Negotiating is Tough

I’ve never been very good at negotiating my salary.

The first time I tried was a little over three years ago, when I got my first job out of college. It was a job at a financial firm that raised private equity funds. They offered me $65,000, with a $5000 relocation bonus for moving to Connecticut. This was all very exciting to me because it seemed like a boat load of money. But I talked to one of my friends about negotiating for more. After he gave me some advice on the approach and strategy, I felt ready.

I called my future supervisor. I asked him if it would be possible to raise the salary to $70,000, which I said was the average salary for similar positions, based on my research. He replied that he agreed with that assessment, which was why the company provided a $5000 relocation fee. At that point, I didn’t know how to continue negotiating without sounding argumentative or ungrateful, so I quickly thanked him and accepted the offer.

When I reported this back to my friend, he chuckled and said, “Well, that wasn’t much of a negotiation.” But I brushed the critique aside; the truth was, I didn’t know if I was valuable enough to ask for more. It was the highest salary that I had been offered, so who was I to complain?

In the next few months, I found that neither the grunt work I was doing at the time nor the more sophisticated projects that I would manage in my future financial career excited me. During this time, I kept my eyes open for new opportunities, networked with people, and applied to some jobs, to no avail.

The lack of better alternatives reinforced my inkling that I might not have the credentials and skills to qualify for jobs with more meaningful and impactful roles. So not long after I received my annual bonus, I quit and went on to look for other opportunities.

A year later, I was working at a fast casual restaurant chain that sold food and drinks featuring local and seasonal ingredients. I held a communications position in which I was basically in charge of front-of-house customer service. A few months into the job, the CEO met with me and offered me a part-time role to develop the retail program in the restaurants. It was only a side project, but if I could generate enough sales from retail, then the project would turn into a full-time role. So I took on the challenge.

As the retail program grew, I had friends and colleagues who would tell me that I should be paid more for taking on this initiative. I would politely demur and assure them that I would get a raise when retail became more successful. I confided in one of my friends that the CEO had expressed dissatisfaction with my project’s slow pace of growth (he believed that the progress I had made in several months he could have made in two weeks), so I did not think I deserved a raise until I could do better.

My friend disagreed and insisted that I could get a raise in the future for good performance but that there should still be an immediate recognition of my increased value to the company due to my new responsibilities.

I felt that I had a stronger case here than I had at the financial firm. So I asked the CEO for a raise. My awkwardly-phrased question was met with an excruciating two-second pause, at which point I quickly justified the request by saying that my retail role entailed more responsibilities than my front-of-house duties. The CEO acknowledged my reasoning and said that I would get a raise when sales go up.

I pushed further and pointed out that I would be more incentivized to increase sales if my pay was commensurate with my responsibilities (I am liberally paraphrasing). In response, the CEO reiterated that I would need to increase sales to receive a higher pay rate. He went on to say that I was given an exciting and unique opportunity to build a small business from scratch and to create the economics that would allow them to pay me well.

I then brought up my concern that I was not receiving enough operational support from restaurant managers because they won’t prioritize what they saw as my side project over the needs of people with established leadership positions. The CEO dismissed my theory and assured me that the managers would be more responsive if I did a better job communicating their responsibilities to them. I conceded and went back to work.

Time passed, and the sales goals were not met, even though the retail program was gaining traction. I often wondered if my inability to reach the sales numbers was a telltale of my work ethic or a reflection of the company’s investment in me. And if it’s a combination of both, does it matter which came first? While the CEO was under the notion that I could easily succeed if I had initiative and grit, I became increasingly convinced that there were certain resources and support that I needed from the company to empower me to hit the sales goals. It’s not all on me.

A few weeks ago, I came into contact with a nonprofit company in the public radio industry. They liked my resume and wanted to interview me for a full-time administrative position. It was a validating experience. Through all the interviews, I was given the sense that I was a good fit.

After a long conversation with the CEO, she offered me the job at the meeting and even initiated discussion on compensation. I asked for a higher salary, and, for the first time, my request was granted. During my interview, she expressed appreciation for my work experience and my interest in audio storytelling. She also informed me that I had received a very positive recommendation from the research center where I used to work.

I took the next few days to consider the offer. While I learned a lot during my time working at the fast casual chain, and even though I was getting close to reaching the sales goals, I realized that my career prospects in the company were not aligned with my interests. The new opportunity, on the other hand, would allow me to explore my interests in storytelling and nonprofit work. Moreover, I see their efforts to work with me on my compensation package as a sign that they want to foster my potential, rather than exploit it.

Since I began working three years ago, I have been constantly grappling with my doubts about my competitive edge in the workforce. Is my work valued by the company? Am I adding enough value to deserve a raise? How much leverage do I need to negotiate a higher compensation? But perhaps my focus should not be on questioning my personal worth or professional abilities; instead, I should assess the relationship between how much I can to give to a company versus how much a company invests in me. It takes two to tango.