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How To Get A Higher Salary Than They Want To Give You

Forbes logo Forbes 01-10-2015 Susan Adams, Forbes Staff

I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve made a huge mistake each time I’ve accepted a new job: I never tried to negotiate a salary higher than the one offered to me. Always thrilled to get the job I was seeking, it didn’t even occur to me to try to get more money than my new employer was offering. But outside of government jobs with lockstep salary mandates, employers hardly ever make their best offer to new hires. What’s the most effective way to negotiate your salary without alienating your new boss?

A compact and entertaining book by Wired magazine’s former associate director of marketing, Jim Hopkinson, Salary Tutor: Learn the Salary Negotiation Secrets No One Ever Taught You, lays out some of the basics of salary negotiation in an engaging style.

The best part of this slim volume is Hopkinson’s personal story about how he went from college grad with a degree in Computer Information Systems to unpaid intern to clerk in Staples’ computer department, on to several more jobs that culminated in his last post, in the marketing department at Wired, a division of Conde Nast. Hopkinson left Wired in November 2011, and now works as a consultant and blogger. He peppers his book with first-person anecdotes about his career decisions, and lessons he’s learned.

MUST READ: 4 most powerful salary negotiation tips

The most novel aspect of Hopkinson’s approach: he recommends preparing a single-page document he calls the IRS, or Industry Research of Salaries, that takes into account salary data from websites like Salary.com, Payscale.com and Glassdoor.com, and from personal networking. He even suggests candidates hire a designer to prepare the IRS sheet, which would graph the salary range for a position from low to high, and list details about achievements, including years of experience and skills like “accomplished speaker,” and specifics about the job, eg. Seattle area, manage a team of three.

To me, this exercise seems like overkill. By all means, candidates should do plenty of homework and research the salary range for a position in advance. They should also give serious consideration to salary goals and limits, and what sorts of perks, like vacation, benefits and flextime, they would be willing to trade for money.  But the most important rule of salary negotiation is the one Hopkinson notes in another chapter: The candidate should not be the first to name a number.

He helpfully covers how to fill out applications that try to force job seekers to pick a figure. In the blank where it says “previous salary,” he recommends writing, “competitive.” Where an application asks for desired salary, write “negotiable.” Hopkinson advises that even when applications say, in all caps, “APPLICATIONS THAT DO NOT INCLUDE FULL SALARY HISTORY WILL BE DISCARDED,” do not fill in the blank with a specific number. The way around this demand is through networking. Find someone at the company who can put your application into the hands of a hiring manager.

Hopkinson also includes suggestions on how to answer salary questions in an initial interview. When the human resources rep asks about your desired salary, you can say, “Well, I’ve actually done a fair amount of research while preparing for this interview… what I found is that there was a pretty wide range depending on a number of factors, and I’d really need to have the full picture of all the responsibilities before I know what that range is.”

Another creative response to the what-were-you-making question: “Well, the reason I didn’t list my previous salary on the application is that I’ve been freelancing since I was laid off, and the compensation for that would equal $200,000 if you calculated it annually.” Hopkinson also points out that most large companies issue policy handbooks that include the instruction that employees should not share sensitive company information with the public. If the HR rep presses you and says she can’t move you on to the next interview without knowing your current salary, you can say, “I’m sorry but the employment contract I’m under with my current employer does not allow me to reveal my compensation. However, I’m sure that when the time comes to discuss salary, we won’t have a problem settling on a number we can both agree on.”

For Hopkinson, the crucial stage of the salary negotiation process comes after the potential employer has suggested a number. He recommends that candidates always try to push the offer higher. One strategy, when you’re offered a range, is to take the top number and then just repeat it and add the word “hmmm.” So if you’re told the position is budgeted at $65,000 to $75,000, your response would be, “Seventy-five thousand, hmmm.” Hopkinson encourages candidates to push for a higher number, while emphasizing their experience and accomplishments.  Negotiate for perks like title, benefits, bonuses, vacation and periodic salary reviews.

This is an update of a story that appeared previously. 

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