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How to Become a Salary Negotiation Ninja

By Omaid Homayun 

When it comes to negotiating salaries, the majority of people that I’ve met were unprepared when the recruiter of a prospective company asked them the almighty salary question. Negotiating an increase of $3,000-$5,000 in your salary could equate to the cost of a new car over five years, so why not put in the work to prepare to answer the salary question with confidence?


Do Your Homework & Network!


When I fly to LAX I jump online to see what the going rate is on multiple airlines. Although I usually book Southwest, I also use multi-search sites like Expedia or Kayak to cross-check flight rates because I want to feel comfortable that I’m getting a good deal. In the same way, when I applied to become an Account Executive in sales for a specific industry, I checked sites like Payscale and Glassdoor to determine the range of compensation for similar roles. But I didn’t stop there. People like helping people; remember when Google Maps didn’t exist and you’d have to ask a stranger for directions? I’d reach out to a current employee of a company on LinkedIn to ask if they could help point me in the right direction.


Initially, approaching a complete stranger can be intimidating. While you might be hesitant to seek some advice, remember that online networking can be mutually beneficial. You may have a need for some insider information, but you can also offer something in return (future connections or help with a project).


You can send the person a message on LinkedIn with something like:


“Hi Kate,


My name is Jane Doe and I’m a student at SJSU in the marketing program. I came across your profile on the alumni network on LinkedIn and wanted to see if you’d be open to sharing some feedback on a position at your organization that I’m very interested in pursuing. I understand you may have a full plate, if you can provide any guidance or point me in the right direction I would greatly appreciate it.


-Jane Doe”


Trust that your approach with humility and openness will be effective and the majority of people will spare a few minutes to help you. In my experience, when employees responded, I would ask if they’d be open to a 10-minute phone conversation. If the chat went well, I’d ask if they’d be open to submitting my resume (since most companies offer a referral fee and it only takes 5 minutes, they often say yes). Regarding the salary question, after you’ve done research on sites like Glassdoor you can frame up the question with something like:


“Through my online research I’ve found that the typical salary range for a role like this is $60,000-$70,000 based on experience, would you happen to know this range is similar at your company?”


If you’re uncomfortable with that approach, politely ask the person if it would be okay to discuss the subject with something along the lines of this:


“This is helpful and I truly appreciate your guidance, would it be okay if I asked you a couple questions around the salary and incentives around this role?”


If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. If you ask politely and they decline, you can move onto your next question. From my experience I’d get my salary homework done and my resume on top of the pile since it was submitted to their human resources department by an employee.


Have a Plan & Don’t Give In


Have you ever thought of a situation where you theoretically knew what to do, but when you’re actually in that situation your mind draws a blank? That’s what happened to me with the consumer tech company I was interviewing with. There are primarily two questions you need to prepare for: How much do you make? AND How much are you looking to make?


Before delving in, it’s important to understand the purpose of these questions and why a recruiter needs to know. The reason they ask your salary is so there’s a baseline understanding that the salary expectations are within the range they’ve budgeted for the role. It’s a waste of everyone’s time to have several interviews if the numbers are too far apart. There is no one-size fits all answer, but what’s helped me in the past is approaching the subject with humility and respecting the person on the other side of the table.


My favorite salary negotiation book is Salary Tutor – Learn the Salary Negotiation Secrets No One Ever Taught You by Jim Hopkinson, it’s worth its weight in gold. Jim teaches that if you say a number first, you lose negotiation leverage. The goal is to deflect those two questions with questions of your own. It can go something like this:


Recruiter: How much do you make?


Candidate: My previous salary wouldn’t be relevant because I worked in a different industry, I would just expect fair market value for my skill set. Can you tell me more about what the job entails?




Recruiter: How much are you looking to make?


Candidate: I’d have to learn more about the responsibilities before I’d feel comfortable giving a number, can you tell me more about what the responsibilities entail?


While it’s Important to be a Ninja – It’s Not Always About the Money


The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), states that the average salary for students out of college in 2014 was $45,473. Perhaps you’ve done your due diligence in the negotiation process and you have multiple offers in hand, one for $45,000 and the other for $50,000. You may be excited about the higher offer and the potential to make more, but as a student you should consider the value of the experience more than the money because the difference of a few thousand dollars is not going to change your lifestyle at this point in your career. Cover your expenses and make enough to survive, focus on the opportunity and upside of the learning experience. Sometimes the job that pays a little less in the beginning could be the right job that plants the seed for an outstanding career.


What Else Can You Negotiate?


There’s a misconception among students out of college that it’s not okay to negotiate. In fact, it is completely okay and recruiters will respect you for it as long as your approach is sincere. Besides your salary, there are a number of other benefits to consider. Most new hires at Google receive Restricted Stock Units that could equate to $10,000 which they account in your total compensation package. If you’ve applied at an early stage startup they typically include equity, and most organizations offer a retirement plan such as a 401K where they also match your investment to a certain amount per year. You can also ask for other benefits like an extra week of paid vacation or an allowance for additional courses you can expense each year.


The most overlooked benefit is healthcare. If the company is self-insured they will have several options, but they usually only provide a close look at their plans once you’re hired. Tell them that healthcare benefits are important to you, and ask if they can share an overview of their benefits package. If you are family planning, there can be a significant difference of the annual cost from one company’s benefits versus another.


Let me give you an example of what I mean by a sincere approach. During one of my previous negotiations there was a significant delta in the base salary between my expectations and what the company was willing to offer. My response was, “I’m thrilled about the opportunity and I’m open to making lifestyle changes to a more economical gym or doing away with cable. By making those changes I may still have to move in order to pay for my monthly expenses, I’m wondering if there’s anything we may be able to do for an increase in the range of $10,000? Again, I’m willing to make sacrifices but I don’t want to have to move.” The result was a bump in my base salary and a one-time signing bonus. Depending on the role, you can negotiate for a one-time stipend or ask them to cover your moving expenses if you have to relocate for the job. Every situation is unique and you have to take into consideration what is most important to you, leverage these tips and you will become a salary negotiation ninja.


Omaid Homayun works at Gartner where he advises tech startups in the bay area to help them accelerate their growth. He’s also held various sales roles at BlackBerry and Google. He’s passionate about helping others navigate their careers, and he writes about inspiring career advice and leadership stories on his blog called How to Find a Job in 10 Days. Reach out to him anytime there or on Twitter @omaidh.


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