You’ve seen the pithy, Instagram-friendly platitudes: Hustle hard! Slay your day! And, of course, always ask for more.
You can’t get what you don’t ask for, after all, and for better or worse, negotiating is a necessary skill in the traditional American workplace. Considering the gender and racial wage gap, it’s clear that negotiating is currently a required step in getting paid what you’re owed. What’s less clear about this advice, however, is how to do it in a way that actually results in your getting paid more. In fact, asking for more without being able to finesse the conversation can backfire.
“The thing we often fail to do is give advice past an Instagram quote,” says Jazmine Reed-Clark, an HR professional, career coach, and host of the Office Politics podcast. “It’s like, thanks for the emoji, but people need strategies and information.”
Whether you’re negotiating a starting salary or asking for a raise, not being prepared in your negotiations can mean setting yourself up for failure. A 2011 study found that a lack of confidence has a significant impact on a successful negotiation outcome. Nervous, unprepared negotiators got deals that were 12% worse than the neutral group. “We also need to acknowledge the nuances that come with negotiation,” Reed-Clark says, “which means taking into account that your experience negotiating as an employee of color might be a lot different than your white male counterpart.” It quite literally pays to be prepared. With the above in mind, how do you actually get what you want in a negotiation?
Talk about money.
“Talk to someone who has the salary you want,” Reed-Clark suggests. That means talking about money more openly with friends, peers, and even colleagues. Experts say salary transparency is a big first step in closing the wage gap, since it makes it hard for employers to hide employee pay disparities. A 2015 study found that the wage gap is narrower in states that outlaw pay secrecy.
Reed-Clark recommends bringing up the conversation with a trusted friend or colleague who’s willing to share salary information based on their current role and professional experience. “One of the best pieces of negotiating advice I got was to talk to my white male coworkers about compensation,” she says. “One of my really great friends — I call him my work brother — has always been willing to give advice. And it doesn’t hurt that he comes from privilege, so he can think to negotiate things I don’t, like gym or club memberships.” While it’s illegal for your employer to punish you for talking about salary, it still happens. To protect yourself, you could ask your colleague if they think X amount would be a fair ask in negotiating a raise, for example. Salary transparency isn’t always about sharing your own specific income — it’s simply being forthcoming about information that could help someone else.
There may be workplace affinity groups or outside networks you can join where peers are willing to have candid conversations about salary. Small industry conferences and negotiation working events can also help give you an idea of how much more you can command. But knowing what your salary should be compared to others’ is a starting point — not a negotiating strategy in and of itself. Asking to get paid more simply because someone else in a comparable role is paid a certain amount is not usually a compelling enough reason. You have to be able to back up your ask with more than that.
Quantify your professional value.
It’s important to have a realistic idea of how much money you can command in a role. Resources like Glassdoor and Payscale are a good place to start your search, but don’t limit yourself to these resources. There are so many additional, unique factors that go into a negotiation. “Don't just pick a number out of thin air,” Reed-Clark says. “You have to be able to back up that number with your experience, the market value of your role, new skills you’ve learned. There are so many factors.” When quantifying your professional value, ask yourself how you’ve been integral to your company’s success, and try to directly tie what you do to how the company makes money.
“So, what project did you work on and how did it contribute to the company’s mission? How did that project make the company more money? How did you help your manager look better?” Reed-Clark says. If you can translate those wins into a hard number — I brought in $200,000 worth of sales, for example — great. But most roles aren’t set up to have such a direct connection to business bottom-line.
In that case, it might help to think in terms of how much money you’re saving the company, Reed-Clark says. “How much would it cost to outsource my role? Am I saving the company other costs? I don't have a perfect formula, but those are the different things I think about.”
Calculate your “line in the sand” number.
When you’re negotiating salary, there are perks to consider beyond salary. “Your base salary number isn’t necessarily everything,” Reed-Clark says. “Look at the company 401(k) plan. Or do they have stock options? A tech allowance?” These perks make up your total compensation package, but don’t let them replace the value of your actual income, Reed-Clark adds.
When you’re going into a salary negotiation for a new job, it’s important to know the lowest amount you’re willing to accept, or what she calls your “line in the sand” number. Many companies determine future raises on your starting salary. Negotiating well out of the gate will continue to benefit you over time.
“Think about the money you’re missing throughout the course of your career when you start low.” And this can add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars lost over the course of your career. “You need to consider all of that when you’re calculating this number,” Reed-Clark says.
Borrow from a script.
“Especially as a woman of color, we’re taught to be humble and be grateful for everything,” Reed-Clark says. And this can make it hard to speak with the confidence to negotiate. “The thing I try to tell myself is that I am an integral part of that business. I am essential to its operation.”
Hyping yourself up might only work so much, and it can be hard to spit out the words and bring up the conversation in the first place. In which case, it might be helpful to simply follow a script. Try something like, “Here’s what I’m looking to do in this role: X, Y, and Z. And based on my market research and experience, I’m looking for a salary range between$60,000 and $65,000.”
If you’re asking for a raise, Reed-Clark recommends something like, “I’ve been really looking forward to this performance review. I’ve been eager to grow with the company and based on my work on project X, Y, and Z, I’d like to request a salary increase of $5,000 to match my growth in this role.” Of course, translate this into your own words so you sound — and feel — more like yourself, which will make the whole confidence thing much easier.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Speaking of confidence, Reed-Clark says it’s important to keep things in perspective if you make the ask and don’t get what you want — a very likely outcome for women and workers of color, and something #girlboss-inspired Instagram posts often fail to point out. “If you hear the word ‘no,’ please don't think that number defines your worth,” she says. “It really doesn't.”
But if you do get rejected, make sure you have a backup plan. Ask your employer what needs to happen in order for you to reach your desired salary. What specific skills or milestones will you need to achieve? Get it in writing and start building the case for yourself during your next performance review.
“If we don't acknowledge that there’s massive gender and racial bias in the workplace, then we're doing ourselves a disservice,” Reed-Clark points out. Women face a social penalty when they negotiate — they are essentially viewed as aggressive and unlikeable just for asking — which can have an adverse effect on their ability to move up the ladder. And a 2018 study found that when Black workers negotiate, they actually receive lower starting salaries. Employers don’t expect women and workers of color to be assertive, so when they are, they’re punished for it, researchers say.
“If you feel like you’re getting paid less because of your gender or race, you could go down the route of filing a report,” Reed-Clark says. But she also points out this advice isn’t always realistic in the real world, because it could make life more difficult for the worker in question, especially if the workplace is already problematic. “So then what you have to do is put feelers out there,” Reed-Clark says. “Start building deeper connections in your industry and planting seeds so that you can create opportunities to eventually switch jobs.”
The truth is that negotiating only takes us so far. “You don’t get what you don’t ask for” looks good printed on a Millennial-pink coffee mug, but in the real world, workers have to navigate discrimination, inequity, and bad bosses. The fact that the onus mostly falls on the individual is not just, nor fair, especially when “Just ask” isn’t simple. “I wish I had some boss bitch answer, but the truth is, I’m still figuring that part out myself,” Reed-Clark says. “This is why we’re fighting the good fight.”