Dear Shannon: How do I negotiate a salary?

Dear Shannon

Dear Shannon: How do I negotiate a salary?

Tharakorn Arunothai

If you have a question for Shannon, send it to [email protected].

Dear Shannon,

I'm job hunting and have had a couple of second-round interviews. I'm optimistic that I'll be offered at least one of these jobs. I'm writing because in the past I've always been spectacularly bad at salary negotiations and I'd like some help on how to handle them. I'm a mid-career sustainability exec and in my last post I rose within the company from a badly paid junior position. While my bosses were happy to change my title and give me more responsibility, the salary increments were not as good as research told me they should be. I don't want to get into a new job only to fall into the same trap and play catch-up for the next three years. How do I make sure I get off to a good start?

Emma, Glasgow 

Hi Emma,

Salary negotiation is one of the most important strategies in the jobseeker's toolkit, but it's often the one that candidates feel most uncomfortable using. For a lot of people, talking numbers is an awkward and nerve-wracking experience. But you need to roll those shoulders back and put on your brave face because — as you well know — once you are in an organization it is difficult to make a big jump in salary. That is why you need to negotiate your worth at the very start.  

For almost everyone, salary negotiation is a game in which you're always going to be on the back foot. Why? Think about it: You will negotiate a salary maybe 10 times in your life. Your hiring manager will do it 10 times a year, if not more. Yeah, exactly. Not only are they more experienced than you, but they've got you down as the needy jobseeker who's grateful to have been selected for an in-demand role as well. Employers are counting on you to think like this, so it's up to you not to and to know your worth.

Why negotiate?

The odds may seem to be in their favor, but you do have some leverage: You're the top choice. That's why you mustn't give the game away and tell them what you want to earn. Instead, take the power position and let them make the first move and say a number. If you don't like it, you then have the power to go back to the table and negotiate — a very different prospect from asking them to meet your expectations when you don't know what they had in mind. 

Remember: A first offer is just that — an offer. If you're feeling intimidated, consider that failing to negotiate effectively could cost you as much as $500,000 by the time you're 60. That gets the blood pumping, doesn't it?

Know your worth

Part of effective salary negotiation is knowing your worth, so it's important to have a minimum salary in mind. A few online tools can help: Glassdoor.comSalary.com and PayScale.com are good places to start. Acre does a Salary Survey every year or two where it surveys more than 1,000 sustainability practitioners in the market. 

But salary benchmarking is only the starting point — or rather, the bottom point — of the negotiation. It's your minimum figure. Aim higher than the minimum to give yourself room to maneuver and prepare to sell your skills and track record. A good salesperson has conviction that what they are selling is worth it, so believe you're worth what you're asking for, and you'll find others will believe it too.

Salary isn't everything

But don't get too carried away on the money train. While there is almost always wiggle room, there is also almost always an iron-like salary cap that not even the slickest negotiator can shimmy out of. That's why a little flexibility can pay off.

If salary is refusing to budge, maybe they can meet your financial needs in other ways, by giving you shares in the company, for example. Or maybe you can look at increasing your holiday entitlements, your health benefits and other terms. A sign-on bonus is also a good way to allow the employer to stay within the salary bands they have while still greasing your pocket a bit. I did this at both WWF and Deloitte and it worked. If you don’t ask, they won’t give it for free.

As Deepak Malhotra told the Harvard Business Review, "Your job is to figure out where they’re flexible and where they’re not. The better you understand the constraints, the more likely it is that you’ll be able to propose options that solve both sides’ problems.”

Only push hard for things that matter and that you believe you have a reasonable chance of getting but keep in mind this is a two-way negotiation and that even though they look like they have all of the power, you too are valued by them at this stage. Top talent is not easy to find. 

Don't be a typical 'Girl'

There's just one more thing to mention. It's big, it's gray, it's got massive ears and a long trunk and it's making a loud trumpeting sound over there in the corner. Yup, it's the elephant in the room, and it's not just any old elephant either. It's the Gender Elephant: a very special sub-species that gets a bit hot under the tusks when ignored in discussions like this.

We all know the "women don't negotiate” stereotypes. Women appreciate relationships over outcomes, they are more willing to compromise, they don't like confrontation, they associate negotiation with conflict, they make salary decisions based on what they feel they need rather than on what the job should pay, blah blah blah. 

Well, like most stereotypes, there's a grain of truth in them but they're not the whole picture. According to research cited in this FastCompany.com article, women aren't really less likely to negotiate, they're just reluctant to negotiate in face-to-face meetings, implying that you're better off sticking to money talk over the phone or via email. Or to practice before you have that live interaction. Another option is to push for a review around three to six months down the line if a salary increase isn't possible at that time. Just make sure to ask what goals need to be met and that you get it in writing.

Salary negotiation is a skill and you can learn it. I hope these tips help you get to grips with the basics and I wish you the very best of luck negotiating your worth. If you'd like some one2one advice on how to distill and communicate your unique value to a company and leverage it for better pay, contact me.

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