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Negotiating job offers

Inconvenient interview time? An offer you don't want to accept at this stage? Being pressed by an employer for an early decision? Waiting to hear about other jobs? Wanting to keep open the option of postgraduate study? Wanting to accept an offer but to defer your start date? Salary too low? These are common problems and negotiating about them with employers is not always easy, especially now that more employers outsource recruitment.

Remember, employers are looking for the right people just as much as you are looking for the right job. It is a mutual process and it is acceptable to negotiate to reach a win-win position. However, the flexibility of an employer will depend on the buoyancy of the job market in your chosen sector, your desirability as a candidate and the employer's internal procedures.

General tips for negotiating

Decide what you want out of any negotiations before you start. What would be the best outcome you could reasonably aspire to? What do you realistically expect? What is your absolute bottom line? What's just 'nice-to-have' and what is essential?

The employer will have made similar preparations. Try to establish their constraints before volunteering your own position.

Code of practice

The AGR (Association of Graduate Recruiters), AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) and NUS (National Union of Students) fully endorse adherence to the following principles and strongly recommend their adoption by all those concerned with the process of graduate recruitment.

Although last updated in 2007, this national code has not been 'repealed' and currently is in the process of being updated.

Points to remember

  • Acknowledge offers in writing (even if they do not ask you to do so) and keep a copy.
  • Make it clear when you are considering an offer, but be careful not to commit yourself unless you wish to accept.
  • Always try to indicate when you will be in a position to make a decision.
  • Once you accept an unconditional offer, you should inform all other interested employers. Remember that the acceptance in writing of an unconditional offer forms a contract.

Frequently asked questions about negotiating

I've applied for a job ...

I haven't heard whether I am going to be interviewed

In most cases, it is perfectly acceptable to ask an employer what is happening, especially if you are under pressure from another employer. They are likely to expedite matters if they hear one of their competitors is keen to interview/hire you. However, some employers are quite explicit that if you have not heard by a specific date you should assume your application was unsuccessful.

Should I accept an interview at an inconvenient time?

Don't be afraid to ask if the interview can be changed. It may not be possible but you will not be penalised for asking. The Code of Best Practice states that employers should be willing to offer alternative dates where interviews clash with exams and other important academic demands. Generally speaking, the larger the employer, the more likely they are willing and able to offer you alternative dates.

Should I have to pay my own expenses to attend an interview?

Most employers are prepared to meet reasonable expenses for interviewees, and the Code of Best Practice says they should make it clear if they are not. If nothing is said, ask before accepting the interview invitation. Keep all receipts to make your claim on the day.

When should I discuss the possibility of taking time out after graduation?

You could start by testing the water in an informal or anonymous way, by asking about their policy on deferral at their recruitment presentation, by calling their recruitment helpline or by checking the information available at the Careers Service. Careers advisers or GradLinks may also know whether others have been successful in negotiating deferral.

Unless your research shows that an employer is particularly positive about time out, it may be safer not to mention deferral at the application stage. It is probably better to wait until an employer has at least expressed an interest in progressing your application. When you do raise the issue, allow room for discussion and negotiation. Be ready to talk about how you intend spending your time out and how the experience will add value to your contribution as an employee.

I've no idea what salary to ask for — how should I handle this?

Many job advertisements include the salary. Some may give a range, but the exact salary may be determined by your qualifications or experience. Other advertisements do not specify a salary, or say it is 'negotiable'. It is best to leave negotiating salary until you are absolutely sure an employer wants to recruit you. However, as part of your interview preparation, you need to investigate the range of salaries for similar roles so that you can say 'My research suggests most graduate entrants earn between £x and £y.' Look at the job profile for a comparable role in the Careers Library or on the Prospects website, survey advertisements for similar jobs, and seek advice from friends, careers advisers or GradLinks. You may also find the Interviews pages useful.

I've been unsuccessful at interview ...

Can I ask for feedback on my interview performance?

Some employers have so many applicants that they explicitly say they cannot give feedback, and this position should be respected. If it has not been mentioned, it is always worth asking whether an employer is prepared to give feedback, as it can often help you prepare for your next interview.

I've been offered a job ...

I feel I need more information before making a decision

Never be afraid to ask for this. If necessary, ask if you can revisit the employer. Many will be happy to arrange this — sometimes at their own expense — but check whether they will pay before committing yourself to travel or hotel costs.

It's not the one I applied for — what can I do about it?

Do you know enough about this other job to make a decision? Find out as much as you can before deciding. Weigh up the pros and cons. Will the job on offer meet your criteria for job satisfaction? How much do you want to work for this particular employer? Will there be an opportunity later to move across into your preferred function? If you are still unsure, you may want to talk to a careers adviser.

It's only a fixed term contract — what can I do about it?

In many sectors of employment, short-term contracts are the norm. Is the contract likely to be renewed? Do internal applicants get preferential treatment? Questions like this will show an organisation you are really keen to work for them.

Even in sectors where permanent contracts are more usual, many graduates move to a second job within three years. It is important to consider what you will be able to achieve during the contract. Will taking this fixed-term appointment make you a better candidate when the contract ends?

Do I have to accept right away?

You may want to wait until you have heard the results of other applications or your degree results. Employers will often indicate the date by which they expect you to make a decision about an offer. How much time they will give you depends largely upon the employer in question and the lead time before you’re due to start. If necessary, request more time with some good reasons – you certainly will not be penalised for asking and, if they refuse even a few more days, is this inflexibility a good indicator of the sort of employer you’ll be joining? Tell the Careers Service of any unfair or unreasonable treatment during the offer stages, or at any other point throughout the recruitment process. If you’re one of many complaining about the same organisation, we might be able to help you. The Code of Best Practice says employers should allow a reasonable time for decision making [a minimum of two weeks].

If the deadline on an offer is approaching expiry and you are still waiting to hear from other employers, contact them to find out when you can expect their decision. Let them know you would like to work for them but have other offers — most employers are pleased if their candidates are considered employable by other people! Give them an idea of the timetable so they appreciate how quickly you need an answer.

The offer is subject to conditions

If the conditions are fairly automatic e.g. passing a medical examination or securing references, you can accept on the assumption that you have the job. If you could fail to meet the conditions, e.g. a particular degree classification, you can accept subject to fulfilling them and consider lower offers. However, it is only fair to the organisation making the lower offer to tell them that you will only accept if you do not get the job with the higher offer. Do not firmly accept any job as long as there is doubt about whether you are willing to take it. The same usually applies to places for postgraduate study.

It's not paid

Some sectors, and some forms of experience, are not covered by minimum wage legislation. If unpaid/low-paid work experience is the standard entry route to your preferred sector, and you have been unable to attract funding (such as the Careers Service Summer Bursary Scheme), can you negotiate the hours you put in? Can you alternate periods of unpaid experience and paid work? Can you do a part-time paid job concurrently? If you are offered a great opportunity with an organisation that should pay the minimum wage but says it's unpaid, you might consider politely referring them to the National Minimum Wage legislation and offer to discuss an arrangement that might suit both parties.

Can I ask for a higher salary than I've been offered?

If you have a higher offer from another employer, or you know of other people being offered more for similar jobs, you can try and negotiate with the employer. However, do consider the total package. How soon will your salary be reviewed? What else is included? Is the employer offering any of the following: training, flexible hours, long holidays, relocation expenses, a non-contributory pension, share options, health insurance, a laptop and phone? Is the job a particularly interesting opportunity that will give you valuable experience? What are these things worth to you? Be clear about your position and at what point you are willing to walk away from the offer. You may want to talk things through with a careers adviser.

How can I negotiate a deferral?

Hopefully you will already have discussed the possibility of deferring. When the employer makes an offer, say that you definitely want to work there but would like to defer. Before you start negotiating, be clear about how far you are prepared to compromise. Some employers have two starting dates — would you be prepared to start at the later one? Some employers will not guarantee a place for the following year, so there is an element of risk in taking a year out. At what point are you willing to walk away from the offer? You may want to talk things through with a careers adviser.

If the employer agrees to defer the offer, make sure you get the revised offer in writing and that it states a start date and a salary with which you are happy. For example, you might want your salary to be based on what graduate entrants will be being paid on the date you start work. Write an email or letter to accept their offer so you have a copy.

Can I ask for a different starting date?

Some starting dates cannot be changed because they are related to induction or training courses. In other cases employers may be happy to accept a different starting date if asked.

I thought I'd got a job ...

My internship manager wants to have me back, but there's a hiring freeze. Should I accept and wait?

Try to establish how long the hiring freeze is likely to last. You may want to accept subject to there being a firm offer by a certain date. Does the idea of part-time or fixed-term contract appeal, if so, offer that idea to an employer. You should develop a Plan B in case the hiring freeze is not lifted in time. Once you accept an unconditional offer, you should inform all other interested employers.

The employer has withdrawn an offer

This happens rarely and usually because of unforeseen circumstances, like an unexpected take-over bid. In such situations the employer is likely to either withdraw the offer completely or defer the offer to a later date. In either case, there is generally little room for negotiation on the terms of withdrawal, but there may be scope for negotiating the compensation you receive for the time and opportunities you have lost.

If you have an offer withdrawn we would advise you to contact the Careers Service to talk through your options. Bring along the communication from the employer.

I've been sent a form about criminal convictions. Could my offer be withdrawn?

Some organisations cannot employ anyone with a criminal conviction and they will make this clear from the outset. If an employer is concerned about criminal records the job description is likely to state that successful applicants will be DBS checked e.g. nursing, teaching, social work. The nature of your conviction is taken into account and in many cases will not affect a job offer.

Under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974, most convictions and all cautions, reprimands and final warnings can be considered ‘spent' after a rehabilitation period, and you do not have to disclose them when applying for most jobs. If the conviction is not ‘spent' under the Act, or if the post is exempt from the Act, you will have to disclose it. You will probably want to send a cover letter with the form explaining factors which minimise the impact of the offence (e.g. it is minor or a one-off), how your circumstances have changed since the offence (e.g. you were young and easily influenced at the time, you were experiencing problems which have since been resolved), and what you have done to put the offence behind you. Further advice is available from Target Jobs pages on Ex-Offenders and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro).

I accepted an offer, but I've had second thoughts – what can I do?

Most graduate recruiters would like to be told as soon as possible, while they still have time to find other candidates. Of course they will be disappointed, but most would rather you withdraw before they have incurred additional expense in training you. Remember that you may need to deal with this employer again in the future, as a customer or colleague, so be courteous at all times. If reneging on an offer to do something completely different, for example, to accept an unexpected place on a postgraduate course, explain this to the employer. They may be willing to defer your start date until after the course. They are less likely to be aggrieved than if you had decided to join their major competitor.

If you have already accepted an unconditional offer, you are bound by the terms of your contract, and must give notice of your withdrawal. Employers could demand that you recompense them for the costs of recruiting you, but there is no evidence of this happening in practice. Citizens Advice can advise on employment law if necessary.

My offer was conditional on getting a particular result and I haven't — what can I do?

First, try to get your result reviewed — speak to your Tutor, and seek advice from CUSU. Contact the employer as soon as possible to explain the position and especially any extenuating circumstances (you are likely to need proof in the case of medical emergency). If you are starting postgraduate study, you will have to check your position with both the university and with your funding body.

My dream job has fallen through — can I go back to an employer I turned down?

You have nothing to lose, and if one of their candidates has failed to meet the conditions of their offer, they may be very glad to hear from you. This sort of situation illustrates why you should always treat employers politely and professionally.