Figuring out your salary is the most awkward part of the job application process, and arguably, it's the most important. After all, the main purpose of a job is to earn money -- even if it also comes with the bonus of fulfilling your creative dreams. When it comes to salary negotiations, you don’t want to lose out on a job because you aimed too high with ridiculous demands, but a low salary sets you up for lower earnings for years down the line. Remember, most raises are calculated on a percentage basis, and 10% of nothing is, well, nothing.
In entertainment, there’s very little you can do about your salary in your first entry-level position -- assistants are typically offered a certain rate, especially at agencies, and that’s that (though collective bargaining and social campaigns like #PayUpHollywood are slowly raising the bar on these rates). But just because you don’t have much power to negotiate when you start your career doesn’t mean you should hold on to that bad habit forever, nor does it mean you should settle for a job that's massively underpaying you.
Unless a company has uniform starting salaries (for assistants, these will often be public information, as many companies promoted their wage increases in the trades in response to social activism), you should negotiate. And certainly, as you move up in your career, you're likely to come across a version of the question, “What are your salary requirements?” in a job interview. But how exactly do you negotiate your salary, particularly in an industry that knows it's competitive?
First of all, do your research before you apply! Glassdoor is a great resource for figuring out average salaries for your title in your area, and Colorado has a new law where employers must publish salaries in job postings, so you can always search for similar jobs in Colorado and do some cost of living calculations to adjust for your area. Figure out what number will be comfortable for you and what's reasonable for the job. This way, if an employer throws out a number that's egregiously below market rate, you'll know to run in the other direction, since underpaying employees isn't usually a sign of a healthy workplace. And if you find that the jobs you're applying for typically pay below your cost of living, you might consider pivoting your job search or adjusting your expectations.
Once you're in the salary conversation, do your best to avoid throwing out a number first. Try to force the interviewer or hiring manager to show their cards, so you know what you have to work with. If HR asks about your salary requirements, pivot with, “Well, I’m actually curious, what is the salary range you anticipated for this position?” If you get an answer that’s way higher than you expected/wanted, that’s great! It gives you room to bring up other types of negotiations -- maybe for flex time or more benefits.
If the hiring manager doesn’t let you get away with the pivot technique, DO NOT give up and tell them your current salary. In California, it’s actually illegal for them to ask, which gives you a big advantage. Start off with a question about benefits – what’s the vacation policy, 401K, insurance coverage, stock options, bonuses, etc. This will allow you to assess how much you need to make as base salary to maintain (or really, to improve – the goal here is to move up in the world!) your current lifestyle. Then, you can offer a range. The range should start at the lowest number you’re willing to take based on how good the benefits are and go up $10-$25k from there, or whatever’s reasonable based on your research. They might only offer your minimum, but there's always a chance you'll get lucky with an offer that's in the middle or top of your range. The beauty of giving a range is that it helps you avoid giving a number that's lower than what they had in mind -- if you say you were thinking $60K, and they were going to offer $75K, they will probably accept your low standard, costing you a ton of money!
We can't stress this enough: Make sure the number at the bottom of your range is enough money that you'll feel good about accepting the offer. If you want at least $70K but can theoretically, if absolutely necessary, trim your budget and make some sacrifices for $60K, don't start your range with $60K! Ask for the $70K you want, and if they respond with "Well, we only budgeted $60K for this role," then you can entertain the "theoretical, if absolutely necessary" lower number. In fact, if your number is a little too high, they might just say, "That's more than we had budgeted" and you can ask what the budget they had in mind is. A good employer will respect that this is an important dialogue, and anyone who treats you rudely during this negotiation will likely take advantage of you in other ways. Remember: It's not a shameful secret that people work to make money, or at least, it shouldn't be.
Sometimes, you'll be asked for your salary requirements in a job application, making it tough to negotiate. However, in some cases you can leave this section blank -- if the rest of your application is great, HR will ask when you get a screening call. If you must write something because the field is required, write a range or a number in the middle of your range with “(negotiable)” or “(flexible)” next to it. Even better, skip the online application entirely, use LinkedIn to find a person in the hiring department, and email them directly (you'll have far more success in your applications if you can get your resume into the hands of an actual human).
And of course, there are times when HR will offer a lowball number, regardless of how you handle the salary question. If this happens to you, counter with your demands, backing them up by reinforcing your qualifications and citing your research. If the company can't meet at least your current salary, you have to decide if you're willing to take a pay cut. And if you do, we hope you have a really good reason -- after all, you're not running a charity. If you really want the job, see if you can get additional non-monetary benefits -- COVID has made many companies increasingly generous around flex schedules, remote work, and vacation time. It's also okay to turn down the job offer if you can't find a compensation package that works for you -- don't shortchange yourself.
The biggest thing to remember is to go in unafraid. If a company doesn’t hire you because you’re too expensive, you probably wouldn’t want to work there anyway. Decide what you're worth beforehand, and stick to your guns -- you'll thank yourself in the long run.
-- Angela Silak & Cindy Kaplan