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Negotiate a Better Starting Salary in 6 Steps

business man's hands hold $100 bills

Most job candidates are terrified to negotiate for a better starting salary, especially if they’ve gone through an arduous job search. But here’s the truth: Those who get paid more don’t necessarily deserve it more; they simply asked for it.

As seasoned recruiters, we can tell you two more secrets about negotiating a better starting salary. First, the hiring manager offering you the salary expects you to negotiate. Less than one in five workers have never done it—everyone else has. And, second, if done the right way, negotiating for a higher salary will not result in you losing the offer. At worst, they won’t be able to give you more and will ask you to reconsider the original figure. If they do rescind the offer because you negotiated, you either failed in the way you asked, or you dodge a bullet when it comes to that company and its culture.

So what’s the right way to ask? Follow these six steps:

Step 1: Wait for It

Do not bring up salary before you have the job offer. (Read that again, it’s important.) That moment between getting and accepting the offer is the perfect time to negotiate. They’ve shown that they want you and they’ve already got a lot riding on your answer (job searches are time-consuming and very costly for employers). Now that you’ve seen their cards, you’re in the best position to counter.

But what happens if they bring up salary expectations before that point? Don’t fall for it.

“You want the company to focus on what they need to offer to convince you to take the job, not on the minimum they need to offer to approximate your current salary,” explains Josh Doody, author of Fearless Salary Negotiation. He recommends answering with some combination of key phrases like:

  • I would prefer to focus on the value I can add to this company.
  • You know better than I do what value my skill set and experience could bring to your company.
  • I want this move to be a big step forward for me in terms of both responsibility and compensation.

An exception to this rule is if you’re working with an outside recruiter. Being open and honest with your recruiter is the only way they can truly advocate for you and find you the right fit.

Step 2: Pay attention

Now that you’re determined to save your salary negotiations until after the offer is made, it’s time to build your case. This requires keen observation during the interview process. Pay attention to what the employer truly values about someone in the position. It’s easy to do if they share success metrics for the job, but most won’t. So, instead, use the clues they give by the questions they ask you and the assessments you take.

If you feel you exceed their expectations in some of these key areas, you can mention them during negotiations. Bring up things like your sales numbers, certifications, technical skills and other factors as reasons you’ll be able to hit the ground running and save them time and money because you won’t need to be trained up or require additional resources that may have been needed in the past.

Step 3: Do you research

As we’ve pointed out before, determining your worth has never been easier. Tools like Glassdoor’s Know Your Worth™ calculator, or websites like Salary.comIndeed.com, and Payscale.com offer tools to help you get a peek into what others in your position are making. You’ll want to arm yourself with these figures as your reasoning for a raise instead of making it about your salary history or what your lifestyle dictates. Make it about the job market and what someone at your level should be earning instead.

And here’s an interesting tidbit from the Muse: Columbia Business School researchers say you should ask for a specific number—say, $64,750 rather than $65,000.

“When employees use a more precise number in their initial negotiation request, they are more likely to get a final offer closer to what they were hoping for,” they explain. “This is because the employer will assume you’ve done more extensive research into your market value to reach that specific number.”

Step 4: Choose the right words

Again, the negotiation needs to center around what you’ll be worth TO THE EMPLOYER. To do this, follow the previous tips on bringing up the specific qualifications you exceed for the position and what the market indicates someone in at your level should make. Never make it about what YOU want or need.

Confidence is vital, but only if it’s coupled with an upbeat, positive attitude. Your initial response should always be something like, “I’m excited about the position, and I know I’d be a great fit.” Then either ask for a day or two to consider your options or continue with a message like this one recommended by U.S. News and World Report Columnist Robin Madell.

Your success could entirely hinge on the words you use. For instance, as Glassdoor points out, “I would be more comfortable with…” will work much better for you than something like “No, that doesn’t work for me.” Conversely, apologizing can also derail your results. For these and more helpful tips, check out Glassdoor’s guides on words to use and words not to use.

Step 5: Don’t expect to catch up over time

The average U.S. worker could be earning about $7,500 more per year if it weren’t for the compounding effect of a low initial salary sometime in their past. Some studies even estimate that failing to negotiate can cost up to $600,000 over a career.

The plain truth is that employers are willing to give even amazing employees a 2% to 4% annual raise. Compare that to an average 10% to 20% raise when switching jobs altogether. It’s definitely during that initial salary negotiation when your bargaining power is at its strongest.

Step 6: Work with a recruiter

If this all seems overwhelming, work with a recruiter who can help you. This is especially true If you have high-level, uniquely marketable skills that are difficult to value. For instance, there are only a handful of semiconductor control engineers in the U.S., so it’s difficult to value the position based on market rate. Plus, the need for relocation and other compensation are unique to the job and should be factored in.

An executive recruiter can help job candidates in positions like these develop a salary requirement that will work for both the employer and candidate.