How to Negotiate Your Salary and Beyond

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Mongkok Ladies’ Market / September 2015

My earliest memory of bargaining was when I was 13 years old. I was with my mom at the Mongkok Ladies’ Market in Hong Kong, sweating and sticky under the hot mid-afternoon sun in July. I wanted to buy a couple of souvenirs for my school friends and my mom was determined to get the best deal from an older female shop owner. My mom was firm in the lowered price she wanted to pay, but the owner was reluctant. My mom and I then tactfully walked away, but not too far because the owner later shouted for us to come back and accepted my mom’s price. My mom smiled and we returned to the shop to pay for the souvenirs. We did this several more times at the market. By the end of day, our red plastic bags were full of items my mom happily bargained for.

Bargaining is a cultural norm and a skill kids growing up under a traditional Chinese household learn and try to excel at as much as academics. The ability to convince a complete stranger for the price you want is a concept I learned early in my childhood and one that carried on into my adulthood. I eventually became very good at bargaining in local street markets whenever I was traveling overseas. It felt really good to purchase something for much less than the original price and having the final say was highly rewarding. Jessica Huang from ABC’s Fresh off the Boat series would have been incredibly proud.

Bargaining is daring and thrilling, but negotiating is scary. Perhaps the fact that the word itself starts with the latin neg– meaning no connotes negativity already. Yet, bargaining and negotiating mean pretty much the same thing since both involve discussion and agreement on something. The difference is that bargaining is often associated with price and negotiation applies to more broader terms and guarantees, sometimes not involving price in the first place. 

While I knew how to bargain, I was terrified of negotiation. So much so that in all the miscellaneous jobs I held for the past ten years, I have never once negotiated my salary. I accepted the pay offer as it was and I did the same when there were annual pay increases after yearly performance reviews. I never questioned my previous employers’ decisions because I was always thinking they were getting what they were paying for. This does not mean I was satisfied with the outcome (if anything, it was far from it), but my desire to not disrupt my relationship with my employers or change the status quo outweighed my own happiness, every single time.

And I was not alone in this. I know of a senior technical recruiter who did not ask for a raise after three years with the company, despite a few years of industry experience before this role. I know of a high-level HR manager who did not ask for a raise in five years even after having accumulated job responsibilities over time. I know of a sales marketing engineer who agreed to the same salary at a new employment opportunity even with a couple years of experience, a college degree, and certification in the field. They, including myself, are serial bargain hunters when it comes to shopping, but none of them had the courage to bring up to their supervisor about a raise or salary adjustment in their professional lives.

All of them are successful and smart Asian-American women in their respective fields. Perhaps being raised under a traditional Asian household we all learned to regard money with uncertainty and insecurity. While bargaining was a strategy to get the cheapest deal as possible, it was done so we could save money and maintain a stable nest egg. I myself learned all the aspects of coupon clipping, finding cheap deals, and bargaining whenever possible, so I could remain financially secure. For a long time, I thought money was meant to be preserved and sustained, so I was always so focused on never losing less. I never thought to make more. 

Last year, I had a defining moment to make a change. In my fourth annual performance review with my previous employer, I was given a small pay bump of a $1 increase to my current hourly pay. In the previous three years, I was given either $1.5 or up to $3 increase to my hourly pay every year, so hearing this was a major blow to my ego and self-esteem as a hard-working professional. I was also carrying more responsibilities and workload, but not getting paid substantially for it. It was then I realized they were not getting what they were paying for anymore and, instead, they were getting what they wanted for at a bargained price. I was the older female shop owner at the Ladies’ Market from 18 years ago. 

At the time, I did not challenge the pay increase and just accepted it for the time being because I knew from then on I was going to work harder to get the pay I wanted at another firm. I was thinking about leaving anyway and find a company that better fit with my career goals and project types. I set out a mission to update my portfolio and resume, as well as take freelance work on top of my full-time work to gain outside experience. I was also planning my own wedding too, but my willpower to earn more money and showing my professional skills and potential was equally important, if not more. There was never going to be a better time than at that moment to do so. 

I did a schedule send email on a Monday morning of my application to only one firm, hoped for the best, and did not think to hear back from them for months. I heard back from the HR manager within 2 hours in an email, stating they wanted to schedule an interview with me in the same week. Emotions of surprise, panic, and relief came all at once after reading the email, but it was mostly a sense of reward that I felt. Hard work really does pay off. 

I did well in the interview and was offered a job the day after. The compensation offered was what I put down in my application, which was a bad mistake I later found out. I learned from my recruiter friend to never write down the compensation amount and write either ‘N/A’ or ‘Negotiable’ instead, so there will be some flexibility to actually negotiate the salary once there is a job offer. My initial reasoning to put down a slight salary increase was that so they would be more willing to hire me, but she told me my logic was wrong and leaves no room for negotiation down the road. She explained not indicating a specific salary amount works better in the candidate’s favor and reassured this will not deter a company from hiring someone. Many applicants do this anyway and I should have done the same.

I did not want all my hard work to go to waste for a slight increase in pay. Since this was the only opportunity to negotiate my compensation, I asked for the pay I actually wanted, which was about a 20% increase from my current salary. I briefly explained after reviewing the job description and pairing this with my skills and experience that I believe this new compensation would be fair. I reread my email about 100 times before I sent it. Deep down inside, I was absolutely nervous and afraid of what they would say. Many questions consumed my thoughts. What if they retract the job offer entirely? What do I do if they came back with a counter offer? What if they never get back to me?

None of my concerns actually happened. After a few days, they accepted my new compensation and sent over the revised job offer. It worked! I was mind-blown because it was my first negotiation ever and it was successful beyond my expectation. Of course I have to prove myself at my new job, but this was something I can do, since I have been building skills, experience, and knowledge in the industry for a long time. I was beyond excited to finally get the compensation I wanted with a job position I have been longing for.

Today, I no longer see negotiation as terrifying. I view it as a normal business transaction and actually quite empowering. Even if there was a counter offer or they stuck with my original compensation, I could have also negotiated for things other than salary, such as more paid time-off or mandatory yearly increase in pay. It is not the end of the world if the initial negotiation does not work, just try to negotiate other terms since it is your only opportunity to do so before signing the offer contract. The employer rarely retracts a job offer just because of your willingness to negotiate. 

Now that I feel like a superwoman who can do anything, I am also shifting my focus to find ways to earn more money rather than focusing on trying not to lose less. It is interesting how I, along with my Asian girl friends, grew up to think about money as something that needed to be saved, bargained for, and protected. Our male counterparts often grow up learning otherwise and see money as power, investing, and strength. I find this dichotomy unfair but I understand this is something that is inherited culturally, socially, and historically. While I cannot go back in time to change my past, I have the ability to control my future. This year, I am slowly starting to invest and build my net worth because nothing is sexier than compound interest from savings and having varied investments for a bargain hunter like me.

Ladies, negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. Breathe it, chant it, and repeat it. Negotiation is not as scary as you think it is and once you do it, you will be amazed at the new wave of opportunities that come with it and wonder why you did not do this earlier. If your professional experience and potential matches with the salary you would like to negotiate for, then go for it. It does not hurt to ask for more. I know of another Asian girl friend who was able to successfully negotiate a salary compensation of $50,000 more and they accepted her offer! Do not settle for less, settle for more. 

This post is in honor of Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day. Thank you to all the women for their achievements, contributions, and influence. Let’s continue to move forward and bring positive change. We can do it.