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Negotiating Salary as a first-generation/low-SES professional

Career and Workforce Development Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
September 21, 2017 Katie Stober

I currently work in a university Career Center where I help students interview for jobs and negotiate salaries.  However, full disclaimer: I did not negotiate my first professional salary.  I probably should have, but I didn’t. I come from a long line of people whose work uniform included hairnets, steel-toed boots, and grease-stained shirts with an embroidered name patch. Nobody in my family has ever needed business cards, or an office, or a resume. So when my current employer offered me a job (with healthcare and an office!) at a salary that nearly equaled what both of my parents made combined, I took it without question. Knowing what I know now as a Career Center professional, I see how I did myself (and my retirement savings) a disservice.  By making the salary an emotional decision, rather than objective business transaction, I potentially lost out on several thousand dollars per year. 

If you are coming from a first-generation, working-class, or otherwise low-SES background into your first professional role (or seeking a promotion or raise) here's a few things to know:

(1) The salary reflects the job, not you. If Mark Zuckerberg decided to quit his job at Facebook at start slinging fast-food hamburgers tomorrow, he would make $7.25 an hour. The salary is a price tag on the job and the required skills and experiences, not a valuation of you as a person. When you think of it this way, it’s easier to see it as a business decision, and not an emotional or personal one. Research what similar jobs pay and draft up a budget for your monthly expenses in that geographic area. You deserve to be compensated fairly for the degree you’ve worked so hard to get!

(2) Think long-term, not short-term. Salary is the main component of the job offer, but it’s not the only factor. Don’t get sidetracked by a flashy starting salary and take a job with subpar benefits. Job A which offers $50,000 per year is not actually a better offer than Job B which offers $44,000 per year, but includes free campus parking, free tuition for dependents, lower healthcare premiums, and more promotion potential. Look at the full package before deciding and remember: you can use your negotiation skills in all areas of the offer package, not only salary.

(3) It's about value, not cost, so keep it professional. The case you lay out to support your request should highlight the amazing qualities you bring to the job or other ways that fulfilling your requests could benefit your employer. For example, I might tell an employer “In doing my research I see that the offered salary would require that I live 45 minutes away from campus. But for only 7% more each month, I could live 15 minutes away, which would certainly increase my productivity and make it easier for me to be available for after-hours events.” In this argument, I’m showing my employer how increased compensation isn’t just extra money in my pocket, but is directly equal to increased productivity. Whatever you do, avoid turning the negotiation into a pity party. Leave personal cost (“my sick dog...”, “my aging parents…”, “my lemon of a car…”) out of it. None of these things are benefits to your employer.

(4) They’re not going to pull the offer just because you ask. BUT, when sealing the deal, always call, never email. Tone of voice is very important whenever you are asking for a favor (which a salary negotiation is). It’s important for you to impress upon them that you are thankful for the offer but had a few questions about the details based on your evidence/research. An email without tone of voice can come across as demanding or ungrateful. Similarly, their tone of voice is important for you to determine how hard to push. For example, after being asked if the offered salary is negotiable, the employer could say a very matter-of-fact “No.” or they could pause, and say “no……..” with an inflection and hesitation that indicates it may be worth the job-seeker jumping in here to reiterate all their amazing qualifications. These pauses and inflections are lost in email.

Bottom line, do your research and take a chance in asking! They may say no, but as long as you ask over the phone (or in person) and are polite and reasonable, they won’t pull the offer.

Happy Negotiating!

Katie Stober is the Associate Director for Graduate Student Services at the Texas A&M University Career Center. Please connect with her on LinkedIn!