Salary expectations in cover letter - do or don’t?


This is a tricky question. If you indicate your salary expectations already in the cover letter without knowing the company and the details about the position and potential additional benefits, you don’t have much room to negotiate later. Some job ads however explicitly tell you to include your salary expectations in the cover letter. Can you ignore such a requirement? That’s probably not wise either. But then, what to write? Will you disqualify yourself if you write what you really want?


How to go about such a difficult topic

Salary negotiations are a difficult topic for most women. I think everyone is aware of the famous gender gap and the fact that men usually earn more for the same position than women. There have been many studies on the reasons for that, but I won’t go there or I’ll never finish. I’ll base this on my personal experience and what I’ve observed with women around me and my clients.  


My personal observation is that most women don’t want to appear demanding or unreasonable with their salary expectations. The most frequent argument I hear from my clients is: I don’t think the company can afford the salary you suggest. So basically we’re already worrying about the company’s financial situation and how we can help them before we even started there. How considerate of us...

Or, even worse: My female friends told me that this is what I can expect for such a position in this industry. Really? Are we holding each other back by telling each other to ask for the same that we’re currently earning and not for more? I recently discussed this with a client and challenged this point heavily. Why should you earn the same as your friend in the same position? Do you know if her work performance or knowledge equals yours? Can you really compare yourself with her?

Know your worth!

The most important thing is to know your worth. Your worth. Not your friend’s, your sister’s, your colleague’s - yours. You don’t have the same background and the same skill set, even if you studied together or are working in a similar position. You have different strengths, different skills and probably a very different way of working. I love my friends but I don’t know enough about how they work and what their job actually implies to compare myself and my salary with them. I don’t compare my salary with my colleagues either because I only really know my strengths and my performance.


Stop comparing


Rather than comparing yourself with the rest of the world, focus on your experience, your skill set, your strengths. Now ask yourself: How will the company benefit from you? Will they gain in efficiency because you’re extremely focused and efficient? Will their revenue increase because you’re a great sales person? Will they save time and money for trainings if they get your many years of experience instead of having to bring someone more junior up to speed?

It’s important to understand that you’re not asking them for a favor or for charity. It’s a business deal. They get all your knowledge, skills and experience in exchange for money. So be prepared to negotiate on a level playing field. You’re entitled to be remunerated appropriately for all that you bring to the table.


Google is your friend


It’s important to check the average salary in the industry that you’re applying for. So google the average salary for this position in this industry. I worked in a marketing agency before moving into a pharmaceutical company. These are two very different industries with different salary levels. Try to find out the average for your industry. Then consider the size of the company. A bigger company might be ready to pay more than a smaller one. It might also make a difference whether the company is in a city or rather in a rural area or there might be salary differences within the same country depending on location. In Austria for example salaries are generally higher in the east than in the west.


Collective labor agreements


Some countries have collective labor agreements which regulate the average salary for a position within a certain industry. If this is the case in your country, check if the labor agreement suggests an appropriate salary for the position you’re applying for. Austria for example has such collective labor agreements for most industries and even a law that every employer needs to mention the bare minimum salary for the position in the job ad. The collective labor agreement also gives you a general indication for how much overpayment you can expect based on your education and amount of work experience. That’s very valuable information - don’t miss out on that!


Insider knowledge is gold


If you know someone who works or worked in the company, ask them for advice. They will be able to give you a general idea whether the company pays rather well or not for the industry. You can also find out a lot more that is relevant for determining your salary expectations: are there additional benefits, such as private health insurance, company car, subsidized meals at the cantine, pension plan, fitness studio, etc.? Is there only a base salary or also a performance bonus? Is the company willing to give pay raises later on or is this rather difficult? Such information is crucial to know before you give your salary expectations. If you don’t know someone in the company, check at least the company website to find out more about their remuneration policy.


Ask a man


This can be really eye opening. It certainly was for me. I always thought my husband was just telling me I should ask for more because he’s my husband and likes me. Then I asked other men and realized that I’d have asked for 10-15% less than they would! 15% - can you believe that? That’s an incredible difference. I felt like a complete impostor asking for that salary but I went ahead and did it. I prepared my case and it worked. I got the salary which I wouldn’t even have considered at first. So be bold and listen to your husbands, boyfriends and other males around you.


In or out?


If they don’t specifically ask to share your salary expectations in the cover letter, leave them out. It would limit your negotiation possibilities before you even talked to them and you should absolutely avoid that. You can’t really make your case in the format of a cover letter. The cover letter’s purpose is to promote your skills and spark their interest. It’s not the platform or basis for salary negotiations. You’ll have much more arguments in your favor than you can squeeze in a one page cover letter.

If salary expectations in the cover letter are specifically requested, it’s probably unwise to ignore this request. Just make sure not to give a concrete number in the cover letter. Otherwise you won’t be able to negotiate at all later on. It’s better to let them know a salary range which you consider appropriate. Just be sure that the bottom of that range is really ok for you even if there are no additional benefits or bonus. You can also add that you’re a little flexible and final salary expectation will be partially dependent on additional benefits, bonus etc.