Interview strategically to boost your pay

Ask the right questions of your prospective employer, and you'll know just how to respond to that offer letter.
Posted September 1, 1999

Thomas Hogue

Suppose that for every intelligent question you asked while at your next job interview, you were paid a thousand dollars. Would you prepare several good ones, or would you still say 'Oh, if I think of any later I'll call you,' ?

The tight market for top IT talent makes employers more flexible than ever. Preparing and asking strategic questions designed to strengthen your eventual salary negotiation position can indeed pay returns of thousands of dollars.

To prepare for the interview and eventual negotiation, master the following simple techniques. The goal is to assemble enough information about the employer's hiring process to steer it toward a better compensation deal for you. Give your new employers the opportunity to value you more because they paid you more.

Gather information

These days, a structured interview at a major company commonly involves conversations with a representative from the human resources department, the direct manager, perhaps her boss, several peers, and possibly internal or external customers. There is powerful information to be gathered from each person you meet. Remember to gather business cards as well. You will need them later for direct e-mail, phone, and fax numbers.

The HR rep is the perfect person to ask about the official version of the offer and negotiation process. After you hear the overview, ask some specific questions. Will you receive a written job offer? From whom? Who makes the final hiring decision? Who has the authority to negotiate the offer if necessary? Remember to ask one or two of your hot-button questions about benefits - whether that might be time off, additional training, or stock options.

Read between the lines

It's important to encourage the HR rep to sell the company to you. Tell them you want to work in a dynamic organization, not a rigid bureaucracy. Then ask for recent examples of how the standard compensation and benefits package was flexed to attract or retain a key employee.

Listen carefully to the answers and read between the lines. You will learn important information about your potential employer. You'll also gather examples to counter later reluctance to bend the rules during negotiation. When you ask these same questions to the line manager and compare the answers, you will have a useful insight into the politics of the company.

Identify objectives

There are three key objectives to keep in mind when you meet with your prospective direct manager: getting the offer, establishing a powerful working relationship, and leveraging that relationship into a more desirable compensation package.

If you can demonstrate your ability to probe, listen and negotiate strategically, you are actually worth more than just your list of resume credentials.
The first two objectives require that you discover and articulate her goals, then delight her with your ability to meet those goals. Go beyond the specifics of the current opening. Every manager has career goals and job headaches of her own. The interview is a tremendous opportunity to understand these issues and build rapport. Work at these points until you have succeeded in establishing the relationship needed for the compensation-critical phase of the interview.

Study and use the techniques of the psychological interview. Do not ask a direct question. Instead, ask for recent examples of how the manager was able to modify a compensation package to attract or retain a key employee. If the answer is never, perhaps the manager has no clout within the organization. Perhaps it really is a rigid bureaucracy despite what the recruiting brochure says. Perhaps you're not as hot as you think. Better to learn the answers to these questions now rather than after it's too late.

Be sure to focus attention on the manager's successful efforts to increase compensation, rather than her failures. Probe a bit beyond the initial answer and listen carefully. Find out how she was successful or why an increase was not possible. You will want to take advantage of these organizational opportunities at the same time you avoid the ordinary mistakes. She may have hot-button issues herself or a boss who hits the roof every time he hears a vacation request. Find out now. If you are interviewed by your prospective manager's boss, use these same techniques.

If you are as desirable a candidate as you think, you will soon have the company offer letter in hand. Think of it as the opening gambit in a short round of negotiation. Using the information you gathered during the interview, craft and send a conditional acceptance letter. By now you should know what you want, how the employer can adjust the offer, and who has to initial any change from the standard. If you can demonstrate your ability to probe, listen,and negotiate strategically, you are actually worth more than just your list of resume credentials. You should be compensated accordingly. //

Thomas Hogue, has over 15 years experience in the IT industry ranging from salaried programmer to international consultant. As president of SalaryMaster, a Web-based IT salary negotiations consultancy in Boulder County, Colo., he brings his background in various industries -- and a love of employee-side compensation negotiation -- onto the Web. He can be contacted at

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