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‘Don’t be afraid to ask’: Tips for young workers in salary negotiations

Young candidates or employees often unsure of how to ask for more money
While salary negotiations are a normal part of the hiring process, experts say it’s a stone often left unturned by young candidates unsure of how to ask for more money from an employer. A worker sits in an office in the financial district in London, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Alberto Pezzali

As MBA student Lisa Malachowski negotiated her salary for a job set to begin this summer, a thought familiar to many young workers crossed her mind: “Maybe they’ll withdraw the offer.”

Malachowski, a soon-to-be-graduate of Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business (JMSB), had been offered a full-time position at the same tech company where she’d completed an internship last summer.

The 36-year-old also had 10 years of professional management experience, but said she wasn’t sure how valued those skills would be in her new career path.

“One of the hardest things is the knee-jerk reaction of, ‘If I ask for too much, I look ridiculous,’” she said. “It’s not ever an easy conversation to have. But I think one of the things that made it easier … is that I did so much market research beforehand that I was really confident about the range I was asking for. I didn’t feel like I was asking for anything unreasonable.”

While salary negotiations are a normal part of the hiring process, experts say it’s a stone often left unturned by young candidates unsure of how to ask for more money from an employer. That same sense of intimidation is often also felt among young employees hesitant to ask for their first raise.

“The biggest mistake is not doing it,” said JMSB graduate career adviser Bob Menard.

Menard, who leads workshops on how to negotiate salary and advises students on an individual basis, said most indicate they have never negotiated a job offer.

He said a common sentiment he hears is that it doesn’t seem appropriate with a first job.

“It’s always appropriate,” Menard said. “I try to really stress with them if an employer is giving you an offer, it’s not just like you’re pulled out of a hat. They’ve gone through a process to select you, so they have as much in it to lose if you walk away, or if they can’t meet your counter-offer.”

Menard added most employers build in “some wiggle room” to an offer — often around seven to 10 per cent in extra value — that they are willing to add if requested by a strong candidate. He suggested keeping a maximum counter-offer within that range.

“If you don’t try to access it, well, you’ve left that on the table and long-term that could actually mean quite a bit of lost earnings for the person,” he said. “It’s OK to be nervous, but the employer has a lot invested in this, especially in today’s market.”

Research published by Robert Half, a human resources consulting firm, in its 2023 Salary Guide suggests Canadians are increasingly overcoming the awkwardness of asking for more money.

Its poll of more than 500 Canadians last August found 47 per cent of respondents were more likely to request a higher starting salary compared to a year earlier. Fifty-seven per cent felt they, rather than employers, were in the driver’s seat in negotiating pay, perks and benefits.

Presenting a well-researched range in salary expectation, rather than a single target, can make the negotiation process smoother, according to Georgia Harper, president of Vancouver-based recruitment firm The Headhunters.

“I always suggest to people that everybody has a bad day at work,” she said. “No matter how excited you are, make sure that you’re going to be comfortable with that compensation on a bad day. I think it’s also really important that number doesn’t change during the conversation.”

For those already employed, preparation is also key when knocking on a boss’s door to talk numbers, added Harper.

The Robert Half poll found 34 per cent of respondents planned to ask for a raise from their employer if they didn’t get one — or the amount was lower than expected — by the end of 2022.

More than two in five respondents ​​​​​​said they were taking on responsibilities outside their job description to better position themselves for a raise, while north of a quarter said they research salaries and share discrepancies with their manager.

Before having that conversation, Harper said she urges employees to research the market rate for their role and be ready to discuss how they’ve grown in their responsibilities to justify a higher salary.

“If you’re looking for a raise, and you know that the market is paying higher, sharing that information is really valuable,” said Harper, cautioning the research should not necessarily focus on individual postings.

“Let’s say your job is the administrator; one company’s administrator does a different thing than another company’s administrators. You don’t want to [say], ‘I saw a job for an administrator that paid way more.’ You’ve got to be a little bit careful that the work is aligned.”

Malachowski, whose counter-offer was accepted, said her advice for other young professionals itching for a higher salary than offered is “don’t be afraid to ask for it.”

“It’s about making that kind of human connection with a place that you actually want to work too,” she said.

“If they’re the type of company that would pull the offer just because they feel you don’t provide that amount of value, that’s probably not a place that you actually want to work for.”

—Sammy Hudes, The Canadian Press

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