One of the trickiest parts of the job application process is broaching the matter of salary. As money has a nasty little tendency to bring out the worst in all parties involved, we often try to hold off mentioning compensation until the last possible moment. As we glide back and forth through the steps of the interview dance, we pointedly seek to avoid prematurely stepping on that sensitive dollar spot. Instead, the prospective employee pretends that money is not an issue and that, in fact, it would be a privilege and an honor to work for this employer under any terms. Often, the employer does nothing to counter this notion, making the most of its superior bargaining power in a job market in which employers can have their pick of applicants.
Some employers use “salary requirements” as a means of unceremoniously culling the daunting stack of applications down to a manageable level. This part of the application form is often specifically labeled as required to avoid having applicants dodge the issue. Ask for too much and your application goes in “the pile or the file” (the reject pile or the circular file, that is).
When I first graduated from college, I would ask my father for advice on how to fill in the spot on the application form where the employer would ask how much money I want. He would tell me to just write “Scale,” an indicator of submissiveness that rises to the level of utter capitulation. Some aver that this tactic is a clever way of saying “pay me whatever you think I’m worth,” but really it’s just a statement that the applicant needs this job and is willing to roll over and accept whatever paltry sum is offered.
I have read articles suggesting that an applicant that always negotiates his or her salary will, over a working lifetime, earn much more than those of us who simply accept whatever is served up by the employer. The idea is that an employer has more respect for those applicants who are willing to ask for and justify the compensation that they feel they deserve. The hidden implication, of course, is that the applicant must be willing to walk away from employers who will have none of it. This may be possible in an economy that is close to full employment, something we haven’t seen in the United States for quite a while now.
Of course, applicants with sought-after skills will have more bargaining power than those with, say, a liberal arts degree and no job experience beyond fast food and babysitting. The problem is that it can be hard to know what skills are valued by this particular employer. I once worked for a small business for more than a year when the owner admitted that she had been so desperate for someone who knew how to work her finicky computers that I could have asked for much more money and she would have gladly paid it.
The fact remains, however, that applicants for many positions have absolutely no ability to haggle over their compensation. Salaries are often set in stone, either by union contract, corporate policy or employer stubbornness. Many employers treat applying for job like purchasing a gallon of milk: The price on the sticker is non-negotiable.
And there will always be employers who take offense at the mere mention of pay. I recall one phone interview that went swimmingly right up until the very end. I had answered all of the interviewer’s questions to his satisfaction and he asked me whether I had any of my own. That’s when I took the opportunity to ask about compensation. It’s not as if I demanded a particular figure; I simply asked what the salary was. The employer made it abundantly clear that I had a hell of a nerve to even bring up such a topic. Obviously, I was more interested in money than in working for the company. I was shocked, and of course I never heard from them again.
Another land mine that applicants can step on is the “salary range.” Some employers advertise a range of compensation that leads applicants to believe that the starting salary may be anywhere in that range. So, if I have a great deal of relevant experience and education, I could potentially start near the top of the range, right? Wrong. Most employers hire at the bottom of the salary range as a matter of course; the top number is the compensation to which an employee may work up to over a period of years.
These days, I am employed in government work, where salary ranges for most positions are matters of public record. It is, at least theoretically, possible to start at a salary above the bottom of the range if you have particular skills that are needed and can’t be easily found. I didn’t immediately understand how this works, but it didn’t take me too long to figure it out.
After two interviews with my current employer, I noticed that I had a missed call from Human Resources. When I called back, I was told that they had started to call me but then realized that they would have to do further research and call me back because I had requested ham.
Excuse me? Now, I am a Jewish boy from New York, and a vegan to boot, and I have never eaten ham in all my life. Why would I ask for ham?
Well, what a doofus I was. It turns out that HAM stands for “hiring above minimum.” And it’s true: Based on my years of experience, I had asked to be hired at a salary above the bottom of the range. I ended up getting turned down for HAM, because they don’t offer HAM to unemployed people. To get HAM, you must have a job which you may or may not leave for new employment depending on whether the compensation offered makes it worth your while.
Instead of HAM, I would have to be satisfied with BACON: The Basic Agreement on Compensation Of New-Hires. Oh my goodness, I had totally forgotten! This is a union job!
Okay, it is what it is. I very much need this job. But that doesn’t mean that I have no negotiating power whatsoever. I knew I had to stand up for myself and get everything I possibly could. So I demanded the California Retroactive Income Supplement to Paychecks. That’s right, if I’m going to bring home the BACON, I’m at least going to make sure it’s nice and CRISP.
Oh, and I wasn’t done yet. I am no dummy. I know all about the various programs for which state employees are eligible. The legislature has been good to us and I plan to take full advantage of that. So for my next move, I insisted upon being signed up for Salary Augmentation Under Senate/Assembly Grant to Employees. You read that right, folks. I demanded my SAUSAGE rights.
The poor HR lady sighed. I could tell she hates dealing with know-it-alls like me. Well, she informed me that, in that case, I’m going to have to choose one of the two SAUSAGE options. If I have dependents, she told me, I should select a Partial Adjustment to Taxable Income for Employees of the State (PATTIES). Otherwise, I’d be stuck with the Low Income/No Kids Subsidy (LINKS). I ordered up PATTIES and thought that I was finally done with this whole unappetizing mess.
But, as it turned out, HR still had one more course to pile on my plate. It was my own fault, really. I stupidly admitted that we provide day care for our two-year old grandniece, and wouldn’t you know, that changed the picture entirely. I was forced to take an additional payroll deduction for a savings plan based on the state’s acknowledgment of the effects that the Price Of Raising Kids Can Have On Personal Savings.
You guessed it, folks. I’m stuck with PORK CHOPS.