When Keith Goobie found himself on the job market last year, he couldn't believe his ears when potential new employers talked about salary.
"The salaries the companies were offering were down more than 20 per cent from what I was making before," said the former project service manager for Sun Microsystems, a job he lost in March, 2009, in a restructuring prior to the company's sale to Oracle Corp.
For a position that used to command six figures, he was being offered five. "They figured there were so many candidates on the market, they could offer less and someone would take it," Mr. Goobie says. "At first I considered biting the bullet and settling for a lot less pay."
He also thought about taking a contract, which would have paid him hourly rates that were 25 to 40 per cent less than were being offered before the recession. But he had the luxury of a severance package, and decided to hold out for what he felt he was worth. "I set it as my goal to get another six-figure job."
It took eight months, but the strategy paid off last November. He landed a job as senior project manager for BMC Software Canada Inc. in Toronto, and is earning a six-figure salary close to what he was making before.
Mr. Goobie's decision to hold out was wise, career experts say. While there are risks in standing your ground in an economy that is seeing job searches stretch to a year or more, it can be even riskier to sell yourself short.
That's especially true for middle managers, whose pay offers have been hit the hardest. Initial salary offers for junior executives, project managers and directors, who formerly commanded salaries between $100,000 and $150,000, have recovered somewhat since this time last year, but are still down by 10 to 20 per cent, the pros say.
A survey of 250 Canadian job seekers - who had earned six-figure salaries in their previous roles - found that 82 per cent were unsure that they could land a comparable job in their industry, or hold out for a six-figure salary and get it.
Many are desperate enough to take a major hit in the pay packet. The poll, by Toronto-based Graham Management Group, found 74 per cent had received "no reasonable job offers" in their search. Among all respondents, 15 per cent had been searching for between six months and a year. Another 12 per cent had been looking for more than a year.
As necessary as it might seem to take a low offer, "you shouldn't fall into the trap of selling yourself for a lot less," says Sharon Graham, president of Graham Management. "It can be a particular setback if you go backward from the 100K [$100,000]level, because for employers it is still an invisible dividing line between employees who are thought of as individual performers and those who have broader leadership responsibility," she says. By taking a lesser paying role, you can unconsciously signal that you aren't management material.
To persuade potential employers that you are worth the high salary, your résumé and interviews should highlight how you have influenced decisions and managed effective teams, Ms. Graham says.
"In fact, holding out for more pay can actually make you seem more attractive to potential employers now," says career coach Jack Chapman, owner of Lucrative Careers Inc. in Chicago and author of Negotiating Your Salary and the website salarynegotiations.com.
"The demand for people who are effective at building broad organizational strength is even higher than before the recession, because companies want to recover. They want the right person doing the right stuff. If you can persuade them you are a top performer, you've got negotiating leverage," he says.
You may actually take yourself out of the running by low-balling your worth.
"Even though company budgets are limited these days, employers don't like to give high performers low salaries because they are afraid that talented people may leave as soon as they get a better offer from another company in the future," Mr. Chapman says. "They will be willing to find some additional money to keep you happy because they want to keep you on their team."
If you can't get a higher salary, however, go for a better title.
"While not as immediately beneficial as money and benefits, the higher rank can be crucial in terms of career progression a few years down the road," says Ed McGoldrick, president of Tampa-based executive coaching company Resume Professors and recruiter with Carter Williams Professional Staffing, who blogs about career issues.
"You don't want to have your résumé showing you were bumped down to staffer after being an executive. Work on getting a title that hiring managers will recognize as staying in a responsible role with no blip in your career progression," he says.
And if the salary offer is still low, candidates can absolutely negotiate for future increases, says Ward Garven, managing director of executive recruiter Stanton Chase International in Calgary.
"Your message should be: Let's see if we can make this work for both of us. If I do well, I expect a reward. An employer who does well because of you should be happy to pay a bonus for your performance," he says.
Mr. Goobie devised a job search strategy that stressed he was worth more for because his skills were more valuable than the competition's.
Last summer he upgraded his skills and got two additional professional certifications that he discovered through networking were essential for managerial roles in his industry. He also developed a new résumé and job pitch based on the successful projects and financial results he achieved with his previous employer, Mr. Goobie says.
"There may be 20 or 30 people applying but you want to stand out as having the quality and skills that they will be willing to pay a premium for. My advice is don't be daunted and never sell yourself for less than you're worth."
HOW TO GET WHAT YOU'RE WORTH
Tips for nailing down the best offer
Demonstrate your value
Prepare three or four key points that show you are an ideal candidate for the position. Have concise examples of initiatives you've taken in previous roles that paid off for the organization.
Ask insightful questions
Demonstrate your interest in learning more about the pressing issues facing the company and how you can help solve them in your new position.
Inquire about potential
Show your commitment by saying you intend to advance, helping the organization meet both immediate and longer-term goals.
Dangle immediate gratification
Stress what's in it for the company right now.
Let them do the talking
If you talk more than half of the time, you'll seem pushy and the interviewer will want to cut you off rather than woo you with a better offer.
Job interviewing is it is like dating; you need to impress that you're committed to making the relationship work, but they must reciprocate.
Source: executive coach Ed McGoldrick
The money talk
Postpone the discussion
Until there's an offer on the table, deflect talk by saying you want to focus on the job first.
Don't name your price
Let the interviewer name a figure first.
Repeat their offer thoughtfully
Restate the amount and look a little discouraged. First offers are seldom firm and there is always room to negotiate up if they've decided you are the person they want.
Ask time to reflect
Tell the manager you'll come back with a researched response. Look at salary survey sites such as Indeed.com and simplyhired.com that show what jobs like yours are getting these days and also ask your network contacts what they think the job you're discussing should be worth.
Sell yourself up
Have examples of how you have increased company value in past roles. Suggest that it may cost more money up front to hire you, but your efforts will increase the business to more than make up for the extra cost.
Ask for pay for performance
The money may not be in the budget now, so ask for additional pay or bonuses conditional on meeting goals.
Get it in writing
An offer letter should list the bonuses and perks agreed to and define objectives to be hit to receive them.
Source: career coach Jack Chapman