Asking For More Money
everything I know about salary negotiation


The president was frowning. "Your people are running up and down the hall at all hours. And they're wearing shorts!" he said.

"We're only paying them $900 a month," I told him. "If we raise them to $1200, I could ask them to buy new clothes."

This exchange illustrates my favorite tactics for asking for a raise:

(1) Have a reasonable number firmly in mind.

(2) Practice talking about money so you can bring up your number whenever it makes sense.

(3) Match the language and tone of the person you're negotiating with.

Read (or skim) on for more about these tactics, including examples of how I have used them.

Bringing It Up

The exchange I just quoted took place in 1980. My then boss had distinguished himself as a manager at IBM, and then moved on to provide needed stability at a chaotic start-up. Like other ex-IBMers I've known, he didn't miss IBM's bureaucracy, but he did miss its decorum and its dress code. My co-manager and I had just hired three people to script interactive video programs with graphical, textual, audible, and tactile interaction. Our two best hires were fresh graduates of UCSD's visual studies program, enjoying combining computing with their visual and textual skills, creative, totally dedicated...which caused them to work long hours, not to mention run up and down the hall with exuberance and enthusiasm. Within a few more months, as a result of their excellent work plus my "bringing up" the issue of their compensation, we had raised them to $1500 a month.

Asking for more money, for myself or others, is one of my favorite things. When my friends ask me how I do it (in an employment context), I tell them what you're about to read. (If you're in the process of hiring me, you are still welcome to keep reading. Like the techniques of Nonviolent Communication or Getting To Yes - see also the Harvard Negotiation Project - my favorite tactics are useful, possibly even more useful, when the other party is aware you are using them.)

Money and Emotion

One quick note on process. Before I could apply the following steps, I had to grapple with my own strong emotions about money, doing a sort of self-therapy (alone and in groups). Talking to friends about money has revealed people at all wealth levels for whom money was a stressful issue for their families while they were growing up, who dislike aspects of the class structure in the United States and dislike even more the fact that we "can't talk about it," or who worry that our current economic systems are dysfunctional and destructive and that by participating, we are collaborators. With people who have lived on the street (I hate the term homeless) for part of their life, I have even more interesting discussions about money.

My friends and I have found that unexamined emotions about money will come up, usually in a paralyzing way, the minute any of us starts asking for some. Some self-examination should ideally occur before we ask for that raise.

I don't have a lot of advice about how to take on this important emotional work. Personally I'm grateful for the feminist fundraising training at WAVPM. I've found it helpful to hear Hazel Henderson explain that money is just a tracking system. (See also these links.) And a good discussion of emotions around money can be found in the book Your Money or Your Life.

Asking For More Money: The Simple Steps

Have a reasonable number firmly in mind.

If possible, your number should be based in reality, but even if it isn't, a number is crucial. People who negotiate a lot sometimes use ranges and formulas, but as an employee it's OK to start with a simple bottom line number. If you've got that, also pick a number it would be "great to get."

A good bottom line number is "the market rate for people doing the same job, in the same geographical area, with approximately the same background and skills as me." You shouldn't ever take less than the market rate. How you find this number depends on the jobs you have and are looking for. Personally, I belong to several organizations that survey their members each year to provide exactly this information. I also swap salary numbers with friends at other companies. I would not try to steal corporate data (I try to think like an owner, so even aside from the morality of it, what's the point of stealing from myself?) but one sad day (for corporate security) I found a complete list of managers' salaries in my company's copy room recycling bin. Professions with unions or public service salary grades are even more open about compensation. Over several years of working on it, one can almost always figure out the score.

Once you've gotten a feel for the market rate, you can swap information with a recruiter you trust. It's a recruiter's job to know the market and s/he will always be interested in hearing what you've gathered from your friends (or the recycling bin) and may tell you in exchange what s/he knows. Naturally a recruiter who is talking to you about a specific job is working for your future employer, so for a market rate discussion, go to another one.

For many jobs, negotiations also involve work rules, hours, benefits, perks, ownership or stock options, and so on, but the process of determining fair market practices is the same. Asking friends (whom you trust) who have comparable jobs is still the best way. Participating in regular surveys by your professional society or union is the next best way. (If your profession doesn't have a networking group, you can start one.) Those of you in very senior positions know that you can find your own market rates in the information filed for shareholders of companies that are publicly traded (or about to become publicly traded) and I recommend that you skip right to the examples because you must know all this other stuff...

Practice talking about money...

Now that you know your number(s), practice saying them out loud, until you can share them without grovelling or laughing. Practice saying them in sentences. With the same matter of fact tone you'd use to say, "May I please have a turkey sandwich with cranberry relish and extra sprouts," say, "The next time I change jobs, I'd like to make at least [your great-to-get number]. Or, if your back is against the wall, "Because I have experience with [whatever], I'm looking at jobs that pay at least [your bottom line number]."

Since many people still aren't comfortable giving their number(s), employers will take advantage of their awkwardness to pay them less. (And end up with an employee whose performance may be compromised by suppressed anger, but I digress.) That leaves more funds available for them to pay you at least the market rate.

Beyond the number, you will want to make your negotiation a win-win exchange in which both of you disclose your interests. Once I've named the top of my range, and my prospective employer has said it's too high, I circle around and discuss issues other than financial. What are the company's problems? What is my future employer really worrying about? Can I demonstrate how I've solved those same types of problems in the past? "Our company needs someone who will be productive right away and stay at least three years." "I'll work hard for long hours in exchange for interesting work and the chance to extend my skills." Sometimes when we come back to the money after a free and frank exchange of views, my number doesn't seem as high as it once did. But beforehand I always practice saying the number smoothly and matter-of-factly. you can bring up your number whenever it makes sense.

The "free" market (that will let you get a raise) operates most freely when you are changing jobs. My advice is to make each job change count financially. (I don't always follow my own advice, as the examples show.) Once you're inside an organization, organizational dynamics limit your raises. What the organization won't tell you is that you can ask for more money, even inside a company with a strict review schedule, when you take on a major new responsibility, or make or save the company a ton of money in some unexpected way.

And all the opportunities to ask for more money (off schedule) are informal. You'll be in the hall, as in the example above, or the cafeteria, or the washroom. You can always follow up with a formal request to discuss the matter, but the first time you mention it, it should be a calm remark that flows directly and logically from the prior conversation, as in the example above. "Basically they're wearing shorts because that's what they wore in college, and they can't afford new clothes on their probationary salary..." More usually you will get an offhand remark like, "Your [new something] is saving us a ton of money," to which you reply, "We're thrilled that it worked out so well. Speaking of which, may I make an appointment to discuss how my team's contribution to the company's bottom line could be better reflected in our compensation."

Because the channel is informal there's no penalty for asking. (Unless I do it so often I become annoying, but since I actually wait for the conversation to tend toward something related to money that provides an opening, I don't get that many opportunities - maybe one a year.) All they can say is No.

I remember one day when a product manager had made our team a beautiful t-shirt. The day the shirts came back from the printer happened to be the day another development manager sent an email praising our work. I saw him and said, "A shirt and an email on the same day, thank you so much!" and he said, "If I'd known the shirts were coming today I would have held off; now in my opinion you've been over-praised." It was a joke but also a signal to me not to get cocky. (The company wasn't yet profitable.) A lot of great information passes in the form of hallway humor; I may as well toss the occasional request for a raise in the same way.

On the subject of timing: using an outside job offer to get a raise doesn't work for me, either as an employee or an employer. It takes a lot of effort to solicit and negotiate an actual offer from a new company. If I've made that effort my mind has already gone, locked onto the challenge or problem offered by the new employer, and only an insanely great counter challenge at my current company could keep me. (And if there was the hope of that I might not be leaving.) So when I am a manager I don't come up with counter offers of money alone; I try to find out what's so exciting about my team member's new job and tackle things from that end.

Match the language and tone of the person you're negotiating with.

It's courteous to let the people with the money set the tone. If they're formal and courteous, you be the same. If they get brutal, you get brutal to an equivalent degree. This is the easiest of the three tactics, and it's not absolutely necessary, just helpful. Most self-respecting employers require a bit of back-and-forth before they decide what they'll be able to pay you, and if you match their tone, they'll feel better about you, and you will have added some elegance to the negotiation.


Of the two examples I've selected, one was elegant and one was brutal. They reflect the first two successful job negotiations I conducted after moving to New England, and I'll share them in chronological order. All of these quotations are exactly verbatim - the words burned into my brain at the time - and I appreciate the chance to write them down so I don't tell the stories so many times that I forget how terrified I was when I played the following games...

Example 1: Bare Knuckled Boxing

This one was tricky because I had no job: I'd just moved to New England to get married. After selling my car in California and paying all my bills my net worth was $500 plus the books and costumes. My contacts in Boston consisted of my husband (who was paying the rent) and one very dear college friend, neither of whom was in my field.

My bottom line number was $35,000. I figured that the SF Bay Area and Route 128 had vaguely similar costs of living, although I hadn't had a chance to do any real research on this, and so I was willing to go lateral for that amount, just to get a job. I answered a want ad and ended up meeting (except it was more like grappling) with the founder/part owner/president of a ten year old company that was still run like a startup. They'd only recently gotten health benefits; before that apparently every time someone had come into his office to ask for them, he'd offered them a chewable Vitamin C tablet from a big bottle on his sideboard. (That was the story I heard anyway.)

The good news was that the president's customers had told him that he had problems in a specific area that happened to be my specialty. Our discussion was very high energy. By the time we had the following discussion about money, he and I were both pacing - him behind his desk and me in front of it. And he was yelling.

"35,000? That's insane! I had a perfectly good candidate in here yesterday, and he was only asking $24,000!"

"So hire him!"

"But I like you better!"

"Well, you get what you pay for!"

And so on. He checked with my ex-IBM boss that same afternoon and before I left he'd offered me 35 with the soft promise (if I solved the problems and the company struck it rich) of up to 10 grand more the following year. I asked for a few days to think about it, and my final negotiation phone call was from a phone booth in Quincy Market on Christmas Eve. (I'd taken a break from shopping to politely turn the offer down.) He asked why and I gave him five reasons. ("The job is structured wrong, I'd need a decent budget, the company needs to introduce desktop publishing," were three I remember.) This convinced him I was the right person and I remember feeding quarters into the phone as we continued to argue for about half an hour. He was one of the best arguers I've ever known.

I never did get a budget, but I did the other things, solved the problem, had a blast at the company and made good friends. We didn't get rich, and I read the signs and left after a year, two weeks before a round of layoffs that would have taken my latest hire, who got my job instead ('whew').

Example 2. Squash, or Badminton - Anyway, Some Game With A Small Racquet

My next potential employer was a much more organized company than I'd ever worked for. It was a market leader, extremely profitable, and the department was up and running, with very high standards: it just needed an additional person. I was recruited by a headhunter and interviewed by the hiring manager, several future colleagues, and a very formal HR department.

My number, for no rational reason, was $40,000. I hadn't had a raise in two years and felt that although my current employer couldn't pay me for solving the problem at my previous job (at least half the promised bounty), well, I wanted that raise from somebody. (Totally non rational. I'm trying to be more rational nowadays.)

I met with the HR director in a beautiful office with a panoramic view of the Boston skyline. (I didn't say, but my previous boss' office had faced the railroad tracks.) Her coiffed hair and tailored suit were to die for. We knocked numbers back and forth very formally and elegantly. You must imagine both of us sitting down, and smiling, and the conversation having the rhythm of a crisp racquet game.

"Do you have a range of salary you are looking for?"

"I'm thinking, between thirty-eight and forty-four."

"Hmmm. That's somewhat higher than we were expecting to pay."

"Well, it reflects the fact that I have management experience..."


And that was that; honor seemed to be satisfied. The hiring manager consulted with the headhunter, who knew my bottom line number. "I love the job," I said to the headhunter. "I could learn a lot from these people and my current company is in trouble. I'll definitely take it if they offer me 40. I'm sorry to be so stubborn about it, but that's just the number I've chosen." So when the manager called with a firm offer of 40 I accepted right there on the phone.

I hope these rather silly stories have demonstrated the use of having a number, being able to express it, and matching the tone of the person who has the money to offer. To sum up: once you've determined the market rate, you can be part of setting the new market rate, with your next negotiation. I wish you all success!



copyright 1999 by Julianne Chatelain
last updated 11 June 2001


What do you do, when you're asking for more money? I'd love to hear about it. My comments reflect my career as an openly feminist woman working in U.S. companies; YMMV.

My next essay could be "One Technique To Hire People For A Job That Has Never Been Done Before." I still think that Claire Marsh and I did a very good job finding innovative people, and I'd like to record our experiments and their results. Speaking of which, at least one of the people who once ran up and down the hall is now net.famous. Anyone else who remembers Primarius: get in touch! I would be honored to link to you in some way.

My father, also an ex-IBMer, missed the flip charts much more than the decorum, and is still using them to great effect.

I am obliged to Christoph Berendes and Elin Whitney-Smith for reminding me that, "Content is just a crutch for those who can't handle process."