Don’t ask for a raise during your annual review, and other negotiating tips for women

By Alex Laughlin

For Equal Pay Day, we held our first ever live Q&A in the Pay Up community, inviting members to submit questions on negotiating salary and pursuing wage equality.

The guest was Aubrey Bach, senior manager of higher education at PayScale, and a Pay Up member.

PayScale is a compensation database — that means they collect data for how people are being paid across industries/demographics and pass that knowledge on to individuals and employers.

Bach frequently speaks to groups of women about salary negotiation techniques, so we thought she’d be the perfect guest.

Here’s what she had to say about salary negotiation in the tech world, and for women more broadly. (Bach’s answers here have been edited for clarity and length.)

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Q: You work with women across industries — do you see any challenges to achieving wage equity that are specific to women in tech?

Bach: Oh absolutely! I spend a lot of time in the tech space, both because I work in tech and because Seattle (where I live) is a very tech-heavy place.

Tech is challenging because women are definitely the minority — and obviously, minorities face similar challenges. Just existing in a culture where everybody is following a different set of innate rules that nobody explained to you makes it hard to “fit in.”

Tech, by nature, is very fast-paced, very demanding, and not generally very understanding of life-work balance, so it’s not necessarily friendly to women. But if it can find a way to be more welcoming and supportive (and fair!) to women and minorities, the ability to solve ever more complicated problems will obviously improve. I’m not the first to say this, but it’s both a business and morale imperative.

Finally, the good news about tech is that job for job, the controlled gender pay gap is actually smaller than in non-tech industries.

Q: What thing do you wish women who are at earlier stages in their careers knew about how to negotiate successfully?

Bach: So many things! But mostly, I want them to know three things:

  1. Employers expect you to negotiate. There are exceptions, but there is wiggle room baked into almost every job offer. Nobody will rescind a job offer because you negotiate unless you are a total jerk — or that is a terrible place to work. So never accept the first offer the first time.
  2. Negotiating early, even a little bit, dramatically increases your lifelong earning potential. A statistic I use in my talks at colleges is that if a 25-year-old negotiates a $50,000 salary to $55,000, they will earn $634,000 over the next 20 years, because that sets you up for more raises and higher salaries later in life.
  3. If you present a well-researched counter-offer, you’re likely to get it. 75 percent of the people who tell us they have negotiated their salary end up earning more — even if they don’t get the full amount, they get MORE. Those are good odds.

Q: What do you do when asking for a promotion/raise results in you being punished? Is that a sign you should leave the company?

Bach: The sad truth of the matter is that there is the chance of retaliation, especially for women when they negotiate. Because it’s the “abnormal” behavior, it stands out, gets poor reactions, and discourages other women from negotiating. That’s a vicious cycle, but the only way to stop it is for us all to negotiate so it stops seeming weird

It makes sense to say “I’m sorry, we just don’t have budget for that at this time, but let’s figure out what we can do to set you up for that when money becomes available.” Not “Ask and you’re fired.”

Listen, you are probably a really valuable employee with awesome skills. Put them to use where you are appreciated.

Q: How can you best advocate for salary parity within a team as the manager? Particularly when trying to correct discrepancies introduced by a previous manager’s favoritism?

Bach: Ooooh I love this question!!! It seriously makes me so happy. Okay, when you are a manager and you see a salary discrepancy, you actually have the opportunity to be effective in two ways:

  1. Managing up, you should be talking to your manager, and to HR, about the fact that pay inequity exists on your team, because it’s grounds to wonder if it happens elsewhere. Build your case as to why pay for one person should be adjusted, and why they deserve equal pay based on performance. Ask your HR team what the company’s compensation philosophy is. Why do you they pay the way they do? What are their metrics? If they have answers, build your case for equity based on those metrics. If they don’t… Then ask why not.
  2. Then, managing down, you want to coach and mentor your reports who are underpaid. Have open and honest conversations about pay. Ask what their career goals are. Talk to them about the importance of having a plan and let them know that ultimately, they are in charge of building their own cases for pay and promotion. You can teach them how to do that, but they have to ask. If you can teach them to question their pay and build a case, you aren’t just helping them one time, you’re setting them up for success throughout their career.

Q: Do you have advice for how to negotiate a raise after your first year on the job while you’re working at a startup and understand money may be sensitive? Is it ever appropriate to ask for one?

Bach: The absolute worst time to negotiate a raise is when everybody gets their performance reviews and raises. If your boss comes to you and says “Woo hoo you got a 4% increase this year, great job, four stars, blah blah blah” and you say “I’m really disappointed in this because I was hoping for 8% and here are all the reasons why I deserve it,” you are asking your manager to go find money where there is none. When reviews and raises are given out across the company, all the budget is totally spent.

What you should do is right away start having one-on-ones and open conversations with your manager about your performance and goals, as soon as you start. Once you have your first big win, start talking about what you want to do next. When a big project is winding down, proactively say, “I know this is almost done, and we’re in crunch time now, but once this is over, what do you think I should work on that will set me up for success?” Team up with your manager and be proactive. Let them know what your salary wants are 6 months ahead of time. “I’m hoping to be earning $7,000 more next year — what can we do together to make that a reality?”

When you’re working at a true startup and money is tight, you need to accept that you will be compromising some of your pay. Startups are awesome and fun (hopefully) but they can’t pay as much as big established companies. That’s a fact, and it’s how the labor market works. HOWEVER, you can still make sure that you are having open conversations (see the pattern?) with your manager about what you do want. Startups are small and intimate, so why not take advantage of that and have more frank conversations about pay?

Pay Up is a private, Slack-based community dedicated to fostering conversations about the gender wage gap. It was formerly managed by the Washington Post.