“Oh god, oh god, the hiring manager just asked me about my salary requirements” is a text I’ve gotten a dozen times from friends and coworkers over the years. For a young professional, it’s usually the most fraught moment in the entire hiring process.
And for good reason! How you handle salary negotiations has enormous financial consequences. The right answer can catapult you forward… and the wrong one can set you back years.
How do you know that the number you’re asking for is within the right salary range? And how do you start off on the right foot while negotiate your starting salary? Fear not, my children, for we are here with some tips that will help you make sure you’re not selling yourself short.
Talk to your peers about salaries
We’ve written before about the magic of exchanging salary information between coworkers and peers. But here’s a quick recap from a professional wet blanket:
Within your industry
If you have friends in your industry who would be willing to open up and share their experiences with you, that’s a huge boon.
This is where your networking skills come in. If you maintain regular contact with former coworkers, industry peers, and mentors, your nosiness about salary requirements won’t come as a surprise to them. Plus, you might even be able to reciprocate with inside information of your own some day.
Within the company
If you can find yourself an inside man at the company where you’re applying—your very own Hercules Mulligan, if you will!—then you should be milking them for more than just salary information.
Piggy was once saved from working for a tyrannical boss by asking an acquaintance at the company one question: “Why did the last person to hold this job leave?” He wrote the employee’s name on a scrap of paper, held it so Piggy could read it, asked “Did you memorize it?”, and then ripped it up before throwing it away and moving on with the conversation as if nothing happened.
Piggy is nothing if not intrigued by skullduggery and subterfuge. So she contacted the former employee on LinkedIn and got an earful about how terrible the boss was. When the time came, she politely declined the job offer.
Besides, sometimes they may even know the exact salary budget for the role to which you’re applying! Glory be hallelujah!
Find a salary guide for your industry
I’m a working artist, so the go-to for my industry is The Creative Group’s Annual Salary Guide. They post a new iteration every year, and it’s totally free. They research trends in art industries as they relate to hiring, and collect salary information for a wide range of jobs and experience levels. Start by finding a job description that matches you and an expected salary range will come along with it.
Most industries have a similar resource. Poke around online until you find one for yours. Better yet, some industries (local government and public service, for example) literally post the salaries of employees online. The internet has everything!
Even if they don’t, some job hunting sites like Glassdoor and salary aggregators like PayScale are options. In fact, we strongly recommend Glassdoor for the employee reviews alone. Fair warning, though: most sites will require you give them a little personal information like your employment status, location, and industry before they’ll give you the run of the joint.
That said, these sites are probably a little less nuanced than the industry-specific ones, but at least they give you data points to work with. Go out there and find some peer data!
Consider your location
The area you live in affects the salary range available to you. The salary aggregators we recommend help with that too. For instance, if you live in the painfully expensive and competitive New York City, you can multiply the listed salaries by 140.0; the much cheaper and more laid-back Syracuse gets a multiplier of 90.3.
I made a huge mistake with my first salary negotiations. I got salary information from peers in my rural hometown, despite the fact that I was now living in a major city with a much higher cost of living. So I asked for $45,000 when I probably should’ve asked for $65,000. No wonder they seemed delighted to hire me!
Screw your courage to the sticking place
Once you’ve done your research, you should have a salary range in mind. Write it down. Take a good, long look at it. Really stare it down.
That’s probably the number you should negotiate for.
The best salary negotiations advice I have ever gotten was from my dad, who told me “When you say your number aloud, you’ll know it’s the right number if a part of you is scared that they will laugh right in your face.”
The older I get, the more wisdom I see in that advice. Most of us have a voice inside of us that keeps us from asking for the moon. Whether the source is something benign like modesty, or something sinister like impostor syndrome, you should ignore it during the salary negotiations process. The stakes are too damn high.
Hiring managers have a budget allocated for the role they’re seeking to hire, but they can adjust that budget for the right candidate. I know this for a fact because I’ve been that right candidate before. And so has Piggy! The last time she was unemployed, she got two competing offers, asked if they could beat each other, and one of them did.
Guess who she works for today.
Salary negotiations: Not as scary as you think
The worst case here is that the hiring manager tells you flat-out that you’re outside their budget. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the discussion. Because believe you me—salary negotiations are discussions, not adversarial hostage release arbitration. They can go multiple rounds and involve multiple factors, not just financial compensation.
Maybe more of your salary can be structured into a paycheck and less into a company-wide bonus. Maybe you can trade for more vacation days, work-from-home days, or a flexible schedule. And maybe, after you meet with them and knock their socks off, they’ll realize they can raid some other budget to snag you.
When you’re going in for a phone screening, keep this sentence handy: “If the job is ideal in every other way, I’m willing to work with you guys to come up with a mutually agreeable solution, so let’s keep the conversation going.”
Here’s some more on how to handle the salary question:
- What to Do When You’re Asked About Your Salary Requirements in a Job Interview
- Post a Salary Range in the Job Description, You Fucking Cowards
- How NOT to Determine Your Salary
- The Ultimate Guide to Growing Your Salary
An earlier version of this article was published in July, 2016.