CPA INSIDER

How to negotiate for a higher salary

You may have more leverage than you realize.
By Cheryl Meyer

Thirty-year-old Andrew Somich, CPA, a supervisor at Walthall Rea in Mentor, Ohio, has done something many people find intimidating: During his last two job interviews, he negotiated for higher salaries and got them.

Negotiating is important to ensure you are receiving reasonable compensation for your desired position, and getting offered a higher salary "makes you feel good that you are valued," Somich said.

But negotiating for a healthier income doesn't come easy to most people. In fact, according to a recent survey by staffing firm Robert Half International, only 45% of workers between the ages of 18 and 34 negotiated for a higher salary during their last job offer. For professionals ages 35 to 54, that number dropped to 40%, and for women of all ages, 34%.

Many professionals likewise fail to ask for higher pay with their current employers. "It's more comfortable to look for a new job and opportunity than it is to approach their boss about a raise," said Kathleen Downs, a recruiter and senior vice president at Robert Half Finance & Accounting.

Failing to negotiate, though, can be a mistake. Compensation is usually based on the salary employees receive entering an organization. So if CPAs start a new position at too low a salary, their income could be affected for years. "And if they don't bargain, they may unintentionally signal a weakness in their ability to advocate not only for themselves, but for others and, most importantly, the organization," said Lisa Gates, a leadership coach, negotiation consultant, and co-founder of training firm She Negotiates, in Santa Barbara, Calif. "In other words, negotiating for yourself demonstrates your leadership capacity and your future ability to have the company's back."

Here are some strategies for negotiating successfully and getting the job:

  • Know your market value. Due to the robust economy and high demand for CPAs, accountants are in a good position to negotiate. So do your online research and use the information at your disposal, Gates suggested. 
  • Salaries can vary by location. Put yourself in a stronger position for negotiating by keeping tabs on what is happening in your specific market (or the market you will serve), and knowing what your region will pay for your skills and experience. ZipRecruiter, Robert Half, and local recruiters have proved to be good resources for Somich, he said. "Researching and learning about the industry benchmarks for compensation gave me a good sense of what accounting professionals typically make," he noted.

  • Study your potential employer. Research the organization offering you a job. Is it in the middle of a merger? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Can it benefit from your specific skills? Doing your homework "helps you identify places where you might be uniquely qualified or poised" to make a difference and, in some cases, "alleviate the pain," Gates said.
  • Tout your accomplishments. Before the interview, make a list of your accomplishments and focus on your impact. What have you contributed to your current organization? What projects did you complete that benefited your employer? 
  • "Think about what you are worth and focus on the special skills that you bring," noted Deborah Krambeck, CPA, assistant controller at Future Foam Inc., in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and a 2011 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. During a negotiation, "highlight those things that make you stand out," she said.

  • Practice. Work with friends, family, or colleagues to prepare for job interviews. Rehearse responding to questions you may receive. Mock interviews can help prepare you to respond to pushback from a potential employer regarding compensation or benefits, Somich said.
  • Ask open-ended questions. Approach the job-offer process as a conversation, not as a time to make demands, Downs said. If you are not satisfied with the pay offered, inquire how the employer arrived at that number and what it will take to increase it. Ask what you need to do to be a top performer, she suggested.
  • "Asking close-ended questions gets you a 'yes' or 'no,' and asking an open-ended question elicits collaboration and more information, and helps you understand the interests, preferences, goals, and fears of your bargaining partner," Gates added.

  • Leverage benefits. Benefits often take a back seat in the interview process. Yet there is often "more leeway with vacation time and benefits than compensation," Somich said. So if the company won't budge on salary, ask for an extra week of vacation, flexible hours, or a signing bonus — and know the value of these things.
  • Understand the employer's perspective. Organizations typically have a salary range for each position, and many will make an offer at the low end of that range — not only to save money, but also to leave room for raises or bonuses should you do well. Many expect candidates to negotiate, so ask about the compensation range. "My advice is don't go for the top end of the range," Downs said. "Go just under so they have room to show you rewards for a job well done."

Discussing money can be awkward, but "don't be afraid to bring it up," Krambeck advised. "If you're not unreasonable in your request, it won't rule you out of consideration, especially if you have special skills and experience."

Cheryl Meyer is a freelance writer based in California. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact senior editor Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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