No one teaches you salary negotiation in college or business school. It is one of those things you just have to figure out on your own. But, what you negotiate at your first job will affect the salary of all of your future jobs. I wish I knew that.
My first real professional job was when I was still in my junior year of college. I felt very lucky to even have a job not to mention the fact that they were paying part of my tuition in exchange for my 105-20 hours per work each week. Score! So when the salary of $26,000 annually was offered to me, I thought great! That was more than I ever made before and I was really not working full time there anyways so it didn’t really matter. Any money was better than no money, right. So there was absolutely no negotiating at all. I just said sounds good, took the job and I was happy. Looking back I just shake my head, I mean what was I thinking. I was truly unprepared for my first professional job. Why hadn’t ANYONE told me anything about negotiating and how important that first salary was. Not my professors, not my parents and surely not my friends because salary was ALWAYS a taboo subject. (None of my friends had jobs anyways so it didn’t really matter). I just had no idea what the right salary was that I was supposed to ask for and so naive to trust that the employer was treating me fairly. So that was my first experience in salary negotiating. It involved no salary negotiation.
A few years later, I decided to stay with the government after graduation and worked my way up to a better salary. (Still at no point in time did I ever ask for a raise, I just took what they gave me every year. What was I thinking!!) After working with the government for 3 years, I started looking at other options and was particularly interested in consulting. Little did I know that the experience I gained working with the government was exactly the experience that this consulting firm needed and wanted.
Now I know a little more than I did then
Having worked for this company for many years and hiring others, I know I was an obvious hire. I was a needle in a haystack because of the experience I had. The problem was, I didn’t do my research so I didn’t know even how insanely awesome I was to this company. Because I was so infatuated with the company and the type of consulting work I would be doing, I didn’t care what they paid me. I was just so excited because it was the perfect job for me.
So I did a lot of research on the company but not the real behind the scenes research. In hindsight, I knew someone who worked at the company from my church, so I should have talked to him about it. Why didn’t I get the details of what exactly they did so I could know how well I fit this opportunity? I am not sure why I didn’t but hopefully you can learn from my mistakes. When the dreaded question came up from the senior manager “What are your salary requirements?” Keep in mind that this is the same senior manager who had just intimidated me by asking me how many dentists there are in the US. I was flustered and had been great in the interview until that question. So I was already a bit perplexed with her questions and then she asked me what salary I wanted. Well, at that point I thought I might be losing the interview because I didn’t know how many dentists were in the US, I mean who does? (I later learned that this interview question is just to see how someone handles the question. No one actually expected me to get the right answer. They just wanted to see my thought process, duh!)
So the background of my salary history, I had done a great job at my government job and had steadily received promotions from $24,000 to $40,000 in the couple years I worked there. I was proud of my promotions and I thought I was paid fairly. I mean none of my friends or co-workers talked about what they earn so I really had nothing to compare it to. (Which is exactly why I am sharing numbers with you! I am breaking the taboo!) So ready for my answer to this question? I told them, “Well….right now I make $40,000 so I would like to make at least $42,000.” Yes, that is only a 5% raise in my salary I asked for and I didn’t even give them a range! Looking back, I know that when you move from company to company that is your negotiating time. I had lots of things they wanted and honestly, I think they would have hired me at a much higher salary because of what I brought to the table. I think they would have pulled money out their budget to make sure I was on their team because of what I had to offer. Fortunately, I think they felt bad for little old unexperienced salary negotiater me because they actually ended up starting me at $46,000. They knew I was valuable to them so they gave me more than I even wanted. Smart company because they made me a really happy employee who has now worked for them for 7 years!
But when you think of my seven years at that company, all annual salary negotiations have been based on that initial starting salary. I always wonder what salary I would be at now if I had asked for $50,000-$60,000 instead in the beginnning. Who knows! I didn’t ask so I will never know. What I have learned is that it is very uncommon to get those huge jumps in salary. Most annual raises are in the 2-5% unless you are a superstar or change companies and bring a lot of experience and knowledge with you that the new company needs.
Fast Forward To Promotion Time
Fast forward a few years down the road and I was up for a raise and promotion, or at least I thought I was. I was shocked to find out that my manager (who hadn’t really seen all the awesome stuff I was doing) wasn’t in agreement with me when I told him I deserved a promotion. So I decided to prove him wrong. During that assessment cycle, I spent hours and hours completing my self-assessment form and highlighting all of the amazing stuff I had been doing over the last year. I asked all my coworkers to also provide feedback on how well I was doing. I provided so much detail that my boss told me that he had no other choice but to give me that raise and promotion because of how much information he received that proved my point. It was then that I realized that you have to be in charge of your own success because no one is going to do it for you. You have to show everyone how awesome you are and the amazing things you have been doing. I often see young professional women at my company who are scared to brag about themselves and tell their managers how awesome they are really doing. You have to get used to that confidence and start believing it for yourself first. Then others will see it too.
I have also worked really hard for my company. I think when you show your managers and co-workers that you work really hard, you will be rewarded in the long run. I remember one time where I had really gone out of my way to make my clients happy, but I didn’t think my manager so I was just expecting a small raise. Was I surprised to get a 17% raise for how hard I had worked over the last year. Sometimes when you aren’t expecting it and you are just working really hard for yourself and your own success, those awesome rewards come when you aren’t even looking.
What do you wish you would have known about salary negotiation before your first job?