Tips for Handling the Early Stages of Salary Negotiations

I continue to get questions from journalists who are trying to land jobs and who are having trouble with the early stages of salary negotiations.

Here is one question:

"I've never held a full-time journalism job (I currently work as temp for a large wire service and recently graduated.) I keep seeing job postings that say I should list my salary requirements. How do I know what is an appropriate amount to ask for? My temp position pays better than most starting journalism jobs, so I worry about listing my current pay and "pricing" myself out of a job."

And here is part of another:

"I'm a general assignment reporter for an extremely small daily newspaper and I need to move on to something more specific at a larger paper. I have been searching for jobs at specific newspapers in my home state and on the fringes, however the economy is what it is and after two years of casually looking nothing has come up. Now, I've expanded my search to the entire U.S., but I've noticed the large papers posting jobs are asking for salary histories. Why is it any of their business what I make now or made in the past? If I leave off that information does it hurt my application?"

A. This is a classic dilemma. You're afraid to go too high and lose a shot at a good job you would negotiate for, and you are afraid to go too low and leave some money on the table.

My first gambit is to say nothing or "negotiable" and to reserve salary discussions for much later in the process.

My grandfather told me years ago that when he was asked to share what he made on credit applications, he wrote, "Enough to pay my bills." That suggests that when you encounter a form that asks your salary requirement you might say, "You can afford me." Some online application forms, however, won't go through unless you fill in an amount.

My next strategy is to try to put in a range.

If those don't work, I would take what you're making, check a cost of living calculator to see how that amount translates and then go up 10 or 20 percent.

Many employers ask for salary histories to save themselves the trouble of starting an interview process with someone they can't afford. Sometimes "can't afford" means they don't want to blow up the pay structure for the department they would be hiring into. That could be unfair to their current employees.

When applying for my first job, the employers asked me how much experience I had earned with one of the papers on my resume. When I told them it was just freelance work and they realized I would be coming aboard with no experience -- and at the bottom of the pay scale -- they hired me at a little less than five bucks an hour. But five bucks went a lot further then.

E-mail Joe your questions on internships and careers.

Coming Monday: Mark Trahant, a veteran of the now-closed Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wears many hats in his new journalism career -- media fellow, speaker and author to name a few.

  • Joe Grimm

    Joe Grimm is a visiting editor in residence at the Michigan State University School of Journalism. He runs the JobsPage Website.


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