I first negotiated my salary when I was 28 years old. I had a master’s degree, four years of full-time professional experience in the same field, and a history of advocating for additional responsibility and promotions—yet I was still nervous to come to the table.
You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t heard the statistics about how many hundreds of thousands of future dollars you jeopardize if you don’t negotiate your salary early in your career. What’s stopping us?
While most articles about negotiating begin with a lecture on the importance of research, I have a hard time believing that’s what’s holding us back. If there’s one thing we Millennials know how to do, it’s fall down a rabbit hole of data on the World Wide Web. I’d wager almost all of you have referenced Glassdoor, Form 990s, free compensation and benefit studies, and other job postings for organizations that publish salary ranges, to figure out what the median pay is for a position with similar responsibilities and qualifications. Lack of information is not the problem.
Things that have actually kept me from negotiating:
I really needed the job: I was grateful for the opportunity and excited by the prospect of joining the organization, and I didn’t have the luxury to walk away from the offer.
- I didn’t know what was negotiable: I was offered the uppermost limit of the salary range for the position and didn’t know how to ask for more.
- I didn’t know how to justify a counter-offer: I had already provided my salary history and didn’t have data to backup my request for higher pay.
- I really needed the job: I was grateful for the opportunity and excited by the prospect of joining the organization, and I didn’t have the luxury to walk away from the offer.
If you use any of the above excuses to avoid negotiating, here’s why I think you should stop.
Excuse #1: You really need the job.
Any MBA student who’s paying attention in class will tell you that a key part of negotiating is deciding when you’ll walk away. This is sometimes referred to as the “wish, want, and walk”: you shoot high, hope to meet in the middle, and prepare to decline the offer if the employer doesn’t fulfill your minimum expectations. But what if you need the job to pay next month’s rent? Or what if it’s your dream job and you plan to accept no matter what?
Here’s the thing: the employer doesn’t know that and doesn’t need to. You don’t have to disclose your “walk,” and it’s okay if you don’t have one. I guarantee you will still feel proud and empowered by negotiating in a polite and dignified manner even if you don’t get a single cent more than the original offer.
Excuse #2: You don’t know what’s negotiable.
Being offered the upper end of a set salary range is flattering! It makes you feel experienced and valued and gives you a sense that the organization wants to do right by you. But it can also keep you from asking for what you really deserve.
When this happens and you don’t know how to request more money without feeling greedy, but suspect you’re worth more, ask a lot of questions about the benefits package. Find out about:
- Vacation time and sick leave
- Family leave
- Health insurance and flexible spending accounts
- Bonus structure
- Retirement plans
- Volunteering opportunities and pro bono work
- Transportation benefits
- Flex time and working from home
- Professional development budget
- Education reimbursement
- Health and fitness programs
- Other things I am not thinking of but are super important to your overall wellbeing and happiness
Learning everything you can about non-salary benefits will allow you to quantify the true value of the compensation package. It will usually either give you justification for negotiating on salary or surface something you care more about negotiating than your pay. It will also deepen your understanding of the organization’s culture and serve as a final affirmation (or negation) of your desire to join the organization.
Excuse #3: You don’t know how to justify your counter-offer.
If you are required to share your salary history during the interview process and the salary you are offered is a big step up from what you were earning, it can be difficult to justify asking for more. In this scenario, consider using a few of the following tactics to boost your confidence:
- Make it clear from the beginning that you want the job and are eager to come to a consensus. As long as you conduct the negotiation like a conversation and not an argument, you are unlikely to offend the employer.
- During the discussion, make sure to reiterate all of the reasons you got the offer in the first place. This is as much a reminder to yourself of your worth as it is a reminder to the employer.
- Instead of requesting a higher salary right away, ask if you can come back to the table early. Would they entertain a six-month review instead of an annual review? That way you have time to demonstrate your worth and collect hard data to support your request.
At the end of the day, the only thing I know for sure about negotiating is that you won’t get what you don’t ask for. So practice in front of the mirror, give it your best shot, and trust that it gets easier every time.
Kelsey Nelson is an associate consultant at Campbell & Company, a national nonprofit consulting firm that helps organizations create greater impact through fundraising, communications, executive search, and strategic information services. She currently serves as co-chair of AFP Chicago's Education Council and secretary of Girls on the Run-Chicago's Associate Board. She's a proud alumna of Middlebury College in Vermont, where she stays involved as a class agent and alumni admissions program volunteer.