-looking and confident. The subtext is "Of course we'll work this out -- we're smart people, and we both want this to happen."

If your manager can't cough up any more cash for your base salary, you've got 10 more bargaining chips to throw into the mix using our list above. Remember -- by the time a manager is ready to make you an offer, s/he has already put you into the role in his mind. If you and your boss really, truly can't come to terms, you can always walk away, but why not brainstorm to see whether a combination of cash and non-cash perks might let you sign the offer letter today?

Don't be afraid to negotiate -- you're worth what you're asking for, right? That's right. You are. So what are you waiting for?