How I Learned to Negotiate Salary

By Kimberly R. Lyle

It wasn’t until my late-20s that I started to get serious about asking for more money than I was offered. At the height of the Great Recession, I quit my job and moved back to my hometown. I applied for any job I could find, and surprisingly, I landed a gig a month later. It was a big step down, but I was grateful to secure something as quickly as I did. I didn’t bother to negotiate my salary.

I worked at this job for a few years until I was laid off. Luckily, my job fell under a union contract so I had a lot of resources available to help with the transition, including priority status for other positions within the organization. I saw the layoff as good fortune – I was guaranteed up to six months of full pay and benefits – and it was a chance to break away from a job I was severely overqualified for.

After the recruiter who had been assigned to help me find another job within the organization got pissed with me for turning down an offer for a lateral position, I committed to only applying to jobs with more responsibility, more money, and a bigger title (I know we’re in this new age of “titles don’t matter!”. Don’t play yourself. They do.). I wasn’t fucking around anymore.

One of the next roles I applied to seemed like a step in the right direction. I exceeded the required and preferred skills and experience, but not by so much that they’d think I was overqualified. The recruiter called me for a phone conversation; it went great! She invited me in for a face-to-face interview. A few minutes in, she started talking about an entry-level position that just opened up in the department, how I’d be a great fit, the hiring manager wanted to fast-track the position, and it would be a great way to work myself up to the position I applied for. The fucking okie-doke of okie-dokes. I let her know that I wasn’t interested in pursuing the entry-level job, and went on about my damn business madder than a mutha fucka.

That’s the first time it dawned on me that employers offer what they think you’ll take. This recruiter thought I was desperate. She saw that I was young. She figured I’d be grateful for the “opportunity”. I guess she was doing her job. I was doing mine by walking away.

A few months later I landed a permanent job within the organization. It was a solid step in the right direction. I didn’t negotiate the salary though. Their offer was already significantly higher than what I made in my last job; it seemed fair. But a few months into the role I realized I was severely underpaid. I decided to ask for more money.

I looked up comparable job descriptions in the internal HR system, and made note of how jobs were categorized, and what the pay scales were. I familiarized myself with internal documentation about departmental budgets, and HR policies governing compensation and raises. I wrote down all the skills I used in my role and examples of how I was kicking ass. I documented praise from colleagues and other managers. Then I scheduled a meeting with my boss.

I made my case, and as a finishing touch, I made it clear that I enjoyed working there, looked forward to continued success on the team, and felt confident that I’d have her support in getting my salary to align with the quality and skill I delivered.  She worked with HR to get me raise, and it was significant. From that point on, I never even considered a job offer without at least attempting to negotiate the offer. I’ve successfully negotiated my salary since this first big win.

Negotiate your damn salary, people. If you’re currently in a job that’s paying you less than you should be getting, ask for more any damn way. They can say no, and if that bothers you enough, you can kick rocks. But you have to at least try to get your money.

The soft offer I got for my last job was low. There was nearly a ~$20k salary difference between what the recruiter initially told me and the offer I accepted. The recruiter told me all about the total benefits package, the annual bonuses and raises, and all that great stuff. Thankfully I did not get on board with that initial number.

Within two months the job went from Oo-la-la to what-the-fuck. And you know what? I would have hated it a million times more if I had been doing that job for nearly $20k less. Can you imagine? Money doesn’t buy happiness, but when you’re in a miserable job it sure helps when you can afford to drown your sorrows at the bar.

I did not get the annual raise the recruiter told me about, and the portion of the bonus I received was a fraction of what I expected. So imagine the level of stank that would’ve contaminated my spirit if I would’ve had doing that job for $20k less, not getting a raise, not getting a bonus.

Upfront money is the best money. It’s usually the only money that’s guaranteed.

So what is the damn point of all this? Here’s what I learned from these adventures:

Employers Do Not Have Your Best Financial Interest At Heart 

Until I realized the jiggery I assumed recruiters were making me their fairest offers they could make. What decent person would offer you far less than what your work is worth, even if you don’t know its worth? A recruiter, that’s who. They ain’t your friends. That excitement you hear in their voices when they’re making you the offer? They’re paid to be excited, boo. Their first offer is never the highest they can go, otherwise they would’ve given you a lower offer. They’re function is to get the best talent for the low-low.

Know What You Need and Know What You Want

Salary negotiation experts usually tell you to know what your salary floor is. But you gotta know it-know it. Don’t just calculate how much you need to pay necessities like rent, food, utilities, and buy your transit pass. Think about the things in live that give you joy, or the things you’d want to do. How much does it cost to take a yearly vacation? How much money do you need to maintain your art supplies? To save enough money to quit working for other people? To get your credit un-fucked up? This is why you’re going to work every damn day. So know how much you need to make all of this happen.

An offer at $7k less than what you want might not seem like that much when the excited recruiter is telling you about the 401(k) match, free beer, and tuition reimbursement. Depending on your situation, it might be inconsequential. But remember this: the costs of most things increase – food, utilities, clothes –  and often these increases outpace annual salary increases. Plus, bonuses and raises are usually a percentage of your base salary. So if you shortchange yourself on salary now, you shortchange yourself on bonuses and raises later. This just compounds and it can impact what you make at your next job.

Perks and Bonuses Ain’t Guaranteed Money in the Bank

People make a big deal of companies that offering perks these days.

Snacks. Ski trips. Annual performance bonuses. Childcare discounts. On-site gym. Tuition reimbursement. Yaaay! These things are great but many aren’t guaranteed. Besides, you may not even need all of this shit. Recruiters usually rattle off all the perks right after they tell you the salary because it all sounds more robust to hear the full package. But when you take a minute to parse out which of the perks you actually give a damn about, it might not be so sexy.

When you get an offer lower than expected it’s so easy to start relaxing your salary requirements after you hear about all these other amazing things you’ll get. Oh, and they are amazing things. But you don’t even like snow so what’s a ski trip gonna do for you? You don’t have kids and you don’t want any, you hate the gym, and you’re never going back to school. So you’re left with some damn snacks. And maybe a bonus.

Figure out the true value of these perks for your life.

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse

I get unsettled and anxious every time I speak to a recruiter or manager about money. How do I get over it? I don’t. I just practice what I’m gonna say.

Money conversations with recruiters or managers are generally predictable – “we don’t have room in the budget”, and, “there’s nothing I can do”, or “what number did you have in mind”. I rehearse what I’m going to say and what I think the recruiter or manager could say. I type out my responses, say them aloud, edit them, and do it again. I practice in the mirror. I record myself and listen. If I’m having a face-to-face meeting with my boss, I’ll put on a full outfit with hair and makeup and practice that way. Yes, this is crazy. But why the hell not. Gotta start somewhere.

None of this is rocket science but it’s worked for me. Figured I’d share. Maybe it’ll help someone.

Kimberly R. Lyle is the creator behind Audacious Kay. This rerun is with the consent of Audacious Kay and may not reproduced otherwise. Visit her blog by clicking here.

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