How To Negotiate a Big Salary Shift

If you’re switching fields or moving way up or way down the ladder, your old salary is irrelevant. Here’s how to make a prospective employer believe it.

Your current or most recent salary is a strong anchor in the minds of prospective employers. If you’re going for a similar job and your current salary is a healthy one, this “anchor effect” is a good thing -- it gives you a floor from which you can negotiate. But as an experienced professional, you are likely to have more complex work/life needs that put you in situations where your next salary won’t resemble your current one. If you’re making a career change; moving from a big company to an entrepreneurial venture; or moving from middle management up to the executive level or back down to an individual contributor, your most reasonable salary might be much higher or lower than what you’ve earned before. The only problem: Your past salary is confusing to a prospective employer.

Here are three steps to take when you want to negotiate a salary dramatically different from your earning history:

Change the Anchor

Just as in buying or selling a house, the best anchor is the competitive set for the job you’re interviewing for, not your old job. Get data on what similar companies are paying for the role. (Guidestar has information on nonprofits, and Salary, Payscale, Getraised and Glassdoor have data on for-profit companies.) Keep in mind that salaries are hyper-local, so data is only relevant if it matches the company and role closely. It is unlikely that any aggregated data source will have reliable data, but it gives you a starting range that you can then use to verify with informational interviews. If the employer tries to focus on your former salary, remind him that if you’re taking on a different role, talking about your salary history is like comparing apples to oranges. This tactic worked well for one of my mid-career clients, who negotiated a 50 percent raise when she moved from a senior management role in one non-profit to an executive role at another. She knew what other non-profits paid executives, and though she had disclosed her former salary, she was able to change her anchor from her current, much lower salary to the competitive pay for the new position.

Negotiate the Role, Not the Offer

Stay focused on the responsibilities a new job entails and quantify the value your success would bring to the company. During the interview, get as much information as you can on what you’ll be expected to accomplish in the first 30, 60, 90, 120 and 365 days. Knowing the full value of your impact will help you get the most competitive offer.

This works especially well if you want to be considered for a lower-level job but fear you’ll be seen as overqualified. When you say you want a lower-paid role, a prospective employer worries that you’ll leave if something better comes along; who doesn’t want a higher salary? But if you focus on how much you want the new role, it’s easy to explain that you are making an investment to move into a new line of work. One of my clients moved from a highly paid professional services job to one in a slower-growth industry. He couched the move in terms of his genuine interest in playing a more operational role and made the salary a secondary consideration.

Apply Peer Pressure

The career changer in the above example was also successful because he had an alternative. Another employer had offered him a job like the one he was interviewing for. When the new employers saw their peers encroaching, they moved the decision process along and made him an offer. We often want what others want.

Another mid-career client was moving from a start-up back to a big corporate job. His base salary had dipped by double-digits when he went to the start-up, where he was paid partly in stock. The upside potential would be smaller in a corporate job, so he wanted a significant jump in his salary to make up for it. He pursued multiple, similar corporate jobs simultaneously and let each know that the others were considering him for jobs that paid the salary he was seeking. This moved the perceived anchor salary back to big corporate standards.

Volatility in the economy and the changing job market make it more likely that your salary history will be unrelated to your future salary. Don’t be wedded to outdated numbers or think your past salary should indicate what a future job should pay. Don’t let employers pigeonhole you into a specific salary range based on an irrelevant role. Change the anchor, define the new role to derive a new offer, and pursue multiple leads in order to encourage prospective employers to decide. You can negotiate a salary that works for you even in this market.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career expert with SixFigureStart®. She is a former recruiter in management consulting, financial services, media, technology, and pharma/ biotech.