Illustration by Erin Taj

You Have to Negotiate Your Salary

We know it’s no fun, so we asked two experts to help

A large swath of the American electorate is convinced Donald J. Trump will make a fabulous president simply because he’s a good negotiator. Little do they know that Trump’s best-selling negotiation manual, The Art of the Deal, was ghostwritten by Tony Schwartz, who publicly renounced the book in July, saying it grossly exaggerated Trump’s business prowess and that Trump is a self-aggrandizing fraud.

But Trump’s ascendence is a testament to the importance of negotiation, which has become a hot-button issue of late. Last week, Massachusetts made it illegal for employers to ask job candidates what they earned at previous jobs. Employers in that state now have to make compensation offers up-front. Politicians from both parties have heralded the law as integral to closing the gender pay gap, but it stands to benefit all workers. By forcing employers to make the initial compensation offer, Massachusetts is giving job-seekers the upper hand in salary negotiations.

What makes this so key is that a single salary negotiation can alter your earning potential for life. Employers are reluctant to agree to sizable raises, so “your best shot at jumping ahead pay-wise is starting a new job,” according to Terry Petracca, a human resources consultant who has advised MEL (and writes our “Go See HR” column). Your current salary sets the benchmark for what you will be paid in subsequent jobs, so if your salary is, say, 10 percent lower than what it should be, you can expect to earn 10 percent less in each successive gig, according to the book Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation, by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever.

As important as negotiation is, the mere idea of it daunts many job-seekers, such that they often accept salaries that don’t accurately reflect their true worth in the labor market.

But fear not, humble job-seeker — MEL is here to give you the negotiation tools you need, and you didn’t even have to consult Trump. Instead, we asked Petracca, the hiring manager, and Barbara Wally, a professional negotiation coach, about how to effectively negotiate a salary without rankling your prospective employer. Below, some tips.

Don’t be afraid to ask

We’ve been socialized to think talking about money is crass, making salary negotiations inherently awkward. And then there’s the added anxiety that asking for too much money will make us seem greedy and entitled, such that the employer might even rescind the offer.

But that fear is largely unfounded, Wally says. Employers rarely take an offer off the table due to a high salary request — but it does happen on occasion, so it’s key that you get a read on the hiring manager to determine whether they will be put off by your attempt to negotiate, Wally says. Above all, remain respectful when making your salary ask.

Do your homework

Petracca and Wally agree that an effective negotiation starts long before the interview begins. Sites such as Glassdoor and Payscale provide salary information specific to the company, title, industry and location, so you should consult them before the interview, Petracca says. This will help you get an idea of the salary range for the job in question.

Don’t say what you earned at your last job

If the hiring manager asks your salary is at your current or most recent job, “dodge that question as much as you can,” Wally says. If you provide your past salary, the hiring manager will likely offer you something commensurate with that figure instead of the sizable raise you’re hoping for. (This is why the Massachusetts law is so significant.)

Avoiding the question respectfully is a delicate task, however. “It’s tough when you’re confronted with that question directly,” Wally says. If the topic does come up, she suggests politely responding, “I’m hoping my previous salary isn’t an overly relevant data point. I’d like to hear the range of salaries you’d like to offer.”

Don’t make the first move

Along those lines, you want to avoid making the initial offer if at all possible, Wally says.

The employer might offer you more than you were going to ask for, in which case, congratulations. But if you make the first offer and it’s less than what the hiring manager was going to present, they’re not going to make up the difference for you — they’re going to take you up on your lowball figure.

And if you make the first offer and it’s too high, you risk alienating the employer, Wally adds. “Information imbalances are ways of securing an advantage in a negotiation, which is why withholding information can be to your advantage.”

If the hiring manager asks what you’d like to make in the job, turn the question back on them by saying, “I’d really like to know what the company had in mind. Can you tell me the salary range for the position?”

Ask for (a little) more than you want

“You always want to ask for a little bit more than what you want to get, but you don’t want to make it so much more that you alienate the other side,” Wally says.

Exactly how much more you should ask for varies by position, though. Asking for $50,000 when you expect to settle at $35,000 is unwise. But padding your desired salary by several grand is fine when you’re shooting for $80,000, for instance.

Also, always try to negotiate in face instead of via email, Wally says. “It’s always better to initiate an actual conversation about your salary. Managers react a lot better when you’re actually talking to them.”

Making a counter-offer

If the employer’s offer is disappointing, you’re free to respond with a civil but assertive counter-offer. “There’s nothing wrong with coming back and saying, ‘I’m disappointed because this is on the low side of what I was expecting, and I was wondering if you could reconsider. I’m looking for $3,000 to $5,000 more,’” Petracca says.

And there are other ways to sweeten a compensation package, she adds, such as better benefits or stock options. Asking for a signing bonus, for example, is a helpful yet seldom-used way to make up for a lackluster salary.

Be confident

Above all, Petracca says to be confident when negotiating. Hiring managers work on their company’s behalf, and their mandate is to hire talented people for as “fair” (read: low) a price as possible. It’s up to you to negotiate the salary you deserve. Petracca noted that women, in particular, are still reluctant to do so, and that this can leave them at a major salary disadvantage over time.

“It’s not up to me as an employer to necessarily know what your worth is,” Petracca says. “You’re the one who has to know and sell yourself. Don’t expect the recruiter to do that for you.”