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The Art of the Deal: How to Negotiate a Starting Salary

FOR MANY JOB seekers, salary negotiation is the most stressful part of the entire job search process. If you ask for compensation higher than the company is prepared to offer, they’ll move on to another candidate. If you suggest a lower figure, you’ll be “locked into” that rate for years.

Regardless of hesitation, it’s important to know your bottom line and be prepared to reject offers with low salaries compared to qualifications and the work required. Here are four tips to help you negotiate a mutually agreeable salary:

1. Know what you’re worth, but be realistic.  

It was Rocky Balboa who said, “If you know what you’re worth, then go out and get what you’re worth.” The world’s most famous fictional boxer was on point. When you’re unsure of your professional value and the compensation level that your skills and experience command, you project that uncertainty during the interview process.

On the other hand, when you come to the bargaining table armed with research and a solid defense as to why your proposed salary is warranted, hiring managers take you seriously and are more willing to negotiate mutually-agreeable terms.

Knowing your worth starts with doing your homework. It’s important to know what the average comparable employee is making in the industry before you put a value on your own skills and experience.

You should also research career websites and glean data from sources such as Statistics Canada to review specific companies and even compare salary trends in the industry over time.

Another invaluable source of information is current and former employees of the companies where you want to work. Ask these professionals direct questions about pay structure. Learn the balance of compensation compared to work duties, bonus potential based on skills and experience, and other determining factors such as cost of living and added expenses (parking fees, etc.).

2. Prepare yourself to negotiate professionally.

Setting aside nerves is difficult, however the salary negotiation process can determine your future earnings for years to come. Consider this hypothetical scenario:

A 25-year-old professional accepts a position at a starting salary of $50,000. Considering a five per cent increase over the course of a 40-year career, that worker will earn approximately $634,198 less by age 65 than their co-worker who started at $55,000. You can see, then, how requesting just $5,000 more per year to start has a lasting impact.

Based on your research, you should go into the negotiation with a salary range in mind. However, don’t be the first to offer a figure. Instead, ask what the salary range is for the position.

Be sure to listen more than you talk and understand the explanation behind the proposed compensation. Should the terms be unacceptable, suggest a different figure and be prepared to defend your reasons.

Above all, keep your cool. It may take some time, but a mutually agreeable salary can usually be reached. Few employers will discard a qualified candidate who has done their salary research, based solely on a counteroffer.

3. See the total picture.

You know your monthly bills and living expenses. However, you also need to consider the possibility of relocation to another location. Cost of living varies by area. In addition, your focus should always be reaching your highest earning potential, not merely getting by.

Agreeing on salary goes beyond covering the essentials. Don’t disregard benefits that will save you money, including health benefits, paid time off, options to work remotely and even perks such as a gym membership.

You’ll also have to be realistic about your skills and experience. An entry-level worker accepting an entry-level job can’t expect a high starting salary.

In fact, rather than focusing solely on the starting salary, you should be aware of growth potential over time. For instance, a lower starting salary at a company that rewards employees with performance bonuses and regular raises is a better option that a company where raises are non-existent, and above-and-beyond performance is not recognized or compensated.

In addition, you must consider other compensation facets such as commission, mileage reimbursement, retirement contribution matching, and more. A high starting salary is appealing, but if you’re expected to pay out of pocket for travel expenses, your take home compensation will be negatively affected.

4. Determine your next steps.   

As Kenny Rogers sang, “You have to “know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."
The popular song lyrics also advised the importance of knowing when to walk away from the bargaining table. While this is difficult—especially for job seekers who don’t have other leads—flat-out employer refusal to negotiate salary demonstrates an unwillingness to cooperate, which will turn into problems down the road.

Alternatively, ask what’s necessary to earn a higher salary. That could be as simple as earning a certification or getting more training. Many times, the company will even pay for this advanced education if you prove you could be a valuable asset.

In the end, it’s important to go into the salary negotiation process with confidence and determination that mutually-agreeable compensation can and will be reached.

Do your research to discover your earning potential. Be able to prove your worth to the company based on your skills and experience. Keep calm, see the total picture and go after the salary you deserve.