What you should know before negotiating your first salary

 ·13 Aug 2023

After graduating from university, job seekers often lack the experience that companies require. As a result, they may feel powerless to negotiate a higher starting salary.

“While it’s true that having a degree, like an MBA, does not mean they will automatically be paid more, graduates are not without options,” said Nicol Mullins, Master Rewards Specialist and President at the South African Reward Association (SARA).

Remember, negotiating a salary is a normal part of the hiring process, and employers expect candidates to engage in it. “By preparing well, showcasing your value and maintaining a professional approach, you increase your chances of securing a salary that aligns with your qualifications and aspirations,” she said.

Mullins provided some tips for graduates who want to enhance their salary prospects.

The dos

DO research salary ranges. There are various formal and informal sources where information can be gathered. Some are more reliable than others. Given the right prompt, sources like Google, career sites, recruiters and even Chat GPT can reveal the upper and lower salary limits to be expected in the position you are applying for.

This knowledge can help you decide if an eventual offer is favourable or worth turning down.

DO consider the context. Starting at a smaller organisation may mean your package will be nearer the lower margin of your earnings range. Applying to a larger organisation could see you starting with a higher-than-average income.

Industry and company type, professional designation, certifications and other factors also determine your negotiating power.

Most things in life are trade-offs. Mullins noted that starting in a smaller organisation may provide faster growth and learning opportunities compared to a larger organisation, where work is typically more siloed.

DO demonstrate your value. Salary negotiations may only occur later, but initial interviews determine if they will happen. So focus entirely on demonstrating the value you will bring to the position.

Mullins added that marketing yourself confidently is fine, but you’ll come off as arrogant if you can’t back it up with technical competence.

“Rather work with the interviewer to establish your fitness for the role, as this breeds a sense of teamwork and collaboration, both prized in organisations,” she said.

DO go high at first. It is much harder to negotiate up than down. So, when discussions around salary finally commence, an important anchoring technique is to suggest relatively higher salary and benefits expectations and then retreat to your actual desired package.

“Negotiators who believe you are willing to compromise will often reciprocate,” Mullins said.

DO play the field. Treating salary negotiation as an all-or-nothing proposition can rob you of better opportunities. If you are unhappy with an offer, don’t be afraid to walk away from the table to pursue promising alternatives.

However, Mullins noted that if opportunities are few and far between, it may be wiser to take the position to gain experience that will serve you well when a more desirable offer eventually comes along.

The don’ts

DON’T start with salary. Interviews naturally settle into salary negotiations. However, this may only happen after the initial interview or even the second interview if you are fortunate to be shortlisted. So, let the interviewer approach the subject in due course and avoid immediately launching into negotiations before discussing the position itself.

DON’T focus on salary alone. A total reward package consists of a fixed and variable portion, including benefits like medical aid and health insurance, a pension, vehicle or travel allowance, an expense account, incentive schemes, good work-life balance and many other potential offerings.

Negotiating strictly on salary could mean overlooking important benefits. Mullins said it also might be prudent to settle for a lower fixed income if more excellent value could be derived from more substantial benefits that offer financial advantages or supplement your shortfall.

DON’T overlook career prospects. A lower starting salary may also be worth it if the organisation provides opportunities for career growth and, consequently, higher future earnings.

For example, a position at a head office affords greater visibility before top management to demonstrate your strategic value and, therefore, a chance to climb the corporate ladder faster. So, as a springboard to a brighter future, a lower initial package might be worth gold, Mullins added.

Read: The most in-demand job skills in South Africa this year so far

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