When you’re just starting out, negotiating may seem like some far-off point in your career: something you’ll do in your life eventually, like buy a minivan or start watching CBS procedural dramas. After all, you don’t have years of experience to use as leverage yet, right?
Wrong! I don’t know how you feel about sensible family car choices, but negotiating in your work life is definitely something you should do now. There’s no magic rule that you must have a certain amount of experience or a particular level of work gravitas. And in fact, the more familiar you become with the process now, early in the game, the more potent your negotiation skills will be as you advance in your career.
Why you should negotiate
When employers make a job offer, they usually expect a little haggling these days. The offer may be at the lower end of a range for them, and why not? They have nothing to lose here: they have a good candidate on the line. If that person accepts the offer straight away, they got a solid deal at the low end of the range. If that person negotiates up, the company is still likely within the scope of what they expected to pay. But it’s important to remember that you aren’t likely to lose much here either: as long as you negotiate reasonably and civilly, they’re probably not going to yank the job offer just because you tried to negotiate in the first place. And you do have the potential to make this sweet job offer even sweeter, either with more money or more perks.
Negotiation also establishes a couple of things up front, before you even start the job: 1) that you’re a confident person who knows your worth; and 2) that you want to maximize your salary and benefits. The higher your starting salary is, the more you’ll be able to get when it comes to percentage-based raises and bonuses. Think of it as a professional investment that you can make now.
When you should negotiate
It may be tempting to talk about salary in a job interview, in a show of confidence—or even just curiosity to see if this job is going to be worth your while. Resist that urge. (And if the interviewer tries to sneak in their own stealth salary questions, here’s how to get around them.) Get past the application, the interview, the second interview, all of it…wait until you have a job offer in hand, with a salary attached as a starting point.
Alternatively, you can negotiate when you already have a job, but feel ready for a raise or a promotion. Whatever the circumstance, it’s the same basic process: prepare, ask for what you want, and be ready for the back-and-forth.
Tips for negotiating
Let’s look at some tips to help you build your negotiation skills and get ready to bargain with your employer. The more prep work you do now, the more ready you’ll be when it comes time—you don’t want to waste any time once you have that offer letter.
1. Be prepared with an elevator pitch.
This is your headline, basically. Based on my previous experience managing social media, I was hoping to see a salary of $X. Your elevator pitch in this case summarizes why you’re worth the extra salary. I want and I need aren’t going to get you very far here—the employer isn’t concerned with what your preferences are. They want to make sure that you bring value in exchange for the extra salary bump or incentives added to your offer package. The more you emphasize those qualities in the negotiation process, the higher your chances of success.
And this is especially important if you’re negotiating a raise at your existing job. The question of why is going to be one of the first you’ll need to tackle. Wanting a raise is all well and good (who doesn’t want one), but you need to show that you deserve it too.
2. Be specific and realistic.
This is where you should have a sense of what you’re worth. And I don’t mean that in a “my mom thinks I’m priceless” kind of way. I mean it in a “this is what people at my level in this field can make” kind of way. Once you know what you can reasonably expect, you can come up with specific dollar amounts as a counteroffer. Unrealistic counteroffers, just for the sake of seeing what you can get, are not likely to be met with success. Do your research—a search of similar positions on Glassdoor or Salary.com can often give you a good sense of what the market-level salary is for your new or current job. Use that knowledge to come up with a realistic range for your salary. It’s okay to reach a little in your counteroffer, but make sure it’s within a realistic range.
3. Think outside the salary box.
You know you can negotiate for more than just salary, right? When you get a job offer, you may also receive information on company policies, benefits, etc. Core benefits like insurance coverage and retirement savings plans may be set in stone, depending on your new company’s policies. However, you might be able to negotiate additional vacation or personal days, or work-from-home flex time. If the company seems pretty intractable on a salary bump, think about other ways you might be able to negotiate a more appealing package. But again, the key is being realistic. A junior employee is not likely to score an extra week of vacation up front, but if you think there’s wiggle room on time off, work that into your negotiation.
4. Know what your limits are.
Part of being realistic about your negotiation means having a dealbreaker in mind as well. It’s not defeatist to think about what could make you walk away from the negotiating table. You should decide ahead of time what your minimum is for this job. Maybe it’s the same salary as you make now. Or maybe you truly don’t want the job unless you can get a 2% raise over what you’re making now. Whatever the case may be, have that “last chance” number in mind before you get started. That way, if the negotiating drags on and you don’t see the company offering more than the bottom of your range, consider walking away and turning down the offer.
5. Don’t panic.
Once you’ve started negotiating, you may feel a little jumpy, like you overstepped your bounds. That can lead to accepting a counteroffer too quickly, just to get the process over with. If you’ve done your due diligence and have your range in mind, you know what you can realistically get. If the company indicates that they’re standing firm, then it’s time to accept (or reject) and move on.
6. Keep it civil.
A little confident swagger can be good when you’re negotiating. You know what’s not good? Threatening to take your ball and go home. It may seem like a baller move, but this is not the place to make ultimatums or threats. When you’re negotiating salary or a raise, both you and the company are doing it in good faith, with the goal of finding an employment package that works for both parties. If you blatantly threaten to walk away if they don’t meet particular demands, then you just may find the job offer rescinded anyway. Or if you’re negotiating a raise and threaten to quit if you don’t get your way, you risk doing irreparable damage to your relationship with your boss and company. Always keep the tone civil and friendly, even when you’re making bold requests.
7. Keep an eye on the clock.
This isn’t necessarily a speed event, but you don’t want this to drag out. You want the job, and the company wants someone in the job as soon as possible. Try not to sit on any offer for more than a day without checking in with the company, or letting them know your decision timeline. When you get an offer, it’s fine to say, “I’d like to take a day to consider this offer. Is it okay if I get back to you on Wednesday?” Or “I’m traveling this weekend. Okay if I let you know on Monday?” That way, the company knows you haven’t disappeared, and that you’re considering the next move.
Negotiating is a process that you want to be familiar with as early in your career as possible. If you’re realistic and do your research, there’s no reason why you can’t be an advocate for your financial interests as a junior employee. Again, there’s no magic line where you can start negotiating, so why not now?