The Basics of Salary Negotiation

As an awesome professional lady, you’ve probably heard that you need to negotiate your salary (yes, even in government). You’ve probably heard this about a thousand times. But has anyone stopped to explain how to negotiate a salary?


Maybe not. In fact, at a recent team meeting, all five women in my group admitted that they didn’t have a clear strategy for how to ask for more money when offered a job. I didn’t either, but I decided it was time to learn.

To relate my findings, I am dedicating the next few GovFem posts to negotiation best practices. I’ll cover how to negotiate a job offer, how to navigate the former salary question, ways to negotiate your salary within your current job, and the pro tips that can really help you succeed.

Today, let’s start with the basics. The next time you receive a job offer, follow these steps to raise your starting salary:

1. Know your market value: Before you ask for more money, you need to know your market value. This is the amount others in your field, at your level of experience and expertise make on average. This number will be a range, maybe even a big range, but it should be the guidepost to what number you request.

To find out how others in your field are compensated, you can check out websites like, which provide self-reported salaries for individual organizations and fields. If you can’t find public data on your chosen profession, you can also contact a third-party recruiter (NOT the hiring manager for the job you’re considering) for better salary benchmarks, though they may charge a consulting fee.

2. Know your personal value: In addition to knowing what others in your industry are making, you need to know what sets you apart from your cohort. In your previous experiences, what unique qualities have you exemplified? What value, qualitative or (even better) quantitative, have you added to your previous organizations? Especially in government, your specific experiences and qualifications are a great bargaining chip because they will make it harder for the hiring manager to walk away from you and your salary demands. 

3. Pick the top of your range: Like I said, your market and personal value will likely be a range, rather than a concrete number. Do not mention this range when you ask for a higher salary. If you do, don’t be surprised when the hiring manager comes back with an offer at the very bottom of that range.

Instead, ask for a specific salary at the top of your potential range. Remember, this is a negotiation. The recruiter will more than likely come back with a lower number than what you initially request, so you need to supply a number at the upper end of your potential market value as a starting point.

4. Be prepared to back up your number: You know your professional worth and you’ve told the hiring manager what number you think is fair. But don’t hang up without explaining why you think it’s fair. Give context about how you came up with this number, including hard figures from the market and a detailed list of your personal qualifications.

However, NEVER mention personal circumstances as a reason you want a higher salary. This is a professional negotiation, and your request requires professional justification. Personal pleas will likely derail — or even end — your negotiation.

5. Align your value with organizational priorities. Keep in mind that the hiring manager you’re negotiating with likely has to go back to their boss and make this request for more money. Make it easier for them to sell you and your higher salary by aligning your market and personal values to those of the organization.

For organizations that are revenue-oriented, this can be an easy sell. If you can make them more money, they are likely to give you more money. However, in public service, you may need to be more creative.

Look closely at the agency’s mission statement and strategic goals. If the agency’s goal is to increase outreach, what connections or proven engagement tactics can you bring to the table? If the agency is looking to cut costs, how can your proven organizational and efficiency skills help the bottom line?

6. Pick a “no” number. Even if you’re currently out of work, you need to have a hard limit on how little money you’ll accept. This number will offer a firm reference point for when you need to end negotiations.

Think you really can’t afford to say no? Consider this: Your starting salary can have a significant impact on your career earnings because it will likely be a reference point for raises in your current job and in future salary negotiations. A one-time compromise on your worth will cost a lot more than you think.

7. Don’t forget the extras. Obviously, there is more to a job than money alone. If your hiring manager really can’t offer more money (which is sometimes the case in government), consider other ways to get more from your offer. Try asking for more flex time, vacation time, a better title, or even a faster track to promotion in the future.

Now that you know the basic for getting the job, stay tuned for our next post on salary negotiations when you’re already in the job!

Photo Credit: Flickr/Pictures of Money with teal filter applied

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MaryGrace Duncan

When I need to look up a given salary range – to help my clients figure out what exactly they should be looking at, I use – under the Wages and Employment Trends section. This gives one statistical data and is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment Statistics Program. It compares salary in your state to the rest of the U.S. It’s a pretty good tool to do research on any given job or industry.

Lori Winterfeldt

I’ve always been under the impression that very little is negotiable within the government salary/benefits structure. Is there anything that you can point to that IS negotiable? (e.g., vacation time, step level that you begin at)

Hannah Moss

Hi Lori – Great question. It’s true that in federal gov, it’s a bit harder to negotiate your salary than at state or local levels. However, there is a little wiggle room. Steps are your easiest target, because they are based on your skill level which is a highly qualitative factor. But you can also ask for flexible working schedules (which can save on commuting costs), more vacation time, faster promotion tracks (only in some cases – this is truly agency specific), and always look into college loan repayment and relocation expenses.

Be sure to check out this article: