did I just low-ball my salary for the rest of my career?

A reader writes:

This week I accepted a job I am really excited about. During the interview process, I was asked what salary I was looking for, and I answered honestly with what I thought was an appropriate salary (I only have one year of experience so I wasn’t exactly sure, and I didn’t have any luck on sites like glassdoor.com). When the offer came in, it was 1k higher than what I had asked for, and I happily accepted. The next step was to head in to HR to sign some paperwork. As the HR rep explained the amazing benefits and perks of the job, I noticed a piece of paper in front of him that gave a clear rundown of my job: my name, my supervisor’s name, my salary, the reason the position was created, etc. Then I saw the salary range for the position—it was 15-25k more than what I had been offered. My heart sank.

I’ll admit, it’s not all bad. I got the salary I asked for and I am thrilled about the job (and actually have two years less experience than they had wanted). But I am worried about what this means for the rest of my career. What is my best bet for catching up to the salary range? Is it possible to renegotiate my salary in a year or two, or is a 20k jump just unheard of for that sort of thing? Or is it safer to wait a while longer and try to get promoted to a senior position and angle for the increase then? Or did I just really mess things up and have set myself up to always make 20k less than I could have?

You might have limited your salary at this company, but not for the rest of your career.

A $20,000 raise is pretty unusual — not unheard of, but rare and hard to get. (Actually, it’s more helpful to talk about raises in terms of percentages; a $20,000 raise could be perfectly feasible if you’re already making six figures, but with only one year of experience, I’m assuming that you’re not.)

However, at whatever point you leave this company, it should get easier to negotiate for more money. It’s always easier to negotiate before you’re working somewhere than after you are … since once you are, they already know what you’re willing to work for — a key element in negotiating.

After all, you’re under no obligation to share your salary history with prospective new employers. Some will insist on it, but plenty won’t. Moreover, even with companies that do insist on knowing your salary history, you can still sometimes argue that you’re worth significantly more. (Here’s an account of how I once did that myself.)

But it’s also worth noting that you might not have made a big mistake at all. After all, you were happy with the offer until you saw that piece of paper. Plus, since you have less experience than what they wanted, your salary may simply reflect that reality; the range you saw might have been for a candidate with the amount of experience they were originally looking for. (And I can pretty much guarantee that if you cited the range you saw in asking for more now, they’d cite your lack of experience right back, even if they were willing to pay you more earlier.)

Of course, this is a perfect illustration of why it’s frustrating for candidates that companies make them name a number first. Job seekers are rarely in as strong of a position as an employer is to have a solid idea of what a position should pay, and plenty of employers take advantage of that.

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