I think many people are afraid to ask about salary (see the excellent book “Women Don’t Ask”). This stems from insecurity that just by asking they might sour the relationship with an employer or even lose a precious job offer. However, salary negotiation is par for the course in the professional world, and if it’s done right it can add thousands to not just your starting salary, but salaries you later earn for the rest of your career. My book Jobs That Matter has numerous salary negotiation tips specific to public sector employment. Here are just a few tips that apply to many job offers.
1. Timing is everything. It is not recommended to discuss salary before you receive a job offer. This is difficult because many employers will ask you for your salary requirements before or during the interview. It’s ideal to state something like “I would be glad to discuss that with you when we know we are mutually interested in working together,” or to turn around the question and ask if they have a range in mind. The reason for this is that if you state a range that is too high, you might be taken out of the running before you have a chance to prove to the employer that you are the ideal candidate; and if you state something too low, you have just lost money you could have earned. So try not to answer the question—and certainly do not be the person to bring up salary first.
One important thing to note is that, even though you have to disclose prior salaries in a federal application, the prior salary history is (from what I understand) not used to determine your future salary. You grade is instead based on whether you meet the qualifications for the job at a particular grade level. (Note to federal HR folks: correct me if I’m wrong!).
Once you receive an offer, it is incumbent upon you to ask questions. You have to know exactly what is included in the offer, especially the salary, benefits, start date, vacation, typical working hours, dress code, etc. If you don’t know something, now is the time to ask.
Once you have the offer, the trick is also to *not* accept it on the spot. Ask for some time to think about it. Then, reply with a carefully researched response. Find out the average salaries in your field by using sites like salary.com, payscale.com, glassdoor.com, OPM for federal jobs, and Guidestar for nonprofits, and (if you are a student or recent grad) by asking your college career center what the average salaries are for students with your background. Counter the offer with a number that is higher than the offered amount, but not so much higher as to be insulting, and back up your request with data about the average salaries as well as specific reasons why you deserve more.
2. Ask it right. It’s possible to jeopardize an offer if you don’t make the request in the right way. You first have to always be appreciative about, and excited by the offer. If you just state that you are waiting for a better-paying offer, you could lose the offer by showing you’re just not that excited by it. Instead, show enthusiasm, but
temper it with some questions about salary. If you are really afraid to ask for more money, you can start by asking if the employer would mind if you ask a question about salary. The vast majority will reassure you that it is OK to ask the question.
3. What to do if you can’t get to yes: If you have to take a lower salary, perhaps because the employer simply doesn’t have the budget to offer more, consider asking what the promotional timeline is and whether you
could have an early performance review tied to a potential raise. Be sure to get this in writing.
What do you think has worked for you in salary negotiations in the government sector?
Heather Krasna is the author of Jobs That Matter: Find a Stable, Fulfilling Career in Public Service, and the Director of Career Services at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.