Job interviews are always a bit nerve-wracking, but when you throw salary negotiations into the mix? Whoo, buddy, can things go from bad to worse. The question, “How much did you make at your last job?” is possibly the hardest one to answer. If you tell the truth and your last job’s salary was on the lower end, your potential employer could give you a lowball offer even if other people in the field make more. If your answer is too high, on the other hand, they might pass you over for someone willing to take the job for lower pay. It’s a very stressful situation to find yourself in, but a recent study gives employment seekers a new tactic to turn to when their back is against the wall.
Previous research had found that employers are susceptible to “anchors” when discussing potential salaries, meaning that once they hear a number leave an applicant’s mouth, they are more likely to settle on a wage that’s close to that. So, for instance, if an applicant came from a job that paid $25,000 and is applying for a job that normally pays $30,000, the employers may only offer $28,000. Even though “anchors” can weigh down an applicant’s potential earnings, they can also work for them, if this study proves true.
At the University of Idaho, a psychological scientist by the name of Todd J. Thorsteinson conducted a social experiment to test his thesis on anchors. He theorized that making a joking comment about an implausibly high salary could open the door to improving the negotiation. “Incorporating a joking comment about implausible salary expectations may be a relatively easy way for job candidates to establish a high anchor and minimize negative reactions from employers,” Thorsteinson wrote in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology. That’s great, a joke is always welcomed as an icebreaker, so it makes sense that a good-natured joke would work under these circumstances as well.
In one of Thorsteinson’s experiments, he had his students interview an applicant for a made up administrator assistant position. One group of students received the applicant’s salary at her last job ($29,000), while the other group came in blind. Then, when each group questioned the applicant on what she is expecting to make at this new position, half of the time the applicant responded with a high “anchoring” joke, saying “I would like $100,000, but really I am just looking for something that is fair,’ while the other half of the time she responded with the low “anchoring” joke of “I would work for $1, but really I am just looking for something that is fair.” And since every experiment needs a control, one group only received her salary information up front and didn’t receive any anchoring joke at all.
At the conclusion of this pseudo-interview, each student was asked to type in their salary offer if they thought the applicant deserved the job. The control group ended up offering the applicant an average of $32,463. For comparison, the group who didn’t know her salary up front and heard the high “anchoring” joke offered the applicant an average of $35,385. That’s a difference of almost $3,000!
Still, this is just a study, so there’s no guarantee that this tactic will prove successful for everyone. Besides, if this strategy was used by everyone, it would become just as trite as answering the question of “What’s your greatest weakness?” with “I work too hard and care too much.” It works well the first time, but not so great the one-hundredth time.