6 tips for handling salary negotiations

You’ve applied for a job you’re really excited about, and the interviews are going well. Then, you’re asked that dreaded question: “What is your expected salary?”

On the one hand, you want to get a fair price. However, you don’t want to blow your chances at a job by asking for a ridiculously high amount. Here are some tips to help you negotiate for the right salary.

1. Know the industry standard.

You can find some estimates on career websites and even job search engines. Look at the want ads: what are companies offering for similar positions? You may also want to check out the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), salary.com and trade journals.

While this is not a cut-and-dried formula (salaries can vary depending on the state or the country, and multi-national companies can afford to pay much more than start-ups) it gives you a realistic picture of what’s a “fair” salary or not.

Also remember that job titles can mean different things to companies, and you’ll see a huge discrepancy in salaries. You may have been a “senior accountant” in your firm, but other organizations may require their managers to have more than five years of experience to qualify for that position. Study the job descriptions in job search engines to get a more accurate idea of what titles mean, and what salaries they get.

2. Look beyond the dollar sign.

There are non-monetary pay-offs that only an insider would know. So if the salary range seems disappointing, approach trusted colleagues or friends and ask about other benefits. “What do you like most about working for this company/industry? Are there benefits you never found anywhere else?” Research on the company’s reputation for work-life balance or employee satisfaction (for example, Working Mother magazine comes up with a list of the top 100 every year).

If you couldn’t find any information on the company you’re applying to, at least know what other organizations are offering. Then, when the HR manager talks to you about salary and benefits, you know what to ask about. Many start-ups, for example, compensate for lower salaries by allowing flexi-time, job sharing and work-from-home privileges.

3. Know your strengths.

You’ll be more comfortable negotiating for a better employment package if you’re sure about your strengths, skills and your “special edge” over other people applying for the same position. That’s why many career coaches recommend keeping a folder of positive work evaluations, thank you notes you may have received, personal recommendations from people you’ve worked with, and a list of awards and recognitions.

It’s also important to come with concrete examples and be able to describe them in the language companies understand the most: profit, speed, and market share. Don’t just say: “I’m one of the best sales people they have.” Say: “In my first year, I was able to get three new clients and increased the company’s sales by 20%.”

4. Know the company’s needs.

Your unique mix of strengths and experience may make you more valuable to one company over the other. That’s one reason why career coaches strongly urge people to avoid mass-emails of generic resumes. Take time to read the details in a job post and research on a company’s background. From there, you know what to highlight in your cover letter, and may include information that would not be relevant to another company.

Example: You’re a marketing manager, but you enjoy writing and speaking. In your free time you’ve volunteered for the company newsletter, run a personal blog and even took a Toastmaster’s class. This would be of absolutely no meaning if you were applying for a marketing job that strictly focused on distribution strategies.

However, it would add to your value if you were applying for a job that requires making a lot of presentations to clients and stakeholders. There, your exceptional communication skills give you an impressive edge—and some “right” to ask for higher pay.

5. Timing is everything.

What do you do if interviews have dragged on and the company hasn’t given a solid offer sheet?

Don’t ask about salary right away. Talk about the job first. In fact, many career coaches say that it’s far more important to first make sure that the position is at an appropriate level for you. If it’s not a good fit, or is too low-level, don’t even discuss salary—upgrade the job.

Once you and the company representative find a perfect fit of job requirements and your skills, then you’re in the perfect position to negotiate for salary. Politely inquire about a salary range.

6. Be honest.

Many times, the company representative will ask you, in turn, what your current salary is and the salary you expect. Don’t pad your salary, but do be upfront about what you feel you deserve. “I made $45,000 in my past job, but I earned enough skills and experience to merit a $55,000 salary.”

This is a lot like a poker game. If your salary is too high, the company is unlikely to call you because they can’t afford you. If your salary if too low, the company may interpret that as being under-qualified.

Researching on industry salaries can help you assess the best answer, but if you’ve been completely honest during the interview—about your skills, and your expectations—then don’t feel too bad if the negotiations fall through. You and the company simply weren’t the right fit, and you’re free to find the job where your skills are needed most, and you’ll be paid the best.