March 16, 2015

As journalists, we are taught to be tenacious. We go after interviews, push for public records and dig for data. But when it comes to advocating for ourselves, why do we often fail to ask the tough questions? This is especially true for women. Many of us hesitate to ask for raises or promotions because we don’t want to be seen as difficult or pushy.

Is this true for you? Think back to your last job offer or your last annual review with your boss. You probably went into those discussions with certain hopes. Maybe you wanted a higher salary, a better schedule or more travel opportunities. Whatever it was, were your expectations met? If not, did you ask for what you wanted?

I’m willing to bet that many of the women reading this, as well as some of the men, are shaking their heads no. For those who answered yes, did you couch your request with an apology? “Sorry to ask, but …” Being able to negotiate and confidently ask for what you want is a powerful and necessary skill to have. It’s a topic I’ve been passionate about for many years and constantly try to work on in my professional and personal life.

Whenever I speak to college journalism students, I encourage them to negotiate their first job offer. That advice is usually followed by the sound of nervous laughter and self-doubt. “I don’t have much experience,” students say, or “I don’t want to offend them and lose the job.” When I talk about this topic with colleagues who have experience in the journalism industry, the responses aren’t that much different. Many say they are too nervous to ask, are afraid of angering the boss or simply don’t know what to say.

A few years ago, I pitched a story at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, where I work as an investigative reporter on the web staff, and asked if we could to do a report on how to be a better negotiator. The news managers agreed and assigned our consumer reporter, Monica Laliberte, to find out how the average person can negotiate like a pro.

She spoke with Steve Dalton, a senior career consultant at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of “The 2-Hour Job Search.” The biggest mistake people make, he said, is not negotiating at all and simply accepting the first offer they are given.

“I think people are in such a rush to make the anxiety and pain of being in a job search go away, that they miss perhaps the most lucrative 5 minutes of their life. It really is 5 minutes of additional pain that could result in thousands of dollars,” Dalton told us. “All it takes is asking one more question, ‘Do you have any flexibility around salary?’”

An October 2010 study by George Mason University and Temple University researchers found that those who chose to negotiate increased their starting salaries by an average of $5,000. Assuming an average annual pay increase of 5 percent, an employee whose starting annual salary was $55,000 rather than $50,000 would earn an additional $600,000-plus over the course of a 40-year career, the study found.

At Duke, where Dalton advises students, he said both men and women tell him they don’t like to negotiate, but he notices a major difference in how they approach it. The men typically ask, “How do I negotiate?” while the women ask, “Should I negotiate?”

“That’s a very big difference,” Dalton said. “You’ve got to go in knowing that you are going to negotiate anything. It doesn’t hurt to ask. Asking is free. The worst that can happen is they say no.”

That’s the attitude I take when trying to negotiate, and trust me, I’ve heard “no” a lot. But that’s OK, I still ask. Sometimes, a “no” has turned out to be “not now.” That was the case at my first job after college. I was working as an editorial assistant at The Frederick News-Post in Maryland, where I spent most of my time writing obituaries and community event listings.

Not long after I started the job, I walked into the editor’s office and announced that I wanted to be a reporter. I can still see the shocked yet amused look on his face as he smiled and gently told me “no.” I continued going to him and other editors, pitching my own story ideas and asking to be part of the reporting staff.

Eventually, they began letting me write stories, mostly light, feature news. One day, a tip came into the newsroom about a local business accused of scamming customers. Not knowing if there was anything to it, an editor sent me the information and asked me to look into it.

The story turned out to be bigger than anyone realized and, to the editors’ credit, they let me see it through to the end and report on what I found. The business ended up being shut down, and my story went on to win awards for investigative journalism. I was named the paper’s education reporter and asked for a raise, which was granted.

Since then, I have continued to push for promotions, raises and special projects at the various reporting jobs I’ve had. I haven’t always been successful, and I still get nervous before making a big request, but some of the best career opportunities I’ve had have come by simply asking for them.

So, how do you negotiate? What should you say? Dalton, the expert we featured in our WRAL-TV story, suggests the following:

• Set up a meeting to review a job offer so you can ask questions, but don’t accept the offer right away.
• Ask about each feature of the offer, including salary, vacation time, relocation costs, bonuses, etc.
• If you want a raise at an existing job, ask what kind of flexibility your boss has with salary.
• Once you make your request, stop talking. Let the employer react. Don’t get defensive. Just let them speak.
• When negotiating, be careful with word selection. Focus on facts. Avoid emotional phrases, such as “I deserve …”
• Be informed and confident but not desperate.
• Back up requests for more money with research and data. Find the average salary for your profession by location, or show your boss how your work has contributed to the company’s success.
• If the employer won’t budge or has reservations, get creative and try another approach. Ask about bonuses, vacation time or another benefit.
• Existing employees can also try asking to take on more responsibility for a higher salary.

Those are just a few ways you can work on being a better negotiator. Of course, we all have different circumstances to consider when deciding to negotiate, but don’t let nerves or fear be the deciding factor.

I’ve read a lot about the need for women to take on more leadership roles in journalism, and there are some excellent examples in this Push for Parity series of women doing just that. But how did they get there? A lot of hard work, I’m sure, but I’m willing to bet some skilled negotiating was involved. And we can all take a lesson from that.

Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at in Raleigh, N.C., where she has worked for eight years. She previously worked as an education reporter at The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C., and The Frederick News-Post in Frederick, Md. Kelly is passionate about public records and writes a blog called Public Records Geek. You can follow her on Twitter @RecordsGeek.

Editor’s note: This essay is the second in a series on women in leadership in journalism. Kelly Hinchcliffe and the other essayists were chosen based on their proposals. Each woman will receive $200 for their essay. You can read our past articles on women in leadership here.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe is an investigative reporter at in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is passionate about public records. She previously worked as an education reporter…
Kelly Hinchcliffe

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