We rely on compensation to feed, shelter, and clothe ourselves, and our families. So why does negotiating pay feel so awkward? Throughout my career, I’ve asked for raises across a wide range of roles and industries. Sometimes my asks were met with positive outcomes, and sometimes not so positive.
Despite the risks of awkward conversations or denied requests, I learned that advocating for myself is non-negotiable. From the good, bad, and the ugly, here’s a breakdown of my different experiences asking for a raise and a few takeaways to help support your next salary negotiation.
After three years of postgraduate experience working in direct patient care, I felt a calling to pivot from healthcare to more general nonprofit work. I completed an internship with a nonprofit and began interviewing for program coordinator roles.
After a six-month search, I was offered a position at a nonprofit in a new city. I was eager to accept, but after crunching the numbers, I realized I’d be paying a bit more than 30 percent of my income on rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment.
Wanting some additional buffer between my income and expenses, I asked the hiring manager if there was any flexibility and he replied that unfortunately there was not.
Not taking no for an answer, I got creative. I asked if he set a few key objectives for me to meet within the first 90 days and I met them, would they be willing to increase the pay.
He agreed to the 90-day review and I accepted the position. I started the role, met the goals, and the company honored the agreement.
I was so proud of myself. Instead of accepting the initial offer right away, I was able to bet on myself and get my hiring manager’s commitment to give me a review after 90 days on the job, instead of waiting for a raise at my annual review. A month or two after my review, I received a promotion to a new role that came with an additional pay increase.
Through this first experience, I learned to get creative with my salary negotiations. Running into a roadblock with starting pay doesn’t have to mean it’s the end of the negotiation conversation. You can think outside the box by asking for a quarterly or semi-annual review or even a sign-on bonus to help offset the difference in salary.
Not all of my salary negotiations have ended well. After gaining a few years of experience in the field of workforce development, I moved on to executive search. I fell in love with recruiting; working with company leadership, advocating for candidates, and connecting the dots between people and opportunities filled my cup.
I thrived in the role, adding nearly $200,000 in top-line revenue to the company through additional placed candidates and business development. When the time came for my annual review, I followed the traditional preparation of putting together a presentation to summarize my impact and bid for a promotion. I presented it to the leadership team and everything went well. I left the meeting proud of my contributions to the team.
During our next 1:1, my boss let me know the team decided to promote me and shared the base salary they were offering me. I use the word “offer,” but in her mind, it was non-negotiable and a number I should be grateful to receive.
However, even with the new increased salary, I knew I was underpaid for my work. Working as a recruiter, I understood the market rates for my role and knew that I could move to an in-house recruiter role and make around $15,000 - $20,000 more in base salary than what I was being offered. I also did my due diligence and knew that former colleagues in the same position were earning $4,500 - $7,000 more in base salary than what I was offered.
In the same 1:1, I asked my manager if there was any flexibility in the base salary. She was immediately taken aback when I didn't display effusive gratitude for the offer and accept it without hesitation. She let me know she would see what could be done.
What followed was a meeting with my boss and her manager. I was shocked at the level of resistance I received during the salary negotiations. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, comments like “I felt blindsided by the question. I was calling to congratulate you,” or “I’ve never offered someone a 10% raise and had them not be happy about it,” and even “This is why people shouldn’t discuss salary information.”
It was a tough conversation and ultimately my request for higher pay was denied.
The comment about being happy with a 10 percent pay raise still sticks with me today. I joined the company from the nonprofit sector, so I suspected I was paid at a lower rate than my peers when I joined. This didn’t bother me at the time because it was a pay increase from my prior role, I was excited to learn more about recruiting, and I was comfortable betting on myself to show my value.
As recruiters, we regularly explained to our clients about the laws that prevent companies from asking for pay history and that they exist to prevent pay discrimination. Yet in our own company, knowledge of my current salary was used to justify paying me less than my peers.
Negotiation is common practice and something recruiters expect, so after reflecting on the experience, I’m still not sure where the disconnect was that resulted in such surprise at my request to negotiate my salary. Sure, I could have tried to hide my disappointment at the shared salary, but this runs counter to the philosophy of bringing one’s whole self to work.
I brought my whole self to work as a Black woman, and as I started having more wins at work, I suspect I turned from pet to threat. An often talked about phenomenon where women of color are undermined as they start becoming more competent and successful in their roles.
Management Leadership for Tomorrow’s (MLT) Voices from the Workplace report surveyed 8,000 MLT Alumni—all Black, Latinx, or Native American professionals—and found that “50% of MLT alumni felt that a white mentor or sponsor who supported them, later felt that person had undermined them.”
Some time after my failed conversion, there were some leadership changes and I ended up receiving a small increase. At this point, my happiness at the organization had started to wane.
Although I recognize the trade-offs of leaving tenure with one company to start somewhere else, my negative experience was the boost I needed to explore the market. Sometimes you can do all the right things and still get denied the salary you deserve; that’s when you know it’s time to move on.
I landed a new role with a higher base salary and in less than two years, I’m making almost double. Now, I know my work is valued and my current organization offered me more than I asked for right out of the gate.
To help prevent pay inequity, more states are passing pay transparency laws. California, Washington, Colorado, Rhode Island, and New York are states that require employers to post a salary range in the job description or provide a range at applicant request.
Be prepared with a list of your wins and impact on the business, and if you’re met with resistance, don’t let that shake your confidence. Stand firm in the value of your expertise and start making moves to somewhere that will see, support, and reward your excellence.