Tips That May Surprise You about Salary Negotiation

The following is based on an audio file of a presentation on salary negotiations given to outgoing library school graduates on November 19, 2003, by Dr. Leigh Estabrook, director of the University of Illinois’ Library Research Center and former dean of its Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The audio file is available through the school’s Web site at Dr. Estabrook was not interviewed separately for this article.

Perhaps you think of good negotiators as brash and demanding. After all, who has not heard of those who “drive a hard bargain” and win respect, if not cash and other goodies?

Yet Leigh Estabrook, who has counseled hundreds of library school graduates in her eighteen years as professor at and former dean of the University of Illinois’ library school in Champaign, urges students to be a little “mushy” in their negotiations with employers. Her point is not that new graduates should cool their demands. But, she says, they should give their employers a lot of flexibility to satisfy them.

“Leave things open enough, fluid enough” so that an employer can meet a potential employee’s needs, she tells a group of outgoing students at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science in a talk recorded November 19, 2003, and available through the School’s Web site. “Rarely is the salary offer you receive initially the amount of money they could or would be able to pay you,” she says. The person who makes the salary offer may not be authorized to offer more, Estabrook says, and may need time to convince superiors to release additional funds. “If you put them on the spot,” however, then the initial offer may indeed be the best he or she can do, Estabrook says.

Also, she says, some employers are so inexperienced at negotiating that they will not realize that they can meet a candidate’s demands unless a job seeker prompts them. This alone, Estabrook says, is reason to approach talks slowly and to keep open as many options as possible. She recommends that job seekers use words and phrases such as “looking for” “hoping for” and “seeking.” She also suggests that they express their desired salaries as ranges. “Let them [employers] feel like they have met your demands,” she says.

For those who do want to become more effective negotiators, Estabrook recommends the following:

  • Never discuss salary until you have a job offer in hand. Doing so prematurely gives employers a reason to weed you out, especially if a lot of people have applied for the job. Estabrook says she knows of instances in which the final candidate landed the job at a (negotiated) salary equal to that rejected for initial applicants.

  • Consider salary only as part of a total compensation package. Don’t consider (or discuss) salary until you have considered other benefits such as group health insurance or employer contributions to retirement plans. If pressed for a salary expectation early, Estabrook says, be honest about your inability to answer until you have a better feel for the organization.

  • Don’t expect to receive a salary based on what you need. Employers pay what they have to, Estabrook says, adding that she is keenly aware of the difficulty of living in a major city on a librarian’s salary. Also, she says, don’t acquiesce when an employer protests that meeting your salary demands will put you ahead of those already working for the organization. That, says Estabrook, is an issue between the employer and its current employees. “It doesn’t help Mrs. Jones if you make less,” Estabrook tells students in her 2003 presentation.

  • Be clear that you are hesitating about money, not your desire to work for the organization. “Be as gracious as possible” when entertaining a salary offer, Estabrook says. Thank them for the offer and reiterate why you want to work there, she says. Then, she says, open salary negotiations by saying something like “but we need to talk about a few issues” or “I have some concerns about salary,” followed by a comment such as “I was looking for” or “I was seeking” a certain salary range. Estabrook says that when job seekers express salaries in ranges and use soft words, such as “looking for” or “seeking,” both parties save face and negotiations are less “fierce.”

  • Never accept a job offer immediately. Wait at least 12 to 24 hours, preferably a day or two. Estabrook suggests asking for time to think about the offer (“When should I get back to you?”). She adds that employers have a right to an answer after a few days, and certainly after a week. At that point, she says, if you are still waiting to hear from another employer, be honest about it. The employer may ultimately come back to you, especially if none of their other candidates works out.

  • Remember that one-time money is cheaper for employers than annual compensation. Estabrook tells students that employers usually find it easier to fund one-time expenditures (e.g., moving expenses or professional development) because they don’t have to budget for them every year. Thus, an employer who can’t improve salary may be able to pay for travel to professional conferences, for example. Conversely, she said, employees should realize that the benefits of a higher salary, especially a higher starting salary, usually compound with time. Estabrook urges students to nail down salary first, and then talk about one-time extras.

  • Ask for an early performance review if a satisfactory salary cannot be negotiated. Estabrook says one library student was hired with the promise of a performance review after 15 months. Instead, she got her performance review after only three months.

  • If you are negotiating with a government agency or public university, look for published salary data. Estabrook reminds her students that tax-supported bodies frequently are required to publish salary data. Find it and use it, she says.

  • If geographically bound, consider these options.

In a big city, use your library skills in a variety of settings, Estabrook says. Consulting opportunities may abound.

In a small town, salaries may be hard to budge. Consider negotiating to work fewer hours for the same salary, Estabrook says. And offer to work to secure grant funding to shore up the library’s budget. The goal is to argue for, and get, an equitable wage, Estabrook says.

Christine Martin is a 1997 GSLIS graduate and aspiring freelance writer. Leigh Estabrook, professor of both library science and sociology, heads the University of Illinois’ Library Research Center in Champaign.