How to negotiate a salary without tipping your hand

Getty ImagesGetty ImagesYou've gotten pretty far in a job discussion. You like them. They like you. And it's getting down to the nitty gritty. Then your prospective employer pops the question you've been dreading: "So what are you making now?" (or some variation like, "What were you making in your last position?") You freeze. You know that answering the question can only hurt you. It might peg you at a salary you feel you've outgrown or that you improperly negotiated. And you know that you're always supposed to let the other person name a price first in any negotiation.

So what do you do?

Avoid revealing your salary.
Never reveal your prior salary, says Ramit Sethi, creator of the blog, IWillTeachYouToBeRich, and author of the recently published book of the same title. He is clear and unequivocal. "It's just none of their business," he told me. "You're focusing on a new job and if you reveal what you made previously, two things happen. First, you've laid out all your cards. Second, you're admitting that you are inexperienced in interviewing and negotiating." (That last bit was particularly painful for me to hear since I've made the mistake of revealing a prior salary and I'm in the business of advising people about how to manage their careers.)

Focus on your value.
If the employer persists, Sethi suggests steering the conversation to the value you'll be bringing to the position. If you can focus, say, on the hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue you'll help the company generate, it becomes harder for them to focus on the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars you might be haggling over. If your position doesn't have a clear connection to the bottom line, Sethi says to emphasize how your job will allow your manager to do his or her job more effectively. In the end, it's all about how you're going to help the organization achieve its goals.

Discuss salary ranges
. If you get the prior salary question, steer the negotation to why you should be at a certain number or range, says Carol Frohlinger, managing director of Negotiating Women and author of the book, "Her Place at the Table."

One instance where it's fine to reveal your salary is when you feel like your current salary is in a reasonable range and you are only seeking a slight bump--say around 10 percent--according to Susan Cain, president of The Negotiation Company. "If you're not there, which is often the case, then you'll want to deflect at least until they love you and don't want to lose you," says Cain. "At that point, you can say that you don't think your current employer would be comfortable with your disclosing what you earn." If you ultimately feel you have to disclose, Cain says you should just explain, in a non-defensive way, why you think it's low and why you should be in a higher range. She recommends saying something like: "I've had various training and experience and am now looking for a position that will reflect my acquired expertise."

Know your worth. When you do sit down to talk numbers, make sure that you do your homework so that you know what the range should be for the position. "It's not just what the job pays, but what does it pay in your geographic area, in a company of the size of the one you're looking at, in the same industry," says Frohlinger. "And also think about what there is other than salary, what other things people have gotten for a total compensation package."

Do your homework. In order to build a picture of what a job is worth, canvas your entire network, looking especially for people who have left a company you're talking to. In addition, check out sites that offer comparative salary details, like Vault, PayScale, and Glassdoor. If you work as an independent contractor or freelancer, ask your peers what they charge. "Talk to at least five people," says Sethi, "since not everyone charges properly for their work and you might get a range of anywhere from $30-$200 an hour."

What if you reveal too much? So what if you've messed up and revealed more than you wanted to? The best way to recover, says Sethi, is to start collecting evidence of your success on the job and immediately plan for an opportunity to sit down with your manager about how you're doing. You'll have to let some time pass--Sethi suggests about six months--but it's important to let your manager know far in advance that you are preparing for a conversation that will include revisiting your compensation as part of it. In fact, Sethi says that by the time you have that conversation, your manager should fully know that you're seeking a raise since you will have been laying the groundwork and showing off your accomplishments along the way.

Do you have any great strategies or success stories on salary negotiations?