Thinking beyond salary: How to negotiate your best comp package
Pull up a chair and kick back, I have a bit to say about salary, benefits, negotiating, and title…
Negotiating your salary is often referred to as a dance. I’d say it’s more like chess (though it should be easier, like Connect Four!) but I found this picture called Octopus Dance and it made me happy. We should definitely start out an article talking about one of the most important conversations of your career by being happy, so octopus it is. Let’s dive in.
Salary and benefits
Salary is just one part of your total compensation package. (Those last 3 words are a key phrase, write it down.) Your total compensation is salary + benefits + time off + other perks like tuition reimbursement, conference allowance, and training budget. When you’re negotiating for a new job, or a move within your company or organization, it’s not just about the money.
In most cases, when asked what they made at their last job (which thankfully is becoming illegal in more and more places) folks will answer with their salary amount:
Which means that’s where you now start negotiations. #BucketOfNope
In reality, your total compensation at the last job was $105,000 (I’m making up these numbers, don’t @ me) because:
Vacation/sick time: $10k
Tuition reimbursement: $5k
Conference allowance: $2k
Training budget: $3k
In many companies, you’ll also run into options — aka shares, stock, or restricted stock units (RSUs) — as a part of your package. I’m no financial advisor (btw, they’re great!) but make sure you do your homework and understand how vesting and taxes work so you have a clear picture of your full package.
And there are other perks and benefits, but these are off the top of my head on a grey Saturday spent fighting off the last vestiges of a dust-fueled allergy attack…yay for beautiful old, yet dusty, buildings.
Which means, look, you were making so much more at that job than $75k. Those numbers add up, and are the number in total you need to be shooting for a the next gig. (Plus title, etc. See below.) The key for the list above is to have it all in writing. If the recruiter answers with a casual “oh everyone in the office knows it” around the vacation time, tuition, conference, stocks, training, etc. then by god get it written via email at least as part of your offer, and at best ask if it’s codified in the employee handbook or in Slack somewhere.
Now you’ve written down what you ACTUALLY make. You’re winning already, congrats. So how do you use that to your advantage?
When you’re negotiating, you can say, “Salary is one lever, and it’s only one part in the overall compensation discussion as I’m thinking about the total compensation package.” (Remember that phrase from the beginning of this?)
“But Kara, what about if they push me and ask for my range?” Good point. It’ll likely happen. One thing I’ve said in the past (because it’s true) is, “I’ve got an NDA with my former employer, and both the specifics of my work and my salary fall under that.”
Another option — and the stronger one IMHO — is to say, “Salary is one part of the total compensation package, so for me it’s about balancing that against things like vacation and sick time, along with insurance. I imagine you have a budgeted base salary range for the role; can you share that with me?” Then go quiet, do not fill the empty air. Wait for their answer.
Sidenote: Sometimes you’ll be asked to show your former salary. That’s why knowing what your total comp package is helpful. When I was negotiating my salary with the federal government back in 2015, I had to bring my current total compensation package to the table (as a Word doc, because they needed “proof”) and I was able to increase my salary significantly because I had receipts.
It matters. So do the responsibilities that come with it. But here’s the thing: titles can vary wildly from industry to industry, and even in companies in the same space. At a former employer, for example, if you’re a director there, you’d be a VP anywhere else. And I’ve seen VPs from other places shocked that when they joined that company they were “knocked down” to Director. That’s because the responsibility, budget, team size, etc. are calibrated hard.
Which is all to say: yes, always try to be moving up in role and responsibilities, and know that your mileage may vary when you go somewhere else, so be prepared. It’s one of the reasons, when I used to have my own small business, I de-emphasized titles with my clients when I did resume designs for them.
And the yes/and? Push for the title that accurately reflects your level of work during the negotiation process. It’s a lever, just like everything else. I’ve successfully had the word “Senior” added to a title at a new job, and even recategorized a role I was interviewing for from Director of Design Operations to Chief of Staff (at a big tech company I eventually dropped out of the process for) because after a discussion with the recruiter I could see that’s what they really needed in the role. And they agreed. I’ve also seen friends and colleagues uplevel to Principal or even Director during negotiation discussions.
Ask. The worst they can say is no. Some key questions:
- What professional development programs or mobility system are in place to help folks grow?
- If the role is new, or based on key milestones, is there consideration for a formal check-in on comp/title? What about retention or delivery bonuses?
Finally, think about your most precious resource: Your time
Ask about how you get to spend your time at work:
- Do they give time off for volunteer opportunities? When I was at Intuit, for example, we got 4 days off a year to volunteer at a cause we loved.
- Do you get 10% time? Meaning do you get to work on whatever the heck you want with 4 hours/week or 16 hours/month.
- Are people supported when they choose to invest their time in other endeavors like employee networks?
Every 6 months or year, do an inventory of all the work you’re doing for an org, including serving on employee resource groups, being the head of the culture group, organizing outings, and all the other little bits of emotional labor we tend to sign up for but don’t put in the win column necessarily when it comes to performance review time or job role discussions. (And/or especially: doing parts of other dipwads’ jobs because they ask “if you can help them on this” then somehow it becomes your responsibility even though it’s their job.)
Offload the things that aren’t bringing you joy or aren’t actually in your job description.
Get help where you can.
Protect you, and look at it as opps for others to grow — so you can use that new-found time to grow yourself. You deserve it.
While I have you here, and we’re on the topic, here’s my semi-annual rant about employers who do not include salary ranges in job postings:
You know who posts salary ranges on every single job posting? The federal government. If the largest employer in our country can do it, tell me again private sector why you can’t.
We know that listing the salary, or salary range, in a job posting is one of the easiest ways to ensure equity for everyone from the get go, so how about it CEOs and hiring managers.
Every extra dollar you negotiate for means 1) your raise and/or merit increase goes up by that much more each year, and 2) means you now have a higher bar to shoot for at your next gig. Figuring out how much to ask for can be tricky, I’ve found, without having concrete numbers in front of me. (I’m a visual person.) So years ago I built out a spreadsheet that lists all my bills on one side, then a sliding scale of potential salaries across the rest of it. This let me see how much I’d have left at the end of the month after bills, which helped me know what salary I needed to shoot for. Made the link public — and changed the settings so you can make a copy for yourself — in case it’s useful to others. \o/
Big gratitude to Lexi Schwartz and Heidi Hackemer for providing loving feedback on this piece.