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Job Hunting Summer School: Negotiating Your Salary

This article is the final part of a series. Check out the first four parts on resume writing, crafting your cover letter, networking, and interviewing.

In this final installment of my Job Hunting Summer School series, I want to bring it all home by showing you how to close the deal and negotiate the salary that you really want and deserve—even if your almost-new employer tells you that you can’t.

That’s a bold statement, right? But I’m comfortable making it, because the truth is that many employers actually expect you to negotiate. In fact, they see it as a natural part of the job offer process. Despite this, however, roughly half of job candidates accept the first offer they get without even trying to negotiate.

This is a bad idea, even if you think that initial offer is stellar, or even if you really want the job. And that’s because job candidates who don’t negotiate could be losing out on as much as $1.5 million over the course of their career.

Say what? It’s a true story, and here’s how it goes: The average raise in corporate America is 3 to 5%. Needless to say, starting at the highest possible salary when you walk through the door is important, because when it comes to that first raise, 3% of $100,000 is $3,000, but 3% of $130,000 is $3,900.

Fast forward a year, and that next 3% raise, now on $103,000, equals $3,090. But the same raise on $133,900 equals $4,017—almost a thousand dollars more. It’s kind of like compound interest: the more principal you have to start, the more interest you’ll likely earn. And when it compounds, the increases can be substantial over time. This is why choosing to not negotiate (or, to not start with the highest “principal balance”) at the outset can translate into a serious lifetime loss. Plus, the habit itself of dodging negotiation keeps you starting low in your job– and in new jobs. Realize each job hop you make is a huge opportunity to increase your income. Stand in your worth!

The other reason negotiating is so important doesn’t have to do with money. It’s about getting your boss to respect you from day one. Asking for what you deserve and standing up for your worth right out of the gate really speaks to what sort of employee you’ll be. If you remember from my article on cover letters, managers want performers—and part of that means hiring employees who know how to tactfully speak up. An exchange like a salary negotiation is a powerful example of how you’ll show up as an ambassador for their company.

It’s for all of these reasons that I don’t want you to leave any money (or respect) on the table, so I’ve put together some ways to quell your fear, grow your confidence and get the salary you deserve.

Answering the Salary Question

The first thing to understand about salary negotiation is a big one: The first person to give away a number always loses. In order to get what you deserve, it’s important to keep your expectations close to the vest and make your potential employer spill the beans first.

That said, there are definitely times when you’ll end up getting cornered into giving a number. In those cases you’ll just have to cave and show your hand, but most of the time there’s a way to avoid it. Here’s what you might say if a company asks you what your salary expectations are:

“I’m negotiable depending on the range you’re offering for the position. My first priority is finding the right fit.”

Memorize these two sentences and repeat them often so that you have them ready to go whenever you need it, but know this: how you say it is just as important as what you say. When dealing with salary questions, it’s important to keep a neutral, strong tone that’s completely unemotional and matter of fact.

Treat it like you’re ordering a sandwich at a sub shop. I’ll take ham, turkey, mustard, mayo, and oh, an extra $5,000…Money is neutral; perhaps how you emotionally relate to it is not. Remember that employers are buying your time, and it’s neutral for you to decide on its price.

Knowing What the Job is Worth

Much of what I teach, through every part of the job hunting process, involves research and preparation. The more prepared you are, the more successful you’re likely to be. And when it comes to negotiating your salary, doing your homework can mean the difference in thousands of dollars a year.

So prior to having any phone calls, interviews or meetings where you might be asked about money, you need to be prepared to speak about the subject with expertise. Here are three steps for approaching salary discussions with confidence, and the numbers to back you up.

•  First, look at the company’s salaries on websites like Glassdoor or Career Bliss. It will give you solid insight into what types of salary ranges they generally offer and how they differ by various office locations or positions.

•  Next, you’ll want to check out the salaries from their competitions, ones being paid out for a similar level of responsibility. This can serve as a really powerful resource for you to understand salaries in context.

•  Finally, go the extra mile to look at the general marketplace. Check out positions in general, perhaps in a different industry, but with a similar level of responsibility and a similar title, especially in your area of the country.

This is admittedly a lot of research, but the goal is to get a good pulse on the marketplace: the lowest and highest salaries that people are being paid for the position you want, and what the common ground appears to be. It can come in handy down the line, especially if the figures you find will help your cause.

What to Do When You Get the Call

Since the early stages of the job interview process are used to say you’re negotiable without giving anything away, let’s take a look next at how this changes after you actually get a job offer. The conversation you’ll have at this point is vastly different, because you don’t have any leverage as a candidate.

The minute you become their choice, though? Everything changes.
Receiving an offer is a pivotal moment, because the employer has now said out loud that they want you. And the decision to select you likely included a lengthy process that included sign-off from multiple people—not to mention the time spent finding you and interviewing you—so if you get an offer, trust that they’re committed.

The first job offer is usually verbal via phone, and the HR person who calls you with the news is going to sound really excited for you. It will be tempting to jump right into the good news with them, (especially if you’re really excited, too) and you do want to sound upbeat, grateful, and optimistic. But here’s where a lot of people make a critical error. You should never say yes on the spot, and never negotiate during that first call.

Here’s what to do instead: Stay positive, ask for the details, request the offer in writing, and get off the phone. You’ll need time to mentally process the offer and prepare for negotiations, so while this phone call is likely to be amazing and something you’ve been waiting on for a while, it’s important that you don’t tip your hand. You might say something like this:

“Thank you so much! I’m excited. When can I expect a written offer letter?”

My suggestion would be to handle the call kind of like you’re buying a car. Why? Because the moment you tell a salesperson that you love a vehicle, they know they have the upper hand. Your ability to stay neutral, upbeat, and positive without giving yourself away is your leverage.

On the other hand, you don’t want to sound like you’re not excited at all, because then they’re going to worry that you either don’t really want the job or that you’ll leave quickly if you say yes. Remaining upbeat but noncommittal keeps you right in the middle.

Once you’re off the phone, take some time to really process the job offer. Read it over, look at the salary they’re offering you, and compare it to the research you’ve already done. From there you’ll want to decide on a salary range that you think would be fair for the position and send your HR person this quick email:

“Hello <name>,
I’ve read through the offer, and it looks very promising! Are you available for a quick call? I just have some last-minute questions.
<your name>”

The company will be curious about your questions, so they’ll set up a call—and this is where the negotiation happens. During this second conversation, the HR person will be trying to suss you out. They’ll be curious about where you stand specifically on salary, so one way to keep control of the conversation is to start with questions that aren’t related to money.

Here’s an idea of what you can say:

“Hi! The offer looks really exciting, thanks for sending it. I just have a few questions…” and start with lighter topics, like how soon benefits kick in or how vacation time works.

After you get those answers, it’s time to bring up salary. And just like the previous times you’ve broached the subject, speak like you’re ordering a sandwich.

“My second question is relating to salary. Is it negotiable? I ask because _____. Is it possible for you to meet me halfway?”

You’ll fill in that blank space with one of three approaches that explain why you’re asking them to negotiate.

•  The first is the most powerful position you can be in: “I’m weighing this against another offer, but I know this job is a better fit for me. They’re offering me X and I’m seeing that you’re offering me Y.”

•  The next most powerful position is a range vs. a specific number, and this works well if you’re in heavy networking mode or actively interviewing: “I’m being considered for positions in the range of X to Y, but I know this job is a better fit for me.” Another version of this could be, “I see that you’re offering me X, but I’d love to be paid at least Y for this level of responsibility, based on the market.”

•  The final approach is focused on what the market pays, and can be used if you aren’t in heavy job-search mode or don’t have any other prospects: “I’ve done some market research, and I’ve found that the market pays X for positions of a similar level and responsibility.” You could also say, “I see that you offered X, and most positions with this level of responsibility range around Y.”

When you end any of these approaches with the question, “Is it possible for you to meet me halfway?” the answer will go one of two ways. Either the HR person will say that this is something they’ll look into (which is great!) or they’ll flat out say no. If this is the case, and you still want the job, there’s nothing wrong with saying “Okay, well there’s no harm in asking, right? I’m still going to accept the offer, and I’m really excited to join the team.”

The Bottom Line: Don’t Let Fear Hold You Back

A lot of job candidates tell me they’re afraid that negotiating will cause them to lose the offer, but trust me when I say that this simply isn’t true. I’ve coached hundreds of people over the years, and I’ve only seen one person be threatened with a rescinded offer because they negotiated.

The bottom line is that negotiation is low-risk, because many employers expect a counter offer. But if you do attempt to negotiate and run into trouble, ask yourself this question: Do you really want to work for a company that’s going to discourage you from standing in your power? To me, that says a lot about what kind of culture you’d be stepping into, and how they would perceive you as an employee.

At the end of the day, remember that you cannot put a number on your worth. It’s frustrating when people say “get paid what you’re worth,” because you’re more valuable than a number. You have a lot more to give, and one way to show it off is to negotiate when you get a job offer. For me, that’s the best (and only) way to set your tone for your worth in the workplace.

So go for it. Do your homework. Get an offer. Then ask for what you truly deserve.

Looking for more career coaching? Consider making an appointment with someone from SoFi’s Career team. The benefit is complimentary for SoFi Members.

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Ashley Stahl ABOUT Ashley Stahl Ashley Stahl is a career coach, keynote speaker, podcast host (You Turn Podcast), and author.

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