The 4 Most Valuable Words in the English Language: “Is This Salary Negotiable?”

By Lily Whiteman, author of How to Land a Top-Paying Federal Job

Few people enjoy negotiating their salary. It feels uncomfortable, undignified—and disturbingly similar to a haggling over the price of a used car. Nevertheless, the cumulative value of an annual salary increase of even several thousand dollars may exceed tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of a career. So the few minutes you spend negotiating a salary increase may well turn out to be the most profitable minutes of your career.


If you receive a federal job offer as a non-fed (including as a federal contractor, Fellow or returning fed), you probably have the most negotiating power you will ever have in your federal career.

But because of the widespread myth that federal salaries are not negotiable, large percentages of incoming feds accept lowball federal salary offers without even attempting to negotiate. Therefore, they may sacrifice many thousands of dollars of annual income and associated contributions to their Thrift Savings Accounts, and start their federal careers lower on the GS career/salary ladder than necessary.

This mistake may unnecessarily reduce their salaries long into their federal careers. Why? Because feds on the GS career/salary ladder must usually:

  • Sequentially climb each grade up the ladder without skipping any grades. (Find GS salary ladders by Googling “GS pay tables” and “OPM”.)

These constraints serve as speed bumps on the climb up the GS career/salary ladder. Therefore, by negotiating the highest possible starting position on the GS career/salary ladder, a new fed may significantly shorten his climb to the upper reaches of the GS career/salary ladder.


The salary range of your target job will be identified on its vacancy announcement. You won’t be able to negotiate your salary above the top of that range. However, the hiring agency probably can raise your offer above the lowest step of the grade you’re offered.

Your hiring agency will probably base its salary offer on your current salary—modestly increasing your offer above your current or most recent salary.

A few rules of thumb:

  • Negotiate your salary before you accept the job, or you will lose your negotiating leverage.
  • Respond to a job offer by expressing enthusiasm for the job. Then ask, “Is this offer negotiable?” Warning: Don’t issue any ultimatums that might kill the job offer.
  • If HR won’t negotiate with you, ratchet your negotiations up to your future supervisor who almost certainly has more negotiating authority.
  • Support your negotiating position by: 1) explaining how your credentials exceed the opening’s minimum requirements; 2) mentioning any security clearances you have; 3) documenting any bonuses or benefits from your current job you will sacrifice, or moving expenses or cost-of-living increases that the job will cost you; 4) documenting your recent receipt of a competing offer that has a higher salary, if possible.
  • Request participation in the student loan repayment program or request tuition reimbursement, if appropriate.
  • Experienced professionals should request to accrue vacation leave at the same rate as experienced feds rather than at the lower accrual rate for entry-level feds. Vacation accrual rates for feds are here.


When a current fed moves up a grade on his current job or by landing a new job in on the GS salary ladder, his/her salary increase is nonnegotiably determined by the so called two-step rule, which is explained here.

Nevertheless, if you’re a current fed, you should attempt to negotiate your salary: 1) if you move from a job on the GS salary scale to a federal job in your field that is on an alternative salary scale; 2) if you move between jobs on alternative salary scales; and 3) when you enter the SES.

In addition, if you move to another federal job in a different location, request coverage of your moving expenses.

Also, here are salary-boosting strategies for lateralling between federal jobs: Before you accept a lateral position, ask your hiring manager if he would consider awarding you a quality step increase (QSI) if he is pleased with your work after your first six months on the job, as you’re confident he would be. In addition, if the lateral position has promotion potential, ask your hiring manager what requirements you would have to fulfill to ultimately receive a grade increase.

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