That Coin: Everything You Need to Know About Negotiating Compensation

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No matter the size, everyone is chasing their bag—for millennials and older members of Gen Z who consider themselves career-oriented, this is especially obvious. Our social media timelines are humanized by ‘the hustle’: creatives promoting their latest projects; new graduates boosting themselves for finishing that degree; professionals breaking the news of their big, fancy promotions; and freelancers shading clients that keep ignoring invoices due eons ago. Even IRL, our work environments and peers are constant reminders of where we could be, what we could be doing or earning—and though this generation advocates for careers of self-fulfillment and passion rather than humdrum and stability, we’re smart enough to know that at the core of the career hustle is, indeed, money. In the timeless words of Wu-Tang: Cash Rules Everything Me.

Contrary to baby-boomer beliefs, it is just fine to have a desire to enjoy your work and make a living from it. And negotiating compensation—whether it’s a salary for a full-time job, a commission for artwork, or an hourly rate for a freelance gig—is an accessible, yet often forgotten way to reap the rewards you deserve while doing what you love. In this guide, we’re here to help you navigate the art of negotiation with professionalism and confidence. Because you ain’t here to play.

What’s your worth?

Before engaging in any compensation-related chat with a hiring manager or client, it’s crucial to know your value. Sure, we’d all love to believe we should earn the absolute most, but the reality is that multiple factors are considered when your salary or pay rate is determined.

Some of these factors, like geography and demand, are largely out of your control and affect everyone in your industry. For instance, a publicist in San Francisco would likely receive a greater starting salary than a publicist based in Seattle, due to a stark difference in the two cities’ price-of-living. Moreover, if a position is not necessarily integral to a company, or highly specialized, there’s a bigger chance that compensation will be less competitive.

On the other hand, factors such as skillset and work experience are unique to your career situation. It goes without saying: the more experience, the better. But in most cases, considering your lack of experience or skill is just as necessary. Landing a gig doesn’t exactly promise competitive pay, particularly if your client or manager is hiring you knowing that you’re less experienced than other candidates.

But don’t be feeling overwhelmed about calculating your worth. For full-time, salaried work, it’s easy to find online calculators that consider the current job market, your location, position, education, experience and more. For freelance or creative jobs, it’s always a great idea to network for advice from your colleagues, friends, and mentors; what’s their experience with assessing the value of their services, and how much have they been willing to pay a contractor for your type of work?

Are you being lowballed, boo?

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After you figure out what’s considered a lot, a little, or simply average compensation for your career dynamic, it’s also helpful to know what your peers are earning. This knowledge is especially useful in work environments where other people are doing the same job as you.

“Knowing where you stand in terms of compensation compared to your coworkers can help you understand your value to the company,” says Julia Malacoff of Glassdoor, who further notes that this information will also help you gauge whether it’s time to ask for a raise—or simply look for a new job altogether.

There are a few ways to find out if the pay you’re receiving—or the pay you’re being offered—is comparable to that of your equals. One method is to check useful websites like Glassdoor, which provide anonymous, user-submitted data on how a company pays for specific roles. Mid-size and large organizations often have plenty of quantitative insights on benefits and salaries from both current and former employees. And sometimes, even googling your company, the name of your position, and the word “salary” works just fine, like so: Company xx Position salary.

LinkedIn is another valuable platform for discreetly discovering how much your company is paying other employees. If you notice your employer is hiring another person to fill a role similar to yours, check to see if the posting mentions anything about compensation—and if it does, make note of how similar or different that number is compared to the one you were offered at your time of hire.

Also, make note that brown women are targets of unfair compensation in the workplace. After all, the U.S. Census Bureau reported in 2018 that black women only make 62 percent of every dollar a white man earns; Latinx women earn even less than that, at a low 54 percent. Organizations like the AAUW note that employer practices—such as relying on old salary history in setting current pay and prohibiting employees from discussing wages with one another—heighten the problem of discriminatory pay practices.

But keep in mind that it’s illegal for employers to require you to stay silent about your salary. Under the National Labor Relations Act, your right to discuss your salary information is fully protected, and while this does not mean your coworkers are obligated to reveal their information to you, it won’t harm you to try. Malacoff says that while experts caution against telling your coworkers too much about your compensation, speaking in generalities can help get an idea of where you stand. So feel free to give ranges rather than specific numbers—and remember that it’s also common courtesy to share your range before prying into someone else’s.

Freelancers beware: it’s okay to be selective

High standards shouldn’t be exclusive to full-time professionals; freelancers and creatives should hold their clients and collaborators to a high principle, too. As the system we live in today is a ‘gig economy,’ an increasing number of people are learning away from traditional, full-time jobs in favor of freelance and ‘small job’ gigs. But as society is growing more and more reliant on income from fleeting opportunities, so are our wallets; and for many, there is a little-to-no appeal in opportunities that are underpaid or (gasp) unpaid.

This is not to say you shouldn’t accept any unpaid or under-compensated gig—do you, girl! But it’s important to think about whether the benefits of an unpaid gig outweigh the negatives. Here are some important questions to ask yourself before signing that contract:

Will the project’s outcome eventually lead to career growth you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise? How much time will you be investing in the project, and does said career growth compensate for that loss of valuable time—time you could have theoretically spent on a paid or fairly paid gig? If you’re passionate enough about the project’s mission and goal, does compensation matter at all?

Answering these questions truthfully is a form of both self-respect and knowing your worth. And though only you know what the right decision is, the way you communicate that decision is imperative in maintaining professionalism. For turning down an offer for unpaid work, simply say that you accept paid assignments only. Writing for LinkedIn, author Estelle Tracy notes that keeping your cool and being kind, “no matter how upset or disappointed you may be,” is essential. But at the end of your message, it’s okay to leave the door open for future opportunities (check out her respectful thanks-but-no-thanks example template here).

Moreover, feel free to toot your own horn while saying no: quickly remind them that your experience and skill is adequate for competitive pay and that if they ever have a paid opportunity open, you’d be interested. In the case that a client is willing to pay you but isn’t putting enough on the table, view the conversation as another great opportunity to remind them of your experience, skill, or education—and if they’re still not budging after you propose your preferred compensation, then politely turn them down.

Get that salary (and benefits)

For ladies who identify more with traditional work that the gig economy, knowing when to say no is still an essential skill to have in your working-woman toolkit. For instance, if you’ve been offered a job and the organization is offering compensation that’s well below the standards you’ve established for yourself, then take your talents elsewhere—there is likely no room for worthwhile negotiation.

But if a company proposes a salary that almost matches your expectations, tell them what you want. Most importantly, ask for more than what you’d settle for, reports The Muse; this technique is often preached by career coaches and HR professionals, as it permits an actual conversation about negotiation. For instance, if you demand a starting salary of $60,000 knowing your market value is only $55,000, many companies are more likely to offer a number closer to that ‘top tier’ number than the more modest figure. Yet, if you tell your company you would like a starting salary of $55,000, that automatically sets a lower bar for negotiation—so aim high. Unless a company is working with a strict budget (nonprofits often have this type of inflexibility) it’s unlikely that they’ll turn you down for high expectations alone.

The Columbia Business School also recommends that candidates steer clear of giving salary ranges or a rounded number. Instead, offer a very specific quote, like $43,680, instead of $43,000; same goes for hourly rates (say $21.57 an hour instead of $21). The science behind it? “Precise numerical expressions imply a greater level of knowledge than round expressions and are therefore assumed by recipients to be more informative of the true value of the good being negotiated,” reported the Columbia researchers—so basically, you should fake it ‘til you make it.

And don’t forget: if a company isn’t meeting your exact desired salary, but their offer is pretty dang close, that’s a good reason to consider the other benefits that come along with working there. Before giving them a polite wave goodbye, ask yourself the following questions that affect your long-term prosperity:

What does their 401k program look like, and will they generously match my contributions? What kind of insurance do they offer, and at what cost to me? What’s the company culture like, and what are the unique perks of working for this organization? Are bonuses available? And is there room for raises and career advancement?

Depending on the person and their priorities, positive answers to these questions may compensate for smaller paychecks—others may value cash up-front over wellness benefits and company extras.

In the end, your career is in your hands, sis—and Melanation is here to support the decisions that are smartest for you.Black Opal Beauty

Sydney N. Sweeney is a writer based in Los Angeles. She works in the arts by day and dedicates most of her evenings to personal reflections on love and identity. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and creative editing/publishing, and her criticism focuses on culture, art, feminism and blackness. When she’s not poeticizing heartbreak or getting lost in story research, she’s likely thrifting, listening to Mariah Carey, or dreaming of sushi. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @syderature.

Featured photo: @refinery29

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