No matter how old I get, I think salary negotiations will always make me break out in a nervous sweat. From being unsure how to benchmark what I’m earning to worrying whether employers will be turned off by my self-advocacy, these conversations can feel incredibly nerve wracking. However, at age 29 and with seven years of professional experience under my belt, I feel so much more equipped to approach discussions around compensation. Here are the four things I wish I knew at age 22:
The employer expects you to negotiate
As a woman, lobbying on your own behalf can feel unnatural. Overarching societal messages discourage us from self-promotion, which results in fewer women negotiating their salaries than their male counterparts and asking for $7,000 less, on average, when they do.
But here’s the good news: the employer fully expects you to negotiate! As Aubrey Bach, formerly of PayScale, put it: “There are exceptions, but there is wiggle room baked into almost every job offer. Nobody will rescind a job offer because you negotiate unless you are a total jerk — or that is a terrible place to work. So never accept the first offer the first time.”
Of note: At various points in the interview stages, depending on the company, a hiring manager will likely ask you for your desired salary. My trick is to never, ever be the first person to say a number. Instead, ask for their salary range — the organization will almost always have one. From there, you can communicate whether your target is within their range or not. Doing so allows you to retain leverage in the final stages of a job offer, and it gives you a better chance of being compensated appropriately.
Arm yourself with data
It can be overwhelming to enter a salary negotiation with no idea how much you should ask for in the first place. But have no fear, the age of data is here! Luckily for 21st century job seekers, there are many websites to assist you amidst your first negotiations.
PayScale provides a free salary report based on several factors, including location, position, and education background, for example. Glassdoor is a job review site that also includes salary information from current/former employees who have voluntarily offered up these numbers. And finally, our federal government even offers some robust statistics among thousands of various fields and positions. As Bach emphasizes, “If you present a well-researched counter-offer, you’re likely to get it.”
I also encourage women to talk to male peers in similar fields about their compensation. With gender pay gaps — which vary across demographic groups — your first salary can have a huge impact on your lifetime earning potential. The Center for American Progress found that “over a 40-year working career, the average woman loses $431,000 as the result of the wage gap.” Being vigilant about salary early in your career will literally pay dividends in the long run.
Compensation is just one part of the equation
When we think about negotiating, we often only think about salary. But there is so much more to ask for than just that one number! From vacation time to flexibility to work remotely to relocation expenses, there’s a litany of aspects to your employment contract that are up for negotiation.
At my last job, for example, I knew I wanted to work at a company that offered workplace flexibility (meaning that ad-hoc telecommuting was always an option), and that a position that did not allow for it would be a dealbreaker. As JSK Fellow at Stanford University and all-around career whiz Stacy-Marie Ishmael put it on BuzzFeed podcast Another Round, “You have to go into [a negotiation] knowing that it might not go in your favor.” And keeping yourself honest about what you’re willing to compromise on is an incredibly important part of getting to yes (or no) when an offer is on the table.
It’s okay to turn down a job
It might sound kind of wild, especially when you’re eager to start your career, but it is absolutely acceptable to get to the end of the interview process and say, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Obviously, not everyone is in a financially stable enough position to do so, and if you really need the money, it is more than understandable to accept said job. However, if you’re able to say no, then don’t be afraid to do so.
I was recently in a position where I had negotiated a great offer and was ready to accept, but was then told I could no longer continue doing my podcast if I wanted to work for that company. It forced a really tough decision: Do I give up a passion project that I really love and see a professional future with, or do I take a solid gig that would put my career immediately back on track? Ultimately, I came to the conclusion that I would regret giving up my side hustle more than I would regret turning down this particular role.
Experience will certainly help you cultivate strategies to counteract these overarching societal biases, but there are also great resources like Jessica Bennett’s Feminist Fight Club or Slack-based communities to guide you as well. I’ve certainly made my fair share of mistakes, and I have learned a whole lot about the business world — and myself — along the way. Remember that your journey through your career is not going to look like anyone else’s, and that’s okay, but you’re always going to be your own best advocate, so act like it!