Job Search Month: 6 tips to a successful salary negotiation

—Amy M. Gardner

Negotiating your compensation package with a new job can be complicated, which is why we shy away from avoiding one-size-fits-all advice on this topic.  Instead, due to requests, we offer one-on-one negotiation coaching, and a popular negotiation presentation delivered as a live program or online webinar well-suited to professional organizations.  

 But as we wind down job search month, we can’t ignore the important step of negotiating your compensation package.  So this week, 6 basic tips to a successful negotiation of your initial compensation or raise.  We’re just able to scratch the surface in this post, but hope these tips will get you started.

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Tip 1:  Ask for what you want.

Years ago, I read about a study that considered ways to teach at-risk young men leadership and ways to avoid using violence to solve problems.  One of the most successful exercises divided them into pairs.  One partner had a basketball, and the other was told to get the basketball.  Time and again the young men tried to snatch it from their partner’s hands, slam it out of their hands, or otherwise yank it away. Finally, they figured out how to get the basketball.  What did they do? 

They asked for it.

Your bonuses, retirement contributions, raises, and even future salary are all tied to your salary.  It’s far too important, then, to accept the first offer an employer extends.  In fact, not negotiating the starting salary of your first full-time job means forgoing an average of $7,000 that first year, and between $650,000 and $1 million over a 45 year career.  

And yet, as many as 20% of women admit to not even attempting to negotiate salary.  Don’t be one of them. 

If the financial impact alone doesn’t motivate you, keep in mind that your future supervisor has almost certainly prepared the compensation package expecting you to counter.  If you don’t, s/he may reasonably assume that you shouldn’t be entrusted with negotiating on the employer’s behalf.  

Tip 2:  Don’t offer the first number.  Virtually no good can come of it.  

This could be a whole other blog post, but the short version is that if you are asked during a hiring process what you want to make, or how much you expect to make, or how much you make now, you want to avoid giving a number.  You can do that by simply saying something like “I want this move to be a big step forward for my career in terms of responsibility, impact, and compensation,” or “I’m just not comfortable discussing [my current or expected] salary. I’d like at this point to focus on the value I bring to the position and learning more about it.  I’m sure if we agree this is the right fit, we’ll be able to reach agreement on the compensation package.”

Again, there are lots of unique wordings and this can be a complicated situation, but in general, don’t offer the first number.

Tip 3:  Don’t accept the first offer, even when the employer says they can’t negotiate.  

There are times when employers really can’t negotiate on compensation, but they are far rarer than you might think.  Here’s an example, instead, of how “non-negotiable” salaries can, in fact, be negotiated (for the full background on this situation, check out the case study on this Resume Redo client here):

One of our Résumé Redo clients recently received a job offer that she was told – directly by the company CEO – was not negotiable.  Nevertheless, she agreed (after some coaching) to make one attempt to ask the employer to raise the salary. We worked with her on an approach to make that request the best it could be.  This was not complicated; we ghost wrote an email for her, texted it to her, she copied and pasted it, and hit send. Within hours, the CEO had come up 10% on the previously non-negotiable salary.  There was no drama, there were no hard feelings – she just asked for what she wanted, despite the initial statement that there was no room for negotiation, and she got it.  (By the way, she loves her new job.)

And even if the salary truly is non-negotiable, remember that there may be other elements of the compensation package (such as vacation, retirement contributions, signing bonuses, and bonus eligibility) that are negotiable.

Tip 4:  Do your homework.  

Many professionals have no idea what to request when evaluating an offer, so if they negotiate at all, they tie the request to a set percentage of the offer.  But it is worth it, financially and psychologically, to do your homework and know what comparable positions are paying.  That can be easier said than done, but you can start with your professional organizations (which may have done a salary survey), asking other people in your field, or consulting websites like the Robert Half Salary Guide and Salary Calculator, Glass Door, Pay Scale, industry websites (Above the Law and Legal Crossing for lawyers), and publicly available information for non-profits and government agencies.  If you’re working with a recruiter, they can also be a source of information, though obviously how much they are able to help can vary based on the situation.

Tip 5:  Phrase and base your counter offer or raise request on what you offer the employer – not on your wants or needs.  

“My wife doesn’t work outside the home and we have two children, so I’ll need a higher salary to be able to accept the job.”

“I have really high student loan payments, so I need to make at least $X.”  

These may be the reasons you want to make a certain salary, but they shouldn’t be the basis for your request to the employer.  

As this week’s Video of the Week explained, “No one will ever pay you what you’re worth. They’ll only ever pay you what they think you’re worth.“

Your request, then, should be based on your experience, your skills, what you bring to the employer, and the contributions you’ll make in the future.  If, for example, you are asking for a raise, cite the ways you saved the employer money, brought in business, and the ways you will be contributing over the next year. If you are coming into a new position, you might cite the fact your experience means you will be able to hit the ground running and work with less supervision, any qualifications you hold beyond the requirements, or whatever the reasons are that you should be paid more than the initial offer. 

If you’re questioning whether it’s worthwhile to implement this tip, consider the advice of Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, who explains in Not for the Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power, and Persistence, “So much of coming to an agreement is learning the true nature of the opposite side’s concerns. And to do this we need to see what drives them. It’s likely to be a need that we share and that can be used to deepen our mutual respect and develop a sense of common cause.”  In other words, understanding how you will contribute to the goals driving the employer allows you to help them see why compensating you based on your worth will advance their goals (and yours).  

Tip 6:  Ask for help. 

Talking to yourself in the bathroom mirror doesn’t replace the experience of having a mock interview with an Apochromatik Certified Professional Career Transitions Coach.  Likewise, you shouldn’t prepare for your salary (or raise) negotiation on your own. Tap into your network to gather information, practice with someone who can give you objective feedback, read books about negotiation before you need them (watch for a book bundle on negotiations soon) and don’t be afraid to reach out if we can be helpful.  When you think about the money you spend on your job search, from networking coffees to your shiny new interview shoes, coaching is one expense that reaps rewards well after the coffees are long forgotten and the shoes have lost their shine.

There you have it:  6 tips that apply to anyone asking for a raise or negotiating a compensation package with a new employer.  Ask for what you want.  Don’t offer the first number.  Don’t accept the first offer, even when the employer says they can’t negotiate on compensation.  Do your homework. Phrase and base your counter on what you offer the employer – not on your wants or needs.  And ask for help.  Good luck!

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Amy M. Gardner is a certified professional coach with Apochromatik specializing in career and career transition coaching. Amy is a former Big Law associate, partner at a mid-size law firm, and dean of students at a top 5 law school. Today she works with lawyers and other high-achieving professionals to build the career and life they want. Contact Amy directly at amy@apochromatik.com.