Why you should stop using ‘competitive’ and ‘negotiable’ salaries in your job description

So, it turns out that being coy on your job ads may not be the successful candidate pull tactic you were hoping for. 

Being ‘competitive’ or ‘negotiable’ seems to have lost its appeal when it comes to pay, with candidates wanting transparency across the entire hiring process now more than ever. As bills go up, competition increases and jobseekers become savvier, employers cannot hide behind buzzwords any longer.

It can’t all be bad, can it?

The majority of employers out there are not out to fleece anyone. And there are, of course, more legitimate reasons for using ‘competitive’ and ‘negotiable terms in job ads. Companies often have internal privacy policies when it comes to salaries, and so to keep it clean, leave them off public new hire information altogether. 

There is concern that publicising salaries can turn off existing employees or leave them open to poaching from competitors. In a recent survey*, we found that if an employee discovered that a colleague in the same or similar position to them was being paid more than them, only 5% of people would quit. 56% of employees would ask their employer to explain why there was a difference in pay, and 45% said that they would ask to be paid the same.

And for balance, if used correctly, competitive salary means that what’s on offer is equal to (or more than) the industry average for similar job roles in the same location. So arguably a plus and open to your interpretation to some degree. But it can still leave jobseekers feeling uneasy, or worse still, untrusting of the company advertising the job. 48% of candidates said that the absence of salary on a job advert would impact their perception of a company negatively, putting your employer brand at risk.

Jobseekers expect to see the salary

Where job ads are using competitive and negotiable terms, they are often overlooked, or if read, candidates are not applying. We found that 50% of candidates said the terms ‘negotiable’ or ‘competitive’ would put them off applying for a job altogether. However, job ads that do include a numeric salary experienced 27% more applications than those which did not**. These are significant numbers of job postings potentially sitting empty and talent going to waste. But why?

It seems that candidates worldwide rarely see or assume that the term competitive is being used in its originally intended way. Instead of dialling up the mystique of an amazing job and genuinely competitive market rates of pay, they assume the worst, with companies being seen as unaccountable for committing to salary expectations, or using a vague marketing term at best.

Minority groups can be marginalised 

Our research showed that 52% of those who identified as being part of a minority group said that using the words ‘competitive’ and ‘negotiable’ would put them off applying for a job (compared to 48% of those in a non-minority group). We found that 53% of Black people, 52% of Asian people, and 56% of people who were Mixed Ethnicity were off-put by the use of these terms.

A whopping 81% of those in a minority group said they wouldn’t, or it was unlikely they would apply for a job that didn’t display a salary. This restraint is likely due to racial bias, lack of diversity and inclusion, and overall deficit industry-wide that minority groups have had to work with for decades. 

The gender pay gap is, quite rightly, well-reported now, but the ethnicity pay gap and the even more elusive ‘ask gap’ (we’ll come back to that) are not quite so seen yet. The ONS shows that the ethnicity pay gap between White and Ethnic Minority employees has narrowed to its most minor level since 2012 in England and Wales, but there is still a gap, nonetheless – as much as 24% in London. 

When you consider why the gap exists in the first place, it’s hard to argue why minority groups are reluctant to apply for negotiable or competitive pay if they feel they are unlikely to get it.

Women are especially averse to the vagueness

Unequal pay is a real problem. Even if the gap is shortening, it is quite the stain on a company culture to have salary deficits for women doing the same job as men in the business. Coming back to the ‘ask gap’, the notion of men’s salary expectations being higher than women’s and thus being paid accordingly undercuts women and minorities in particular. 

While salary negotiations may seem like they’re not far off the mark to start with, they can make a big difference from the outset. A study in America found that a difference of $1,000 (£700) in starting salary could lead to a cumulative loss of a half-million dollars (£353k). And so again, you can see why our research found that 81% of women said they wouldn’t, or were unlikely to, apply for a job that didn’t display a salary, and 47% of women said the terms ‘negotiable’ or ‘competitive’ would put them off applying. 

Men were also more likely to negotiate a salary when offered a job, with 61% of men admitting that they always negotiate their salary, compared to only 41% of women. Additionally, men were also more successful increasing their salaries in the region of £1,000 – £2,499 and £2,500 – £10,000 (71%) versus women who tried to do the same (66%). The extra headache of fighting for their worth with a company already keeping information back doesn’t seem that appealing.

So what can you do?

Ultimately, you need to tailor your job ad to your business, and we appreciate companies can’t necessarily change policies overnight. But, unless you are locked in from up high to keep salaries hidden, there are undeniable benefits to being transparent. For example, in our survey, 42% of hiring managers said hiring in the current job market is more difficult, versus 13% who said it was easier – so, stand out and take the opportunity to make it easier for them. 

A company or brand that makes a jobseeker feel like they are being accommodated from the job advert onwards will always attract better talent and retain more staff as a result (logically anyway). The hiring process may be short, but it may also be long – with test pieces, presentations, travel and multiple stages to get through. No candidate who knows their worth will go through that without knowing the salary – no matter how great your job is. 

There is merit to giving salary brackets over a stand-alone figure, as it is totally acceptable that pay can equate to years of experience in particular roles, for example. Just be clear from the outset what that means to you – lower end two years specific experience, top-end five years, and so on. This clarity makes candidate shortlisting easier and stops money from being such an unnecessarily dirty word.

The adage that stating a salary will attract every Tom, Dick and Harry is also a touch lazy. If you write your job ad correctly, consider search terms and filtering for candidates, align salaries with the market rates as a minimum, and get effective candidate shortlisting in place. You need not waste a minute on candidates who aren’t right for you.


* This online survey was conducted by Atomik Research and consisted of 2,008 adults in the UK. (69% identified as female and 31% identified as male). This survey took place between the 4th – 11th  February 2022. Atomik Research is an independent creative market research agency that employs MRS-certified researchers and abides by the MRS code.

** Analysis of jobs adverts on Reed.co.uk during 2021.