How Saying "Hmmm" Instead Of "OK" Can Make You Thousands More Each Year -- Plus 10 Other Great Salary Secrets!

If after reading this article you tell me in a monotone, pleasing, non-combative voice: "Is that the best you can do?" I will probably want to give you more money.
Publish date:
July 8, 2013
career, money, jobs, salary

When I first graduated college, I had a paid internship at the Washington Post. The salary was set because it was part of their internship program. It was a good salary. I was psyched. I also -- very stupidly -- thought all future salaries were just assigned to you. You know, like seats at a wedding reception.

So when I was rooting around for permanent employment after my four months in D.C., I was coming to the game not just lacking skills, but with an ignorance that eventually cost me thousands of dollars.

Because up until this point in my life, I honestly do not remember a single person ever telling me about the art of negotiating salary.

I did not know this was a "thing."

And when I got hired at the Des Moines Register soon thereafter, I said two letters to the hiring manager that cost me a whole lot of money.

I said "OK."

I accepted a salary of $28,000 in 1998.

And I could have gotten so much more.

How do I know this? One drunken night, several reporters told me so. In fact one of them used the words: "Mandy, they wanted you so bad. They were WET for you." Then we all compared salaries, and yes, they were right, I was thousands below them -- but had the same amount of experience, and we had all received the same seductive We Want to Hire You song and dance, which included lodging at the nicest hotel in the city, dinner at the finest restaurant in town and an elevator speech from the publisher.

I was horrified at myself after this night. You could ask for more money?

What? This was a thing?

Why had no one told me this?

Like, at all.

The next day I went to Barnes & Noble and bought all the variations in the "Knock 'Em Dead" career series they had in stock. I was not going to let this happen again.

The very next job I took, leaving the world of newspapers, I did ask for more. And I got it. Sure, it was only $2,000 more, but that adds up, and every little bit makes a difference when you're first starting out. I remember, I was so incredibly stressed by asking for it, and I spent the entire weekend when I was waiting for the hiring manager to get back to me fretting that I may have lost the job. What had I done? Who did I think I was? How dare I ask for more money?

Guess what: The likelihood of a job offer being rescinded because you ask for more money is very unlikely.

I found that out because I tearfully called every person I knew in the field of HR or career coaching as I waited to find out what the response would be. "It's perfectly acceptable to ask for more money, Mandy, that is standard negotiation. In fact, a hiring manager expects it. Sometimes they don't have as much respect for you if you don't ask for it. As if you don't know your own power or worth on the market."

OK, then.

The one caveat I would make here is that if you are unemployed, then you probably are not in as much of a power position to negotiate. You still can try -- and probably do so successfully. But this is one of the situations where it might be wise to tread the negotiation playing field a little more lightly. Curious as to what others think here.

Also, it's important to note that you HAVE to be able to tolerate discomfort in this process. As I said above, I was so uncomfortable I could barely breathe that entire weekend while I waited to find out if I was getting a higher offer. That particular hiring manager is one of the nicest women in the world, but she was extremely curt when I brought it up with her. I understand. It's her job. It's not an easy subject. It's like breaking up or asking someone out on a date. There is so much tension involved.

But, if you can have faith in the process -- and faith in yourself -- you will be rewarded.

Interestingly, probably my favorite story of job negotiation is when I went to go work for marchFIRST in 2000. If you are in your thirties or older, you may remember this as the company that spent millions of dollars on a Super Bowl ad during the dot-com boom, only to go kaput and lay off thousands of employees soon thereafter.

But when I went in for my first job interview it was several months before the bubble burst. The Fantasia machine was still fully stocked with free smoothies, the Ping-Pong tables were shiny and new, and everyone was riding high post-merger. Then, soon after, as I was waiting to see if I would receive an offer, I read the Chicago Tribune. The company's quarterly earnings statement came out, and it looked grim. I had just gotten married, and I was scared. I was really scared. I turned them down. Then they came back again. I turned them down again. Then they came back AGAIN.

At this point, I accepted because the salary was nearly twice what I was making, and I felt like all the signs were there that even if this risk was short-term, it was one I would be a fool not to take.

Notice in all of this talk with the company, I never told them no. I said, "I don't know if it's the right fit."

They took it as me playing hardball.

I worked with them for six months before jumping ship for another job. Part of me regrets not waiting for my round of layoffs (I was not included in the first and then the second round) so that I could get the unemployment and the severance package they were offering. It took until last year for me to experience for the first time in my life at the age of 36 what it was like to have a few months where I did not have an official job.

It was heavenly. I think my body relaxed for the first time in years.

But my point being with that story, that's what hard negotiation will get you. Tens of thousands of dollars more in salary. When a company wants you and has means, they will give the offer their all.

Because if they are talking salary, they want you. And honestly, they realize it will cost them a lot more money to have to start the hiring process all over again or go with an inferior candidate.

Below are my favorite additional tactics I've learned over the years. Some don't have to do with the actual salary talk part, but are just as crucial if you want that number offered to be high.

Please chime in with what you disagree with or what personal tactics have worked for you. And if you like any of these tips below, I highly recommend you purchase one of my favorite books on the topic: "Negotiating Your Salary." While these tips below come from several different books, career coaches and word of mouth as well, in my opinion, that is the top book on the process. (Although I'll always have a soft spot for the "Knock 'Em Dead" series, too.) Here we go; let's get you some more money.

1. Be your biggest fan in the job interview.

Not to the point of nausea, but you are on Team YOU. You know exactly what you have to offer this company and you are brimming with ideas and specifics and tangibles. Don't put yourself down (even if you think it's funny) or seem desperate or negative. You are positive! You show in every action how you have anticipated and are a Hit the Ground Running person.

Do they tell you about the history of their company? Well guess what, you can cite a Times article you just read that got you even more excited about the venture they are mentioning. "It's so great to hear you expound on that because the Times article I read today about Company gave me a lot of ideas for how I might be able to support Company in that initiative. Would you like to hear them?"

2. When you come to that job interview, you have a portfolio of ideas.

They didn't ask for one? No problem. That's just the kind of initiative-taker you are. Perhaps it's for a Website that is launching, and you lay out articles from magazines and how you would approach the topics differently for their new endeavor. It's OK if they don't like all your thoughts because you'll have so many ideas, it will be the initiative that they will remember. Abiding by someone else's specific creative vision can be taught if you are smart; initiative rarely can.

3. Before you go into the job interview, pump yourself up in a position that has the power to get you in the right frame of mind, and practice with a friend.

I recently listened to this great TED talk which talks all about how this works. And I've seen it happen again and again. When I am feeling like crap, if I get my body moving, my entire state changes. If I enter the office with my head down and am grouchy, that is going to dictate what happens next. If I'm wide open and approachable, that sends an entirely different message.

Before you go into that job interview, visualize yourself nailing it, from beginning to end, and also practice with a friend. I make my friends be really tough and mean-girl to me so that I'm not scared of anything when the real thing happens. "So your career is clearly over, why should we hire you?" Yep, I have an answer for that! Hit me again! Woo-hoo!

4. During the job interview, take note of the specific areas that are touchy topics for the people you are talking to and don't take physical notes, but file it mentally away for later, or at least be fully present so that you can recall the highlights.

This comes into play for when you send the immediate thank-you-letter email. Short and to the point. Sound like a human. Reference what they told you. Did they tell you that you'll be working on a new database they're implementing? Great! You can send -- and send one to each person you interviewed with, unless it seems more appropriate power-dynamic-wise to send it all at once, something like:

subject: thank you!

It was wonderful to finally meet you today and learn more about the terrific operation you are running at Company. While I understand that the work is going to be demanding and intense to implement the new database, I would be thrilled to offer my five years of proven expertise in IT to make this goal a reality. I will touch base next week to see if I can provide anything further to support my candidacy, but in the meantime, please don't hesitate to contact me at XXX/XXX-XXXX. Have a fantastic weekend! Mandy

5. Then, follow up.

All you have done in specifying when you are going to follow up is to show initiative. You are a person who sets their own deadlines! You have hustle, baby. You've also made it very easy for them to contact you by providing your phone in almost every email you send, rather than forcing them to sift through the hundreds of emails they probably have from other applicants. That's because you are different than the others. YOU make their life easier. You are not lazy nor are you desperate. But you do anticipate. You are not helpless. You get it.

6. And now, finally, for the numbers. Don't reveal your past salary. Even when asked point-blank.

The stressful point in job interviews is when oftentimes the dirty work is handed over to someone else. Frequently, recruiters are employed to specifically ask you what your current range is and what your future desired range is -- an interaction that is all designed to gain an upper hand on what you're thinking.

Look at this way: If you ask for $50k, but they can pay anywhere from $45k-$70k, then you've just cheated yourself out of a lot of money by going too low.

It is a perfectly acceptable answer to say "Competitive" when answering what your salary is and to also say that you will be looking for an equally competitive compensation package from the company if they decide to make you an offer. And what range do they feel the position warrants?

Actually, here is the perfect thing to say.

"I have an extremely competitive salary package."


"I'm compensated accordingly for someone who is a top performer."

Of course, job interviews are stressful. You just want to be liked. You want to be picked. You want to appease. But if you can -- ever so gracefully, put the heat on the employer and ask them what the position they are offering is paying. Remember: If they are talking salary, then they want you for the job.

However, there might be a situation where you are up against another candidate, and you feel pressured to reveal your range. You might feel that you are irritating the recruiter, which is obviously the last thing that you want to do. If you absolutely feel like it is the right thing to do to give a range, then have that prepared ahead of time of what you are going to say. But understand that unless you authorize your current employer to give out salary information, your prospective employer cannot receive it.

Also keep in mind, that if you are giving a range, many people I know have included other benefits they receive to increase their current compensation figure (most folks I know who have done this have been very underpaid and did not want to be pigeonholed at their current woefully inadequate salary). As lawyers and friends in HR have told me (albeit in anecdotes), it is not a lie if you do not refer to the higher sum as your "salary" but refer to it as your compensation. But again, try not to name it. You should not have to.

7. Do your research way ahead of time.

This part comes into play before a salary is offered to you. Because then you can also mention, "That seems a bit low according to market rates." You can even cite the Website if you need to. Here are several good ones:

8. If you have to give a desired salary range (if they will not provide one no matter that you asked them to do so), then give yourself a higher window.

If you need $100k to survive, do not give a range starting at $100k. Give a range of $120k to $140k. They will always go downwards from where you start, but almost never go upwards. And obviously, be realistic. If you know the company just can't offer it, then don't outprice yourself either. Do your research.

Also, lay out numbers realistically for yourself: need to have, want to have and nice to have. These three areas will help you pinpoint what you're looking for.

Be harsh with yourself during this process as well. What is your worth? If you know your skill set to be above average, then you can approach the bargaining with this in mind. If you are still starting out and commensurate with several others, then be realistic about this.

9. Have other job offers if at all possible.

If you can have multiple offers on the table, you are in the strongest position of them all because you can ask the one employer if they are able to compete with your other offer. Never put all your eggs in one basket, and many times having competing job offers is the strongest way to push an offer up to significantly more. If they want you, being candid about a competing offer on the table will only increase your desirability -- if you are fair and straightforward and gracious throughout the process. Don't jerk a company around, and then reveal you were never serious all along but just using one company as leverage against the other. Or I suppose do if that's your inclination, but also realize that is a bridge you are likely burning.

10. Do not say "OK" when the offer is made. Instead, try one of these negotiating techniques.

By simply saying "Hmmm" instead of "OK," you will open up a world of opportunities.

You can then follow up with a monotone, but non-combative and respectful: "Is that the best you can do?" Or, "That seems a little low to me. I love what your company has to offer, but I want to make sure that I am supported in being able to do my job to the best of my abilities and ultimately bring the company as much benefit as possible. Can you help me with this?"

(Yes, I realize these lines sound dumb and robotic, but they work, and I've used them, and I can vouch for them. If you don't plan it out ahead of time, you might just panic and say, "OK.")

In your tone, remember: You aren't angry. You are genuinely curious if they can do better. Sure, sometimes the answer will be, "Unfortunately that is the best we can do," but more often than not, the hiring manager will say that they need to do more research to see if there is any leeway.

You can also try repeating the number offered and then being silent as if you are considering. You could then follow up with saying that you would like some time to think. Something along the lines of: "I think I would make a terrific fit with your company, and I love your mission and the spirit of everyone I met. I want to take some time to understand your compensation. I realize there may be restrictions in what you can offer, but I need to make sure I am fairly assessing my own market value. Do you think you can help me with this?"

If the recruiter says, "What do you mean?" or tries a playing-dumb tactic, don't fall for it. Say exactly what you mean. Say, "I'd like you to do some research and find out if Company can do better in their offer. One more commensurate with market rates and the skill set I am bringing to the table. I really want to join the team, but I also need to be smart about this decision."

Also -- don't forget. If you think that you can't negotiate because your job is hourly, guess what: You can! Many people don't realize that hourly positions are negotiable but a lot of times for a larger corporation if you are a desirable employee, what is a big increase to you does not mean a lot to a company's bottom line -- and if it is easier to hire you than someone else, they will be willing to budge. So don't be afraid to go for it.

Finally! Once the offer has been made, be sure to get it in writing.

So ... what did I miss? What secrets do you have? Let's help each other get rich!


Find Mandy long-form at