Though salary negotiations can frequently be uncomfortable, they are one of the single most important aspects of the professional experience. Asking for more money or better benefits can sometimes feel like rocking the boat, but it’s far better to push through temporary discomfort than it is to go to work every day feeling resentful and undervalued.
This is especially true for women and people of color in the workplace — two groups that have historically and continue to struggle for pay equity in a world where women earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to a report by the Senate Joint Economic Committee Democratic Staff. Black and Hispanic women earn 60 percent and 55 percent, respectively, of what white men do. Recently, Oscar-winning actress and “Queen of Comedy” Mo’Nique blasted Netflix and called for a boycott of the company after it offered her $ 500,000 to create an original comedy special — a paltry fraction of the $ 13 million the company paid Amy Schumer for her special, and a pittance compared to the $ 20 million-per-special deals it gave to Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle.
Regardless of your views on Mo’Nique’s approach, her protest is a valuable lesson on how important it is to advocate for what you’re really worth. It also inspired me to seek negotiating advice from Sonia Alleyne, communications expert, workplace strategist and author of Good Is Not Enough: And Other Unwritten Rules for Minority Professionals. Alleyne had plenty of tips to share. Here’s what she told me:
1. Consider the first offer a starting point.
When presented with a new opportunity, many professionals are eager to take the first offer — especially when it’s more than they were previously making. But, the question to ask yourself is, What is the most the company is willing to pay for this role or these services? Alleyne suggests using the first offer as the starting point for negotiations. But, to know what to ask for, you have to first do your research and know what’s being offered in the marketplace as well as the payment history of the organization. Don’t rely on salary sites alone.
Alleyne points to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg as a perfect example. She was ready to sign on the first offer for her position until her late husband Dave Goldberg and brother-in-law famously convinced her to push Mark Zuckerberg for a better financial package, which included enough shares to catapult her to billionaire status, Sandberg told 60 Minutes. In her husband’s words, “I wanted Mark to really feel he stretched to get Sheryl because she was worth it.”
2. Talk openly about salary.
Even if you don’t have an agent working on your behalf, Alleyne says it’s an absolute must to find out what others in your industry are being paid. You can’t determine a “great” offer if you don’t have context. I learned this lesson the hard way early in my career when I eagerly accepted a $ 65,000 salary (a $ 20,000 raise from what I had been making), only to find out later that others in the position were making nearly $ 100,000.
Though it’s taboo to talk about money, Alleyne believes that you can help spark conversations by setting your own example. For instance, after Mo’Nique told the world about her experience with Netflix, it empowered comedy legend Wanda Sykes to tweet a message of support, and she also noted the streaming service offered her even less.
On a recent Sundance TV panel, Oscar-winning actress Octavia Spencer got emotional explaining how friend and colleague Jessica Chastain helped her negotiate five times her salary for their next film. Chastain was surprised and disturbed to learn what Spencer and other black actresses were making and not only pledged support, she helped Spencer significantly increase her salary. This wouldn’t have happened if they hadn’t had the conversation.
3. Look for opportunities when you’re already working.
Desperation puts any negotiator at a sore disadvantage. If you feel you really need the job, you may be less inclined to push the envelope for fear of losing the opportunity. Negotiating is a muscle that needs developing. As a way of strengthening your negotiating skills, Alleyne recommends periodically interviewing even if you’re satisfied with your current position. You can really stretch and negotiate from a more powerful position when the consequences of walking away are at a minimum. This exercise helps to keep you abreast of trends, industry expectations and pay, as well as how your skills are valued in the marketplace.
4. Be clear where to draw the line, and don’t take “no” as an indefinite answer.
A great negotiation process is one where both sides feel that they are benefiting from the prospective business relationship. It won’t always end up that way. As Alleyne puts it, in some industries, like entertainment, the hiring and valuation process can be very subjective.
In order to avoid feeling diminished, Alleyne recommends entering the negotiations with a firm idea of what you’re willing to live with. If your counterpart’s final offer doesn’t meet your standards, you can always walk away, as Mo’Nique and Wanda Sykes did.
If you do end up accepting a deal you’re not thrilled with, remember that you can offer to revisit the terms of the contract at a later date to keep the door open for further discussion.