3 Tips to Negotiate a Government Salary

One study shows that as few as 1 out of every 8 women negotiates her salary when offered a new job. Why? Well, there is a lot of debate about that. But in government, the biggest reason we hear for failing to negotiate is the belief that public sector salaries are non-negotiable.

That’s a common misconception. Yes, there are strict guidelines that accompany hiring authorities on the local, state, and federal level of public service. However, negotiating a higher salary can be done. You simply have to know where to look for wiggle room and how to take advantage of it. Below are three tips for pursuing a higher government salary:

Tip #1: Understand government pay scales
Before you begin any negotiation, you need to understand where the initial offer you’ve received came from and where it might go. In other words, learn your government pay scales!

For federal positions, start by checking the Federal Wage Schedule maintained by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM). The General Schedule and Locality Pay Tables are where you’ll really want to pay attention. Similarly, state agencies are required to publish salary information for all employee categories and grades. These scales are usually published on the state government website, but you can also ask for the scales directly after receiving your offer.

Why go through the trouble? While it’s difficult to change the “grade” of an offer, the “steps” within that grade are flexible, depending on the skills and experience of the individual candidate. Shooting for a higher “step” can result in a significant pay difference. For instance, Step 2 of Grade 10 in the federal government pays $48,247 per year, compared to Step 7 which pays $56,027.

However, you can’t make the case for upgrading the “step” of your offer without first understanding what that step’s qualifications entail. This blog post offers a good summary of how to negotiate steps within federal salary grades.

Tip #2: Think outside the paycheck
Even if the agency or department you’re joining doesn’t have the budget to improve your base salary, they likely have more leniencies on the additional benefits they can provide. As you negotiate your salary, consider what incentives could supplement your paycheck. Popular, negotiable benefits for government roles include:

  • Allowances for future education
  • Tuition reimbursement for student loans
  • Relocation expenses
  • Recruitment bonus incentives (for critical skills or severe shortage positions)
  • Commuting expenses
  • Uniform allowances
  • Department vehicle use
  • Flex and vacation time

Again, it pays to take the time before negotiation to research what benefits an agency may be able to offer. For example, tuition reimbursement is currently under review at several federal agencies. Check the agency’s career website, revisit the original job listing, and then visit online forums to see where others have had success.

Tip #3: Don’t forget the lessons you learned in the private sector
Negotiating in the public sector is different from what you might have experienced in the private sector. Guidelines are stricter and the steps to hire are more diluted. Nevertheless, when you determine the areas up for negotiation in your offer, you’ll want to make your case in the same way you would for an industry job.

If this is your first time negotiating in any sector, it’s time to do your research (yes, again). Tools and tricks for salary negotiations abound on the Internet (see this article, for example) and even tips that aren’t public sector specific can be applied to your government offer. Things like knowing your worth relative to others, simultaneously showing a desire for better compensation and your enthusiasm for the role, and even learning how to counter a “no” are all equally relevant to the government process.

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Still not sure you’re ready to negotiate your salary? Let us know what else we can provide to help in the comments below!

This article was originally posted in March 2015.

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4 Comments

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Profile Photo Lori Winterfeldt

I didn’t think that vacation time was negotiable. I like where I am and what I do, but would love to have more vacation time to pursue travel. How can this be negotiated if you are a federal employee?

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Kelly

This article, and the blog post from UW to which it prefers, provides far too much hope to the uninitiated about the flexibilities available to most Federal agencies in setting salary upon entering Federal service. (Once you get here, negotiation becomes non-existent for promotion–you get what the regs say you get).

Your biggest hope for leverage in the salary negotiation comes from:

1. You are being selected for a job that has been tough to fill otherwise. If you come from a list of thirty other qualified candidates, and the hiring manager could just as well live with someone else on that list, your salary is probably non-negotiable. I will fight for a salary to hire the world’s leading expert in micro financing to promote land tenure among widows in Nairobi. A really organized go-getter GS-11 management analyst? We may really really like you, but we probably could get away with one of the other 25 people referred on the list from which you were selected.

2. You can prove that you are foregoing significant private-sector income by accepting the step 1. Be prepared to be asked for documentation: HR wants to see W-2s, offer letters, pay stubs. Just because you have “superior qualifications” doesn’t mean the agency is in a position to give you more if the private market didn’t also recognize your talent monetarily.

3. You will probably get offered the step 1 anyway, at which point you’ll have to be willing to walk without getting more money. Be prepared for the agency to call your bluff. It is a lot of hoop-jumping for most federal managers to go to bat for your salary negotiation–usually the hiring manager makes a recommendation that ultimately requires the HR director’s approval. Some agencies’ internal policies make it very burdensome to do this, and if the hiring manager isn’t completely in love with you and your one-of-a-kind skills, he/she may just move down the candidate list.

3. Very frequently–though not always–salary is non-negotiable until you are at the full-performance level of the job. If the position is below the GS-12, and you are in a white-collar profession that leads at least that high, you are: a) still developing your trade (no such thing as a “superiorly qualified” trainee; b) have more earning potential in front of you (and need to be patient); and c) probably aren’t that distinguishable from other candidates. Sorry, many folks may disagree, but this is the logic I’ve seen HR managers employ over and over.

In 15 years at four agencies of recruiting doctors and PhDs into jobs for which they overqualify, I can tell you that I’ve never seen a salary negotiation proceed as the UW blog explained it. Your step in a salary negotiation has not been based on your theoretical tenure at a given grade by counting 52/104/156 weeks of time served outside government. The successful negotiators are: a) experts in their field; b) bring something irreplaceable to the table; c) have market value and demonstrable earning power well above the step one; and d) are established in their professions.

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Joe Veteran

I agree with Kelly..somewhat. @ Lori, Once you have accepted the job, its too late. If you have a superior year and really stand out, your still only going to the next step. HOWEVER, I have seen people successfully negotiate an extra vacation/personal day or two. You need to be prepared to make your case during your annual review.

I have found it difficult to negotiate pay at the federal level. It is easier at State/county level. When I was offered my county job, they posted a pay range ‘based on experience’. This is when you have some wiggle room. If they offer 46,235 per year, it isn’t unreasonable to ask for an extra .25 per hour (next step). They may or may not give it to you and if they don’t, it is very possible to get an extra personal day or two. Think of it, your still getting payed the same..regardless, but you get an extra day off. This costs them far less than a next step, which is compounding and over the life of your time at the job can mean many 1000’s of dollars versus 8-16 hours of labor per year.
You need to be confident when asking (negotiating) but not cocky. Don’t ever do a give it or I wont take it. … next!… Know your stuff and be able to explain how it is in their benefit to give you the extra couple of days per year. Try to appeal to their common cents.

I don’t think things are as easy as this article makes it seem, but, I see an extra personal day per year successfully negotiated at job offer or annual reviews on a frequent basis. (though, not every year for the same person)

Good luck.

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Anonymous Frustrated Employee

I recently accepted a job offer with a state agency department of family protected services which told me that the salary was non-negotiable and that the pay range listed were for people transferring from another state agency who had to power to negotiate I have been doing the same exact work and have enough experience to get top dollar but I didn’t transfer from another state agency I am feeling cheated and underpaid I am 1 month end and this still doesn’t settle with me can I state my case and get top pay or should I forget it all together? I worked years ago for other state agency but those salaries can’t be matched they are outdated severely

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