Adventures in growing up: salary negotiation

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In the past, my salary negotiations before accepting a new job have been something like this:

New Job: We'd like to hire you for $X.

Me: OK! Great!

Which is to say, I've never really negotiated. In part, that's because the only job I've ever been offered for that I realized had a too-low starting salary was my first one out of college, and I was in no place to refuse any work at that point. In part, though, it's been because the idea of negotiation makes me uncomfortable.

I'm not alone in being uncomfortable negotiating. In fact, I'm in the majority. There has been a lot of work done and there are a lot of theories about women and negotiation. There are books, websites, seminars, and speakers about it. With women still at something less than 80 cents to the male dollar, it's a big deal.

So, when I started this last job search, I promised myself that I would negotiate. It wasn't just my personal responsibility, I told myself, it was my responsibility as a feminist! I looked up the going rate for professionals in my field in my area, and was surprised to find that my previous salary (which I'd considered very generous) was at the low end of the spectrum. I look around and noted what jobs in the field with published salaries were listed for. I came up with a target number for what I wanted to make.

The first job I was offered made an initial offer of about 8% less than the number I'd arrived at. I told the human resources person with whom I was communicating that I'd like to make my target number, but that I'd consider additional benefits (i.e. more paid vacation days) in lieu of salary if the salary number was non-negotiable. The job had good benefits already, so I felt OK in coming down a bit if I had to, but I started with a strong counter-offer. After a couple of rounds of negotiations, we agreed on a salary right between the one they'd initially offered and the one for which I'd asked, with no additional vacation time. Though it wasn't all I'd wanted, I felt good about having forced myself to go through the process.

That position didn't end up working out--there was a contract issue between the company for which I was going to work and the company for whom they were staffing, and it fell through. Back to the drawing board.

The next offer I received was for a salary 17% below my target. Again, the job had good benefits, so I was willing to consider a slightly lower salary, but this one seemed far too low. Before I responded to the offer, I re-checked the going rates for my profession in my area. The offer was in the bottom quartile for those with my experience, or even a bit less experience. I countered, saying I would like to make 17% more--my target number. Again, I told the human resources person that I would consider additional benefits in lieu of compensation. The human resources person was surprised, telling me that I'd been offered the highest salary budgeted for the position. For a moment, I second-guessed myself, thinking I'd made a mistake by asking. I stood my ground, though, and requested that my counter offer be presented to the hiring manager.

This time, the response I got was negative--the hiring manager refused to increase the salary offer at all, or add additional benefits. In retrospect, as low as the offer was for the field in which I work, I should have turned it down. I was a few months into my job hunt at that point, though, and not feeling very self-confident, so I accepted.

That was the job that didn't work out, at which I was employed for two days. The salary offer I received, I now realize, was an excellent clue to how I should have expected to be treated at that company.

On my third round, I found myself in an enviable situation. I had two competing offers. Initially, one offer was 117% of my target salary, the other was 141% of my target salary. The lower offer included full benefits, though, while the higher one did not. As I considered my decision, I was honest with both companies, telling them about the competing offer.

After I told each of the companies about the other, (without making any requests, save a request for a few days in which to make my decision) each presented me with another offer. The first offer was increased to 133% of my target amount. The second was increased to 150% of my target amount. I knew, then, that I was in an exceptional place to negotiate. The first company made it clear that the offer they'd made was as high as they were able or willing to go, but offered me an excellent benefits package to go along with it. In speaking to the second company, I explained that although I was tempted by their higher offer, I hated the idea of not having paid vacation. They returned with a second counter offer, this time of 156% of my target salary and ten paid days of vacation per year. I accepted the second offer.

I don't know if I did this right--I feel like I may just have gotten very lucky. I do know, though, that my forcing myself to attempt negotiation, even if it wasn't all that successful, during the first two interactions helped me to feel much more confident during the second two. I knew, when I began my search, what the lowest salary I should take would be, what the salary I'd consider fair would be, and what the salary I'd consider generous would be. I also knew, in general, how much a benefits package would be worth. It helped to arm myself with that information.

The most helpful thing, though, and the part I completely failed with in the middle of my search, was believing I was worth it. I don't know if it's because I grew up poor, or because I am a woman, or for some other reason or combination of reasons, but it is hard for me to believe the work I do is worth the salary it commands. I know, intellectually, that the combination of skills and education I bring to a position *is* worth this salary--I can look up the numbers to tell me that. But making the leap from that knowledge to actually believe that *I* am worth a given dollar amount is very difficult. And it was especially difficult after a few months unemployment.

Another important lesson for me was not to feel guilty about getting all you can get. When companies hire new staff, they do the best they can to get the best person possible for the position. There is no shame in an individual doing the same thing--getting the best situation possible--and compensation is a big part of that. It's an outdated and dangerous artifice to pretend we aren't working to get paid.

Obviously, not every job offer is one you can safely negotiate, or at least not one you can walk away from if the negotiation doesn't go your way. It's easy for me to say now that I should have refused the job with the low-ball offer, but I really didn't feel like I could at the time. I am, of course, glad now that it didn't work out, as the job I've ended up in is both more in keeping with my preferred work style and environment and significantly more lucrative (187%!). But that part really was luck. I don't think I'll be afraid to negotiate in the future, though. And for that learning experience alone, this process has all been worth it.

8 Comments

Thanks for sharing your experience with this. I've never been in a position to negotiate a salary. With the government jobs I've had it's always presented as a done deal. In my current job they put me at the very bottom of the payscale when I started, even though I had 7 years of experience as a contractor because I was new to permanent state service and that's the way it had to be. That was a 30% pay cut. Then of course we got furloughed and still are furloughed. Sigh. At least I have a job.

Great post, Grace. It's good to see someone's actual process laid out. I'm sure it'll give some readers great tips for the next time they are in a position to negotiate!

Congrats on the successful negotiation, and the new job! I was wondering, where did you go to find out the info on what people in your field are making in your specific area? I would also like to look that up (I'm thinking about looking for a new job as well), and don't have the slightest clue where to start looking for that kind of information.

wowee! good for you! i've always been the same as your "former self," whereas my husband is an excellent negotiator. it sounds like you played your cards right--honestly and strategically. nicely done! enjoy the extra $$. :)
-brittney
http://adayinlifetoo.blogspot.com (my daily outfit blog)

I frickin' LOVE this story. For the last year and a half I worked at too-low rate for a job I took because it was the first one I could find during the recession. The rate would have been tolerable, but the work environment was so toxic and back-stabbing that it rendered the pay useless. I finally left the company in January and now command the rate I'm supposed to be making for my experience. Yay for women who don't put up with less!

Interesting, and congratulations!

I do agree with you - when you counteroffer and they seriously consider it and do something in response, it shows how badly they want you, and how important you will be to the team.

This was an excellent and educational read. I'm somewhat newly out of college and though I'm pretty happy with my current situation, I'll definitely be using some of your techniques when I move onto bigger and better things.

Melanie@Unravelled Threads
Follow @UnraveldThreads on twitter!

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