Negotiating Your First Job: Getting The Salary You Deserve

176558909You’ve aced all those job interviews and you are thrilled to learn that you are the top choice for a job at a company you want to join.  But you want to make sure you get a good deal, in terms of salary, benefits, and other working conditions.  What’s the best way to prepare for the negotiation, the discussion that is going to establish the base for your salary trajectory, and your relationship with your new employer for years to come?

Let’s just focus on the money for now. Lots of people will advise you to do research about comparable salaries in the marketplace, and that is surely an essential piece of your preparation.  But in addition to this, we suggest another idea that can only help you be even more prepared on the salary issue: Think in advance about how you will handle the hardest questions you are likely to encounter.

Why? Some of the most unsettling moments in a negotiation occur when the other party asks you a question you really don’t want to answer. Certain questions can put you in a tough spot. We’ve conducted job negotiation workshops for lots of graduating college students, and as part of those workshops, we’ve asked them to come up with the questions that make them nervous.  Here are some examples:

  • “What’s your real bottom line?”
  • “How much do you think you’re worth?”
  • “What other offers do you have?”
  • “What were you making in your previous job?”
  • “If I were to offer $xxx right now, are you prepared to say yes?”

In answering these questions, you don’t want to lie, but if you answer truthfully, you can be squeezed. You might find yourself accepting an offer that’s not as good as it should be.  Sometimes, too, the person asking the question truly has no right to the answer he or she seeks. An uncomfortable choice awaits you. Should you answer honestly, or should you hedge, or should you decline to answer?

Thinking in advance about the hardest questions you might be asked and how you will answer them is good practice in and of itself. There is an additional benefit, though. Thinking through your possible answers will actually help you better understand your interests. It will also force you to think about your “BATNA,” your Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.

What do we mean by interests? Even when we talk about money, not all money is the same. Here are just two examples that are based on the different value of money over time. Is your starting annual salary important to you, or are you prepared to take the risk of getting a higher salary over time based on performance? Given your current financial needs, would you be willing to trade a lower annual salary in return for getting a signing bonus?

Why is the BATNA important? You need to understand your walk-away.  At what point do you decide that the new employer is not going to give you as good a deal as you might be able to get somewhere else? What, walk away from a job you are thrilled to get? You bet, if the deal does not meet your minimum requirements. Think about that issue before you get to the negotiating table, and it will help you design your answer to the hardest questions, too.

We suggest that you actually practice out loud answering the hardest questions. Ask a friend to ask you the questions and answer them. You’ll find that certain words and phrases are awkward, and so it might take several tries to get your answer down pat. Then, if and when the questions come up in your job negotiation, answering them will feel natural. You will be persuasive with your new employer, and they will be impressed with your poise and thoughtfulness.  You might find that you get a better deal . . . and they will even be happier that they’ve chosen to hire you!

We’d love to hear your stories. What are the hardest questions you’ve faced?  How have you answered them? What would you say the next time?

Paul Levy and Farzana Mohamed are the authors of a new book, How to Negotiate Your First Job.