How to Negotiate Your Starting Offer

Karin A. C. Johnson recommends five steps to take when negotiating the pay and benefits of a new job.

October 22, 2020
 
 
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Congratulations -- even in this exceptionally tough market, you just received a job offer! You know you want to maximize your starting benefits, such as a higher salary or moving expenses, but you are unsure where to start.

When I was on the job market, my adviser instructed me to prepare to engage in compromise. Blogs I read justified why I should negotiate. But nothing told me how to negotiate my starting offer. Through various experiences, such as attending career workshops and talking with friends about their onboarding, these five steps worked for me. I offer them to help you do the same.

Know you can and should negotiate. Years ago, at a women’s mentorship workshop, a speaker described how departments always lowball candidates on the first offer because (wait for it …) they expect you to negotiate your salary or benefits package. Between 50 and 85 percent of companies anticipate that new hires will negotiate their beginning pay. The workshop speaker said she always felt deflated when hires -- especially women and others who must overcome professional pay differences -- didn’t advocate for themselves. It quelled my nerves to know that salary negotiation was an actual, and even expected, onboarding process.

If you feel you need some reassurance, flip the script. If you worry that you will come off as pushy by asking for more even when you are grateful for the job offer in the first place, think about it this way: the company and your colleagues will respect you for politely and professionally asking for a salary and benefits commensurate with your experience, skills and education. When you think and act like you’re worth it, they will, too.

Inform yourself. Now that I knew negotiating was OK to do, my next step was to know my value. I researched what average salary expectations were for the same position within the organization. I then looked up comparable job titles in the locality where the job was based. Glassdoor’s Compare Salaries tool and PayScale Salary Calculator were helpful to help get an idea of the mean and median salary points. I understood that compensation is based on location, experience and educational degree.

Out of curiosity, I read job ads throughout grad school. I noted that the starting salary difference between candidates who have a master’s and a Ph.D. was anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 annually. I had a goal. Based on my cost-benefit calculations, I had a general starting salary in mind, plus or minus $10,000. I also had a list of benefits that I wanted: health insurance, retirement investment options, a pension plan and tenure.

Confront your discomfort. For me, the two factors that could have dissuaded me from negotiating were feeling uncertain as what to do and being uncomfortable talking about money.

I figured out one example of what the process was like by talking with a friend who negotiated her starting salary. She told me about the straightforward steps she used to submit a request with her human resources specialist. (In academe, you may negotiate directly with your colleagues, which I acknowledge can still make things awkward for all of you.)

Next, I found it easier not to talk about money in dollars. Speaking in terms of percentages or other nonmonetary terms alleviated talking about the exact salary. For instance, academic positions use rank and steps. For me, my job at a federal agency uses the General Schedule pay table with grades and steps. Instead of asking for $5,000 more in annual salary, I could ask for an equivalent increase in steps within a grade (or rank).

Ask. I was ready to negotiate when the offers came. A human resources person emailed me to extend an initial offer. She asked me to call her within 48 hours to accept or decline. She then prepared a tentative job offer letter. You can expect that offer letters generally specify appointment title, start date, rank and step salary, benefits, whether moving expenses are paid, and any other start-up items (such as lab equipment or research funds). After clearing my security check, I received and accepted a final offer letter. I then began the negotiation process.

For me, I was interested in increasing my salary to match my newly obtained Ph.D., since the position already included health insurance, retirement, pension and tenure benefits, and the offer letter provided the contact person for relocation authorization. First, I emailed the HR person to ask what the process was to request a pay-step increase. She responded that she would check with her supervisor. A week later, she informed me of the process: I had to write an email to my HR person and supervisor declining the original grade and step and attach a letter outlining my merits to warrant a pay increase.

In the letter, I described that I had completed my Ph.D., listed other achievements and noted similar pay. I cited that for the same job within the organization at another location and a comparable position in the city where I would work, the salary is between $XX,000 and $XX,000 annually. Although I had a target pay grade and step in mind, I did not specify that in the letter. Instead, I simply asked for a “step increase” instead of dollars or percentages. I closed the letter saying, “I am willing to work with you to accommodate my request along with what is best for [the organization].”

Be flexible. I submitted the request on a Monday and chatted about it with my manager in a meeting that we had already scheduled for that Friday. He informed me that the organization came back to my request. They asked if I would consider a pay raise of two steps instead of them paying for my move, which came out to be approximately the same amount. I knew that an organization would pay moving costs either as a lump sum in my first year’s salary or directly to the contractors who would manage my move. I opted for the salary pay increase instead of moving expenses because I knew that all subsequent years of earnings are based on the initial starting grade and step. After another week, the HR person notified me my request was completed and sent me a revised final offer letter.

What surprised me the most about the negotiation process was that I was my own worst enemy by thinking how scary the process could be. In reality, it was straightforward and painless. Throughout the interview and onboarding process, I had wonderful chats with my HR person. That helped calm my nerves by feeling more comfortable talking to her about my needs. Being friendly and professional allowed me to feel firm in my request but not pushy.

In sum, remember that you are your best advocate. Ask for what you need and deserve.

Bio

Karin A. C. Johnson is a political economist who researches and writes on how national policy shapes skilled migration. She earned a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Riverside. She now works for a federal agency.

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