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How to negotiate your salary for any job

During the interview process, it’s important to not only negotiate your salary but your benefits.

How to negotiate your salary for any job
[Source photo: PM Images/Getty Images]

Salary negotiation is a crucial step in the interview process. You risk losing a lot when you don’t ask for more. And yes, even if you do not think you have the leverage, you should still do it. Here is a complete guide to negotiating, especially if it is your first job.

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How to negotiate when you don’t have much experience

If there’s one thing that’s arguably more nerve-racking than a job interview, it’s negotiating your salary. And if you’re a recent graduate or someone who wants to change careers, the stakes can feel even higher. How are you supposed to convince someone you’re worth more when you have next to no experience?

When you’re just starting out, you might feel like you have to accept the first offer, but if you do, you’re doing yourself a massive financial disservice. As Fast Company‘s Lydia Dishman reports, not negotiating your starting salary can set you back more than $500,000 by the time you reach 60. It’s also common practice for companies to low ball initial offers because they expect that job seekers will negotiate.

Jacqueline Twillie, negotiation trainer and author of Navigating The Career Jungle: A Guide For Young Professionals, recommends taking these steps below to put yourself in the stronger position possible:

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Talk to members of professional associations of your target industry

Almost every article on salary negotiation will tell you that the first step of negotiating is to do your research, starting with finding out the market value of your position. Glassdoor and Google are great tools, but to be truly prepared, Twillie advises that job seekers shouldn’t stop there.

“I tell people to speak with someone in professional associations. Those folks normally have their ear to the ground,” she says. Instead of asking “how much do you make?,” however, Twillie suggests that job seekers should frame their question in the following way: “I’m considering this position in this city, and I’m thinking my value is $86,500, what do you think?”

You can get a much more accurate picture this way. Noting the gender wage gap, Twillie also recommends that job seekers speak with both men and women. “We know women get paid less than men,” so don’t just ask the women in the industry, she warns.

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Treat your interview like a fill-in-the-blank test

Twillie tells applicants that, when they see a job description, they should “look at it as if it’s a fill-in-the-blank for a test. A lot of the time, it’s not a full picture of what you’d be doing day to day.” She encourages applicants to “generate some questions” and “read between the lines.” For example, if a job description says that in your role, you will get special projects assigned from time to time, you’d want to ask, what kind of special projects? Who are the key partners involved? Depending on the answers you get, you might have some connections that could be a potential partner on that project.

A deep dive into specifics, says Twillie, allows you to have a range of leveraging options that might not immediately be obvious. This is especially useful if you don’t have a lot of industry experience. “Once you finish the interview process, you should have a clear idea of how you can add value to the organization.” She suggests that candidates start preparing by using this information and asking themselves, “how can I leverage my network or my skills?” Having clear answers to these questions will help you a great deal come negotiation time.

Use the STAR method to highlight your experience

When talking about their experiences, Twillie is a big fan of the STAR method–situation or task, action, and result. Say the interviewer throws you a question about encountering conflicts in a team environment, and you wanted to use the example of working on a group project in your sophomore year of college. Describe the project and the circumstances that led to the conflict, the actions you took to resolve the conflicts, and the result. This is a great formula to show that you do have experience that is relevant to the job, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

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For career changers and those who’ve held part-time jobs, Twillie also recommends mentioning numbers and tangible results–whether it’s sales figures or a percentage value. Make sure to mention what you learned from your experience and how you might apply that learning to the position you’re interviewing for. That tells them that you “have a great track record of learning and growing,” Twillie says, and that you possess the foresight to apply real-life learnings in a real-world situations.

Show your knowledge of industry trends

Even if you don’t have experience in the industry, you can show your value by illustrating your knowledge of the industry. Twillie says that job seekers should be able to talk about the steps they took to excel working in the role they are interviewing for. One obvious way to show this is to illustrate that you can “speak” the industry. “Show that you’re already deeply immersed knowledge-wise, speak to what’s happening in the new trends,” Twillie urges.

Find a way to use your disadvantage to your advantage

Unfortunately, negotiations are fraught with biases, deception, and hidden agendas. If candidates can identify possible biases (whether conscious or unconscious) ahead of time, they can find a way to work around them. Yes, that includes working around inexperience. As Stephanie Vozza wrote in a previous story for Fast Company, it’s all about demonstrating your value to the company. Vozza wrote, “If you’re familiar with a new type of technology, for example, mention that the company will save time and resources because they won’t have to train you.”

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Practice in a low-stakes situation

If the thought of negotiation makes you drip with sweat, Twillie recommends doing a practice run in low-stakes situations. “For a person who’s uncomfortable negotiating, I advise them to call their recurring monthly bill.” Whether it’s your internet provider or your bank, ask the representatives, “am I getting the best possible rate?” Try to ask for a lower rate, or for additional services at your current rate.

Elicit feedback from friends who can give you a little bit of tough love

Lastly, Twillie recommends role-playing with a friend–someone who can hit you with the hard questions, but not be afraid to tell you what you need to improve on. It’s also a great idea to practice with someone who is knowledgeable about the role that you’re applying for.

Twillie also stress the importance of saying your target number out loud. “If you’ve never said $94,000, your voice might crack. Being aware of how you sound is very important in practice. That can make a big difference in $10,000 or $20,000.” To go a step further, she recommends that candidates record their practice negotiations–even film it if they can, so they can get an idea of their body language.

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Four mistakes to avoid

You just got the call you’ve been waiting for. After several rounds of interviews for a job you really want, it’s finally time to get down to discussing the offer.

If you’re relatively new to the workforce–and especially if you’re about to negotiate your very first job offer–there are some common pitfalls you may not know to avoid. Here are four of the most common ways early-career professionals tend to get out-negotiated by employers, and tactics you can use to make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

You break the silence too soon

Silence is a negotiating tool that many employers use during salary negotiations. Don’t let them. Silence is designed to make you feel like the employer is losing enthusiasm for your candidacy during the course of negotiating an offer.

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Once you state your salary requirements, many employers will fall silent or not react to your request. This uncomfortable moment often prompts candidates to volunteer information they shouldn’t–like, “If that’s too high, though, I can always consider a few thousand dollars less.” Resist that urge to backpedal. Just ride out the silence, calmly return the interviewer’s gaze (or wait out their silence if you’re speaking by phone), and force the person on the other side to speak next.

It doesn’t have to be standoffish, either. If you’re presented with a salary that’s lower than you’d hoped for, use that silence in your favor. Let them see that you haven’t been wowed by their offer. This can open the opportunity to ask for more money in the course of the discussion, because your interviewer won’t want to lose you and start the process over again–all over a couple of thousand dollars.

You ask for a salary that reflects your lifestyle, not facts

Lifestyle salary requests are based on a candidate’s cash needs to support their current style of living. And indeed, it’s hard to blame less experienced job candidates for thinking along the lines of, “In order to pay my student loans and live on my own, I need to earn around $40,000 a year.” Unfortunately, though, your lifestyle has no place in a salary negotiation.

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To your employer, your living needs are your concern, not theirs. Most employers work within salary guidelines set by the company for entry-level positions. If you bring any mention of your lifestyle into the salary negotiation, the company can quickly shut that down by pointing to its compensation protocol.

However, if you present your salary requirements based on average salaries listed on Glassdoor, Indeed, and other job sites for jobs similar to the one you’re being considered for, you can now get on the same page–using facts that are pertinent to the employer, not just you. And once you do that, your chance of landing a better starting salary dramatically increases.

You accept a low salary without negotiating

Many early-career job candidates are grateful to be in the position to be offered a job with a company they really want to work for, so they accept an offer that’s below market value. The candidate’s thinking often is that they just want to get into the company at any cost, and they’ll worry about the money later.

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But the truth is that if you do that, you’ll likely be underpaid as long as you stay at that company. That means the only way to get your salary up to industry standards is to leave, and you may not want to. Remember, there’s almost always room for negotiation in any salary discussion, even at the entry level.

The best way to handle a situation like this is to ask for a little more, not a lot more (where you might actually risk losing the job). Usually there’s no harm in asking for 4% to 6% more than what’s initially offered. This way you’ll walk away feeling that you’re being fairly compensated. Every company has a little more to pay you if they really want you.

You’re an uncreative negotiator

Most entry-level candidates look at salary negotiation as a black and white thing. Maybe a $38,000 starting salary has been presented to you as a final offer, so you feel like there are only two choices: Either accept it or reject it–and take your chances on finding a higher-paying job.

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But rather than rejecting the offer, what if you were to ask for a six-month review and a salary adjustment based on your performance? That’s actually pretty common. Many employers will agree to this, understanding that they can keep their entry-level salary structure intact while at the same time giving you an incentive for strong performance during your first six months on the job. It’s a win-win situation for both of you–just as long as you think to ask about it.

Four more things you absolutely must do in any salary negotiation

Countless job seekers and employees still struggle with negotiating salaries and advocating for themselves. But let’s say you’ve worked yourself up to asking for a higher salary. You could still be missing out on perks that can further enhance your compensation package–and they may not be that far out of reach.

“The whole salary negotiation process is a conversation,” says Twillie, who is also the founder of leadership development firm ZeroGap. “It’s not a battle.” With that in mind, here are some negotiation tricks to keep in mind the next time you’re interviewing for a new job or angling for a raise.

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Never accept a verbal offer

“Don’t just flat out accept it, even if it sounds great and you’re really excited,” Twillie says. She recommends that job seekers always hold off on saying yes to a verbal offer, even in cases where they feel sure about the job. “I would always ask for an opportunity to review everything in writing–but express enthusiasm so that they know that you’re interested,” she says. The money might sound good at first blush, but when you look at benefits like healthcare, you may find the coverage is less than you anticipated; if so, you may want to negotiate a better salary.

“It’s much harder to come back and negotiate after you’ve already accepted,” Twillie says. “And it puts you in a stronger position when you haven’t accepted yet.”

Do your research on pay parity

In states like California, pay parity laws that have gone into effect over the past few years could help women negotiate salary increases, according to Tracy Saunders, a former recruiter who started the Women’s Job Search Network. The Equal Pay Act in California states that employees who do “substantially similar work” must be paid equally, even if their job titles are not identical. “Companies are actually adjusting women’s salaries outright,” Saunders says. “Understanding those laws is one way to receive a more substantial kind of increase.”

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The same is true of another law that seeks to address the gender pay gap, which prohibits employers from asking about a prospective employee’s salary history in states like Massachusetts and California. In the event that a recruiter does ask for your current salary, try to shift the conversation to your salary expectations; Saunders and Twillie also recommend talking about salary expectations early in the interview process. “It’s really important that in the first phone screen, when they bring up the money, you talk about the market rate and not your current salary–especially if your first salary is less than the market [rate],” Twillie says.

Figure out what you need to be successful–and ask for it

As you go through an interview process or negotiation, it’s important to get as much information as you can about the role you’re up for. “Try to ask questions that give you a deeper understanding of the work you’ll be doing beyond the job description,” Twillie says. “If you can understand what you’ll be doing upfront, you’ll be able to negotiate for different things.”

That could include a travel allowance or a certification–or it could be as simple as the right equipment. “People think they’ll be provided with the tools,” Twillie says, “but if you don’t ask for those things, you’re not going to get them.” Asking for what you need during the negotiation process, she argues, can prove more effective.

One of the best ways to figure out what a new role may entail is talking to employees. According to Twillie, some companies have started allowing people they’re interviewing to shadow employees, which she suggests job seekers try to do. “If you spend more than 10 minutes with a person, they’re going to drop their guard and be more open,” she says. “So, if you can spend that half day onsite, it really gives you an opportunity to learn about the culture and to talk to employees.”

Get creative with benefits

As companies race to snag the best employees, many have rounded out their compensation packages with more attractive benefits and perks–say, a flexible vacation policy or the ability to work remotely. Some employers are even offering to assist with student loan repayments. Twillie notes that there are countless ways to negotiate benefits, and that would-be employees can even repurpose a perk that they don’t need: One person she coached asked to put a superfluous relocation package toward repaying her student loans. “If they’re giving you a bucket of money,” she says, “see if you can use it in a different area.”

For parents, another option is to request a bump in pay over the summer, to account for the cost of childcare; and for employees who yearn to be parents, employers might help subsidize fertility treatments or adoption assistance. (“These are really high-ticket, high-price benefits,” Saunders adds.) Both Twillie and Saunders urge job seekers to think outside of the box and ask for benefits that aren’t necessarily included in the “standard” compensation package. “When you’re starting to think about negotiating, it just depends on what your goals are,” Saunders says. “There are some new benefits coming into play that are intangibly valuable–or priceless.”


This article was compiled by Sabine Cherenfant with excerpts from previous reporting by Anisa Purbasari Horton, Don Raskin, and Pavithra Mohan.


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