Whether you’re already employed, or looking for your next great gig, sooner or later you’ll have to negotiate with a company about salary. While everybody’s circumstances are always a little different, the same kind of pre-negotiation prep work can translate into results, whether you’re discussing money with a longtime employer or a new one.
Before we plunge into the thickets of pre-negotiation prep, there’s one thing to keep in mind: If you’ve recently had your annual review, it might be worth holding off a few months (at least) before re-engaging in a salary discussion, especially if the review resulted in a raise. (The exception, of course, is if your job responsibilities changed radically in the time since the review.)
Without further ado, here are the key steps of prep. Remember, a solid negotiation is just as much about avoiding mistakes as it is about leveraging your skills to make more money.
It’s Self-Assessment Time
Well before you meet with your employer to talk things through, sit down with a piece of paper or a spreadsheet and make two columns. In Column A, itemize your professional assets, which may include the following:
- Professional relationships
Whether you’re negotiating salary as part of a new job, or seeking a raise from your current employer, the items in Column A will be pretty much the same.
In column B, list your professional liabilities. These may include:
- Failed projects
- Lack of experience
- Previous performance issues
Whether or not you’re currently employed will affect how you structure column B. For example, if you already have a job and want your boss to give you a raise, previous employment gaps in your career will (probably) have little relevance; but if you’re looking for a new gig, you may have to explain to an interviewer why you were off the market for an extended period of time.
Whatever you put in Column B, prep explanations for each item. There are solid ways to explain employment gaps, for example. When detailing your issues, honesty is important, as is shaping a narrative that puts you in the best possible light.
Do Your Research
Now that you’ve completed your two-column exercise, it’s time for the next step: research what you can expect to earn from an idealized negotiation.
For starters, try and find out what your target company paid in the past for similar positions and experience. At larger firms, such information is easily discoverable online; for smaller firms and startups, you may need to ballpark a figure, based on what equivalent companies have paid for similar work.
Next, explore what the tech industry as a whole pays for various skill-sets. The Dice Salary Survey (PDF; updated annually) is an invaluable resource for this. The key is knowing what you’re worth in broadest possible terms.
It’s About More Than Money
Money is great, but it isn’t everything. If you think your employer (or potential employer) might balk at paying you the salary you think you deserve, consider what perks you might want other than money. For example, if you prize work-life balance, and think that working from home a few days a week is an ideal way to achieve that, you can bring that up during negotiations as something you’d be willing to take in exchange for less cash.
In order to get the most out of this aspect of a negotiation, though, you’ll need to research and see what sort of perks the company presents its workers. Then you’ll need to make a list of perks you want, ranked in order of importance. If the firm offers those perks, you may have more leverage in negotiation.
Avoid Questions About Salary Expectations
Yes, an interviewer or negotiator will sometimes ask how much you expect to be paid. Such questions are nerve-racking: Throw out a ludicrously high number, and you might scuttle your chances of landing the position; but if you go too low, you might land the job only to find you’re not being paid what you’re worth.
When confronted with such questions, do your best to dodge. Suggest that you and the negotiator can arrive at “something that’s reasonable,” or that you expect to earn a salary appropriate for your skills.
In any case, do you absolute best to avoid talking numbers until the company makes you an offer with a hard salary attached to it. A similar logic applies to current employees asking for raises: Don’t bring up money or percentages until your employer offers something up.
When it’s time to talk, keep the following points in mind:
Justify Your Requests: Don’t ask—or offer—anything without evidence or suitable justification. Want another twenty grand in annual pay? Be prepared to explain to your employer how your specialized skills, connections, and worth ethic support that valuation.
Take a Good Deal: Sure, you could keep negotiating—but at a certain point, an employer’s patience will wear thin. Be prepared to concede on some points in order to get most of what you want. A good negotiator knows when to walk away from the table.
Stay Professional: Excessive emotion has no place in a salary discussion. It’ll just make people uncomfortable, and thus harder for you to effectively make your case.