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Tips for successful salary negotiations

During my first job interview, my mom drove me to Baskin-Robbins while we practiced interview questions. One question we did not practice was "How much money are you expecting?"

When the ice cream store owner asked, I said, "Well, my parents are cutting off my allowance for the summer so I'd like $20 a week." That seemed like a lot because I wouldn't have to buy school lunches with that money. Later, my mom pointed out that I gave a number so low that it would have been illegal. In the end, he paid me minimum wage for a 40-hour week, and because I had asked for so little at the beginning, by the time I was a manager I was still making less than the scoopers.

So I quit, and moved to a pizza parlor where I got extra money for cutting the salami with the machine that cuts peoples' fingers. It wasn't until later in my career when I realized that there are established strategies for salary negotiations, and if you follow them, you will likely get the salary you deserve without risking the loss of a limb.

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Don't give a number during the interview.
The first person to talk establishes the range. If you give a number first, the interviewer will either tell you you're in the same ballpark as him, or you're high. And probably you will never know if you hit below the range the interviewer was considering. The opposite is true, too. So the interviewer will always want you to tell your range first. (Do not try to remedy this situation by giving an unreasonably high number because then you will sound unreasonable.)

Your first line of defense is to say you'd like to talk about salary once you have an offer. If the interviewer is good, he will persevere. So try asking the interviewer what he would pay for this job. Whatever number he gives, you can say, "That will be a fine starting point." (You will ask for more later.)

You can also say that you are still learning about the job responsibilities, which impact what salary you'd expect. Mention that the opportunities for you to contribute to the company are more important than the salary. This tactic makes you look like a team player, and it gives a direction that the interview can go down besides the salary path.

If all else fails, think package. Say, "My package at the last company was worth ... ." Be sure to include benefits and bonuses. Your interviewer will have no idea what percentage of the number you gave is salary, and what sort of benefits you are counting, so you will appease him with a number while guarding the useful information for yourself.

Have courage: The interviewing manager should pay you for your current worth, not what you were being paid by another company. Do not feel guilty about withholding a number; if nothing else, corporate America values good negotiators. I went through this process at interviews for my last job. And after hemming and hawing I gave my "package" answer, and the interviewer laughed. He said, "I hope you negotiate this hard when you are working for me."

Do not negotiate until you have an offer in writing.
Here's why (and you should remember this for when the tables are turned): Let's say the hiring manager knows she's going to give you salary and bonus. If you do not get the complete written offer before you start negotiating, then you might get her to go up $5K in base salary but you will lose $10K in bonus without even knowing it because she will take the bonus off the table before even bringing it up with you. She will go back to her boss and say, "I saved us $5K." Instead, you want her to put the full offer in writing so that you know what you have to work with in negotiations.

Once you have that written offer, ask for a night to think about it and come back with a counter offer. You might say you hate confrontation, and negotiating is not you're your strength, but if you try you will almost always get more money, and you will definitely get better each time you try.

Do your research and plan your attack.
To know what offer to come back with, you need to know the pay range for your position. Check out salary surveys online and in trade journals. Talk with friends who have similar jobs or recruiters who regularly fill this type of position in your geographic region. Find the top of the salary range and ask for that. Show the hiring manager your research and remind her why you are worth the top of the range.

If you are fortunate enough to find that you are at the top of your salary range, then expand your job duties slightly so you can ask for a slightly higher salary. For example, if you are a marketing manager with a background in technical writing, then you could ask for slightly more money because most marketing managers will pass off technical writing in marketing documents to someone else. You will be able to handle those tasks yourself.

Know what you need.
Each person has needs that extend beyond money. You can listen to advice from your friends, but in the end, you have to go to the job every day, and you have to decide if you are going to like it. No salary survey can tell you that. Some people will trade money for time at home with their kids. Some people will trade money for the opportunity to work with movie stars. You need to know what you will trade money for, but be sure to be honest with yourself. Don't give up extra money just because you hate negotiating. The combination of good self-knowledge and good negotiation skills can take you far down the path of finding a job that's right for you at the salary you deserve.


-- Updated: May 10, 2004



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