10 Salary Negotiating Mistakes to Avoid

Learn the art of the deal.

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Not much makes job-seekers more anxious than negotiating—or even discussing—salary. After all, you might ask for too much, ask for too little, or otherwise sabotage your own chances of getting the best possible salary. Negotiation will go more smoothly if you know what landmines to avoid.

When it comes time to negotiate salary for a new job, make sure that you don't make these 10 key errors:

1. Being unprepared. At some point, employers are likely to ask what salary range you're looking for, possibly as soon as their first contact with you. If you're caught off-guard, you risk low-balling yourself or otherwise saying something that will harm you in salary negotiations later. It's crucial to do your homework ahead of time so that you're ready when the question comes up.

2. Negotiating before you have an offer. There's no point trying to negotiate before you have a job offer; after all, the employer still hasn't even decided if they want to hire you. Your leverage will be far stronger once someone is certain that you're the one they want.

3. Relying on online salary sites to give accurate information. While salary sites might seem like the most obvious way to figure out what to ask for, these sites are frequently unreliable, in part because the job titles they list often represent wildly different scopes of responsibility. Professional associations in your industry might do more reliable salary surveys, but even then, you're more likely to get the right range by talking to people in your field.

4. Discussing salary in your cover letter. Some candidates announce their salary requirements in their cover letters without being asked, and some even include their salary history on their resumes. There's no reason to talk money at this stage, and doing it unprompted at the application stage can come across as naive.

5. Citing your finances. Salary conversations should be solely about your value to the company, not about your own finances. Employers don't pay people based on financial need, so don't cite your mortgage or your kid's college tuition as a reason you're asking for more money.

6. Asking for too long to respond to an offer. It's normal to request a few days to consider an offer, and sometimes employers will give you a week or so. But if you ask for much time beyond that, you risk signaling that you're not excited about the job, but might settle for it if you don't get any other offers. That's a good way to lessen the hiring manager's enthusiasm and bring into question your own.

7. Not factoring in the benefits package. Salary is only one part of a compensation package; you also need to factor in benefits like healthcare, retirement contributions, and paid leave. After all, if you'll be paying significantly more for healthcare or receiving fewer paid vacation days than you're used to, that might cancel out part of any salary gains you hope to make. On the other hand, being able to work from home or having an on-site day care might be benefits that make it worth it to you to take a slightly lower salary.

8. Underestimating happiness as a factor. A higher salary generally won't make up for a job where you'll be miserable, so think carefully about factors other than money: the work you'll be doing, the people with whom you'll be working, the company culture, and even the length of your commute. It might be worth giving up a bit of extra pay to ensure that you're happy going to work every day.

9. Listening to bad advice. Negotiation advice that worked a few decades ago isn't always effective now. In fact, some of it can hurt your chances. For instance, delaying the salary conversation as long as you can or refusing to name a figure first—common advice in previous generations—can backfire today by turning the employer off and making you look like you're playing games.

10. Not negotiating. Whatever you do, negotiate. If you simply take the first salary you're offered, you'll never know if you could have received more by simply asking.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.