Once you’ve finally landed your first job and just feel grateful that someone wants to hire you, it can be difficult to accept that you have another challenge: to advocate for yourself financially. What does it matter what you make in your first gig? You’ll probably make up any differences over time, right? Not so much.
According to the
National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), women overall would lose about $418,000 over the course of a 40-year career due to the wage gap. It’s worse for women of color: “For Latinas, the career losses mount to $1,043,800 and for Black women, the losses are $840,040.” That not only affects your ability to pay off loans, buy a home, or raise a family, but also your ability to retire securely later in life.
So that first salary is essential. Contrary to popular belief, you can and
should get started on your very first job — and there are ways to make the process feel true to you.
Ahead, we offer some tips for negotiating when you land that first job. However, it’s advice you should keep in mind your entire career.
The hardest part of negotiating is first knowing how much to ask for. If you don’t know the going rate for a job in your industry, you may not even
try to negotiate. You'll assume that your salary is standard and everything is just fine. You also run the risk of lowballing yourself. To start off strong, ask questions and start pulling numbers. “We use different resources to objectively research the dollar amount that you should be asking for,” says Jesse B. Rauch, the senior program manager for the Start Smart and Work Smart negotiation workshops at the American Association of University Women ( AAUW). He points to Salary.com as one good resource, since the salaries are provided by employers. The site shares the median salary that most employees are earning in a particular location (hourly, bi-weekly, weekly, semi-monthly, monthly, and annually), so you can see outliers in either direction, but also get a good idea of where most people stand. Glassdoor.com can be another useful resource, Rauch adds, however, that data comes from current or former employees, which means the information might be limited. You could be looking a salary contributed by “a single individual at that company, and you won’t know how that compares to everyone else.” If you’re entering a field where the salary guides or ranges are published publicly, like many government and education jobs, you should hunt those figures down, or even see if any recent figures are published at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “There’s a panoply of options that you can look up to really peg what should you get paid if you were to have that job,” Rauch says. “The idea is that you don’t want to say, ‘I just want to get paid the amount of money that I need to survive,’ or, ‘Even if they offer me below what I want, I’ll still take it.' That’s undervaluing you.” It’s also worth reaching out to acquaintances (classmates, colleagues, friends of friends) who work in the field to get their input about what kind of salary you should expect. There’s nothing better than actual human feedback to help you make an informed decision.
Offering a salary range gives your prospective employer some room to negotiate (within bounds that work for you), and that could pay off more than naming a single number, Rauch says. He points to a series of
studies from Columbia University researchers Daniel Ames and Malia Mason, who analyzed reactions to a handful of (scripted) salary negotiations. Ames and Mason found a trick of sorts that can make it easier for you to discuss salary with your potential employer. In order to get an offer closest to the salary you want, ask for a range that starts with your desired value and ends with a salary that exceeds your baseline by 5% to 15%. So, if you’d like the new gig to have a starting salary of $50,000, tell your hiring manager you’re seeking a salary between $50,000 and $55,000. The Columbia study found that hiring managers respond well to this kind of negotiating, plus it will ensure you get the salary you want — and maybe more!
Unless you’re one of those people who gets an adrenaline boost from slightly tense, back-and-forth conversations, your instinct when you receive a job offer might be to just get it all over with as soon as possible. Though, don’t rush the process simply because you feel a little squeamish. You’ll be much more uncomfortable later on if you realize you’re underpaid.
Some school of thought is that you should state your salary requirements before you get the offer, but Rauch disagrees. “We know that women can be offered a salary that’s too low, and by waiting for the number first, you can assess if the employer giving you a fair offer, and then counteroffer.” Once the offer comes in from a hiring manager or recruiter, thank them for the opportunity and ask for a little bit of time to review it. Clearly state the amount of time you need, so you’re not leaving them hanging, and use that time to do any additional research, carefully review the full offer, and prepare to ask for a higher salary.
Per Jobvite, the average successful job application process takes about
four weeks (i.e., going from “just pressed send, hope there are no typos...” to “you’re hired!”). Throughout that process, they estimate that an entry-level associate/assistant goes through three rounds of interviews on average. Obviously, that involves looking at more than one candidate, so you can imagine that the sheer number of interviews required to hire one person makes the process a drag. If someone offers you a position, you've already received confirmation that they think you are worth the time they've invested into the hiring process, and are worth the future investment as you grow into your role. You should expect your salary to reflect that. Once you go back with a salary range, reiterate what you're bringing to the table — your hard work, creativity, desire to join the team. Reminding them of all that you have to offer will confirm what the negotiation is all about: compensating you fairly for the skills you have that they value.
It’s amazing to have a job you love, but the reality is most of us have to work for a living. Still, even if you have a ton of bills and a lot of anxiety about how to pay them off, you don’t want to bring up your personal problems when you start the negotiating process.
“Your boss does not care about your student loan debt because they also probably have loan debt,” Rauch says. “So don’t get personal.” Focus on your professional accomplishments and use that to prove your value to the company. Your potential boss is focused on how hiring you will help the company’s bottom-line, not your personal bank account.
Of course money matters, but so do other aspects of your overall compensation package, including benefits, says Mark Gasche, a career management leader at the loan-refinancing company
SoFi. He suggests thinking about compensation as the umbrella for everything that the employer is offering you in exchange for your work hours and the value that you’re contributing. That could include time off, flexible hours, commission, equity in the company, a bonus, or assurances that there will be a raise every year. These perks can help you feel good about the package you are being offered, even if the salary won’t budge. “Most people get hung up on salary,” Gasche says. This is understandable since you can feel the effects of a paycheck more immediately. “But that’s the piece an employer may be least likely to negotiate. If you’re coming into a job where other people are doing the same thing for X amount of money, it’s hard for them to justify paying you $5,000 more.” Once you’ve had time in a role to differentiate yourself, show how your work is both unique and has become more valuable over time, you might very well have more room to negotiate salary. Before then, consider other things that might make your life easier.
If the job offer isn’t quite what you were looking for, ask how they arrived at that number. That can feel like a gutsy move, but it could pay off for this and future negotiations.
“Asking what the market range is and how the company came up with that offer is a very non-intrusive, non-presumptuous way to go about [negotiating],” says Kelli Dragovich, the SVP of People at Hired. “It also gives that candidate a good idea if that company is thoughtful, and has a clear philosophy and logic as to how they're coming up with that offer.” She suggests phrasing your counter by saying something like: "I appreciate the offer. I’m wondering how you arrived at it? I’m guessing that you put a great deal of thought into this offer package and assigning me a particular salary with a particular title. I’m wondering if you could share more with me about how you arrived at these decisions." Dragovich explains, “You're not coming across as not trusting them or disagreeing with them off the bat. It forces that organization — in a very friendly tone — to come back and talk through how they got to where they did.” The end result is more information for you. The hiring manager might disclose the company relies on salary bands, what the salary range is for that band in your industry, and what qualifications you might need to stretch out of that range.
Negotiating as soon as you get an offer is bad practice says Gasche. “You will have an emotional reaction to the offer if it’s shared on the phone in particular — either thrilled or extremely disappointed. Either way, our first reaction emotionally to anything is often not a basis upon which to act and to speak.”
Think back to the time when you were a kid and wanted to get something without a whole lot of resistance. You probably asked at a time that wasn’t the most thoughtful for the person on the receiving end. The hiring manager likely isn’t trying to screw you over, but they are working on a timeline that benefits them. Shift some of the power back to yourself by taking time to think through an offer on your own time, where you can’t be rushed or become flustered. If you know you might be an emotional firework in some way, say thank you and ask for time, Gasche suggests. “Then call the people who love you and mentor you and get some perspective,” he says. One catch: You may not always get to speak your piece right from the start, especially if there’s an online application involved. Think about how to give yourself an out later if you need to state a number early on. “Many of us have to apply for jobs by filling in a form, and that online application will sometimes limit your options,” Rauch says. “When you’re forced to put a number down, you have to adapt. We tell participants to do some of their research on the front-end [if they must state a desired salary].” If you realize that what you've asked for was too low and you make it to the final stages of the process, prepare language that can help you work your way back up. “You might say, ‘Well, now that I’ve learned more about this position, I’d like to revisit what I wrote down on my form,’” Rauch says. Then, back up how you can make good on those higher expectations with your own skills and what you bring to the job.
Like everything in life, if you want to get good at negotiating you have to practice. Before that compensation conversation, practice with a trusted friend, or even talk through what you want to say out loud to yourself. You’ll know which parts you tend to stumble over, where you start to sweat or draw blanks and be able to work through so you present the most professional version of yourself when it comes time to negotiate in real life.
“If you don’t practice negotiating, you’re not going to become as good at it as you could be,” Rauch says, which is why AAUW’s workshops include a fair amount of role-play. “We encourage people to practice in front of a mirror, with their pet, with their partner, with a friend, it doesn’t matter who. If you feel comfortable doing it, you’re going to feel more confident overall.”
Note to self:
They like you. The person offering you the job chose you for a reason. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have made an offer. If the thought of challenging someone you really want to work for feels beyond uncomfortable, try to shift your language so that you feel like you’re just having a conversation about a common goal: getting you on board. “[Negotiating] is not a fight. It is not a battle royale. It is not adversarial. It is a conversation about how you are going to bring value to the company and how can the company support you in doing that,” Rauch says. “You can think, I want this. But that doesn’t sound as good as saying something like, ‘How do we work together so we come to something agreeable?’” A bonus: Employers hate hiring people, Rauch says, so the ball may be in your court more than you realize. “Hiring is terrible. I have hired people and when I find someone I like, I’m going to do whatever I can to get them to accept. Keep that in mind — that you have great power already.”