How to Negotiate Salary for the First Time (It Might Not Work)

When I graduated from The University of New Hampshire in 2003, I got lucky. Really lucky.

I landed a dream job, working for a public relations and marketing company specializing in the Outdoor Industry; my occupation was effectively singing the praises of the best new outdoor gear available. And to learn about that gear, I had to use it. Fortunately, the job was in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, so I had the opportunity to get into the Tetons almost every day.

But — like many who’ve worked in or work in the Outdoor Industry, or live in mountain towns — I’d chosen free outdoor gear, a place to call home in Jackson Hole, and access to some of the world’s most dramatic mountains just steps from my front door over the opportunity to make a big salary. (Disclaimer, in case my old boss reads this: Boss, I never felt I was unfairly paid. You paid appropriately for my experience level, the geographic area and the industry. Plus, I had a blast and learned a ton. Thank you!)

That’s why, after a year or so of learning the ropes and — in my opinion — contributing to the success of the company, I decided it was time to ask for a raise.

Offices Mountains
Image Credit: Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr

It was my first time negotiating salary, so I put together a clip book of all my successful marketing and PR efforts, taped part of an ad I’d cut out of the Economist on the cover — “Show What You’re Worth,” or something like that — and presented it to my boss. A day later, he sat me down and said, “I agree your value has increased, and you’re a contributor to our success. But now’s not a good time for a raise.” He then gave me some background on the company’s finances, and told me he’d reconsider a raise assuming our finances improved as he expected.

Only recently did I learn, more than ten years later, based on research published in PayScale’s own Compensation Best Practices Report, that he handled my request perfectly: According to PayScale’s research, if an employer pays lessr than the market average for a position, but communicates clearly about the reasons for the smaller paycheck, 82 percent of employees still feel satisfied, as I was. And a few months later, when the company was more financially secure, my boss made good on his promise to revisit my salary, and I received a raise.

6 Steps for Salary Negotiation Success

If you’re about to negotiate salary for the first time, the best first step is to take PayScale’s Salary Survey and find out what people doing in your job in your area are being paid. Once you learn the salary range for your position, experience and location, you can figure out if your salary is reasonable.

If, having taken the survey, you believe you’re underpaid, here are some steps you can take to approach negotiations with your manager in a professional manner.

  1. Schedule a meeting to discuss salary. This gives your manager time to mentally prepare for the conversation. Without setting a time to talk in advance, your manager might feel ambushed, or that the conversation is coming out of nowhere. A heads-up also allows your manager to review her or his budget to know if and how much money for a raise is available, and if one is warranted.
  2. Know your value. Prepare for your meeting by completing a PayScale Salary Survey, which shows you the salary range for other workers doing your job, with your experience, in your geographic area. The completed survey will show you what you should be paid.
  3. Prepare examples of how your work has benefited the company. If you have firm goals, KPIs, OKRs or other measurables, be sure to show how you met or exceed them. Creating a small but professional presentation can remind your manager of your successes and contributions.
  4. Start the conversation knowing it’s a negotiation, and the outcome isn’t assured; Just because you believe you should be paid more, even if the data supports you, it might not happen. Make sure you’re mentally prepared for that outcome.
  5. If your request for a raise is denied, hopefully your manager will tell you why. If she doesn’t, ask. It might be performance related—in which case the meeting can help you focus on improving in areas that need attention—but if not, perhaps it’s simply matter of timing. Have patience; even if you’re promised a raise, it might not happen immediately.
  6. Remember, salary isn’t the only aspect of your job that’s negotiable. If more money isn’t in the cards, you can try to counter with more vacation time or improvements to other benefits.

By preparing yourself and your manager for any conversation about salary, and by knowing the outcome may not be exactly what you want, you set yourself up for financial and emotional success. With a little bit of prep and a little luck, you’ll land that big raise.

Tell Us What You Think

Do you have any stories about first-time salary negotiation? Are you negotiating salary for the first time? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.