Preparing for salary negotiation, part 2: what to even ask for

April 8, 2014

To negotiate, of course you have to figure out what you want to actually negotiate for. For me, it helps to basically have a ranked list of what you want, so you can start off with the most important items to you and work your way down.

Generally at the top of your list will be your base salary. How to figure out what number you want to ask for:
  • There are lots of places to do research on what you can expect, in your location, like glassdoor and such.
  • If you have mentors you trust and feel comfortable with, you can also just share the direct details with them to get their take on it and they can advise you based on their own experience. I did this with my Hackbright mentor Sebastian and it was really great for having a neutral third party who’s interested in my welfare.
  • If you don’t know what number to ask for at all, a base rule of thumb that seems reasonable to me is to ask for 10-15% over whatever the number they gave you is.
  • I’ve also read somewhere that it’s better to ask for a number that’s not a completely round number, because then people will be primed to round down to the next round number. So for example, if your target is the high 80ks, it might be more effective to ask for 92k so that people naturally round down to 90k, vs. asking for 90k and having that be mentally rounded down to 85k. I don’t know how true this is in practice, but it makes an intuitive sense to me.
In terms of phrasing your salary request, you can use phrasing like:
My frame of reference is the Hackbright community, where the average starting salary as a junior software engineer for graduates in the Bay Area is __$$__. 
It’s a nice non-confrontational way to state your expectations by placing the responsibility for where they came from elsewhere, so you don’t run the trap of being seen as specifically and individually “aggressive” which is a particular concern for women trying to negotiate their salaries (see this post on why it's perfectly rational--though still something I would like to see changed--for women to feel hesitant about "just asking").

After general salary, the next item you can ask for is probably a signing or relocation bonus if applicable. If you were told that they can’t increase your salary because there isn’t room in the budget, you can phrase this request as:
Is there room in the budget for an increase in the signing bonus, as this is a one-time investment for the company?
The idea being that it's harder for people to deny that money in a budget can’t be shifted around for a one-time item.

In the workshop she ran for our Hackbright class, Poornima strongly stressed not justifying why you’re asking for what you are, but the urge to do so is really strong and hard to overcome. So, you could use wording like:
Because [company] is not a partner company, I would like a higher signing bonus to help pay back my Hackbright tuition. (when this is applicable, of course) 
I think it sounds better to talk about it in the third person as opposed to saying “because your company is not a partner company…” so it seems more just a dispassionate statement of fact vs. coming across as an accusation or criticism.

Other items to consider negotiating on:
  • start date (this was personally my own most important item, due to some travel I had already planned and needing time to get my life together to move)
  • vacation days, other benefits
  • timing of your performance review or a firm agreement on the next time your pay will be re-evaluated
I like this last one one because it’s a way out where no one has to lose face if the conversation is going in a direction where it seems like they’re unwilling to yield anything at all to you. You can kick it off with something like:
Can you tell me a bit more about the performance review process?
After they answer that question, you can say:
Ok, would you be open to setting up my performance review to be [some period of time that’s earlier than usual] so we can make sure to check in and I can get feedback on how I can better help the team?
It’s an easy thing for them to agree to, it shows how you’re committed to doing a good job above all, and it makes starting your next attempt as negotiating that much easier to bring up once you're in the role.

Next up, another post about the secret ingredient to preparing for the negotiation: practicing!

Update: here's the full series of posts
  1. Salary negotiation after Hackbright
  2. Preparing for salary negotiation, part 1: general perspectives to consider
  3. Preparing for salary negotiation, part 2: what to even ask for
  4. Preparing for salary negotiation, part 3: practicing for the negotiation
  5. Salary negotiation: the day of