Six years ago, I started a new job in a new field. I knew next to nothing about this new field, nor did I know how to effectively negotiate for myself. In fact, if someone told me then that I would one day be leading a "Hands-on Workshop for Negotiation Prowess," I would have responded with a blank and befuddled look.
In 2008, three months before Lehman Brothers went kaput and the stock market had a heart attack, I was offered a job with "unlimited growth potential," a junior analyst position with a boutique hedge fund.
After two rounds of interviews, I was enticed by this boundless opportunity for advancement (not to mention the image I had of rich and well-heeled finance professionals). At that time, I was working as a buyer at a small beauty company, making just enough to pay my share of the rent at a fourth-floor walkup in the gritty part of Brooklyn. Never mind that I had no idea how the stock market or a hedge fund worked—I wanted this job.
Unfortunately, that showed. When the hedge fund manager asked me for my current salary, I told him the exact figure without hesitation or questioning. When he asked my minimum salary requirement, I blurted a figure that was just a hair more than what I was making—with little thought and no research into the matter. And immediately, this became my starting salary.
It was only then did I ask whether it was possible to negotiate. Asking a yes-or-no question at this point certainly didn't help my cause, and I got a prompt no. I was given a deadline to respond to the job offer, and I didn't press. I was eager and impatient to leave my buyer job and start a new one in finance, and I failed to see and assume the power I had. So I took the low salary with a vague promise of an annual bonus and started the job, figuring that I would unravel the mystery of hedge funds once I got there.
Of course, before I even had the chance to resent the long hours, the stock market crashed. For a couple of weeks, I thought the world was coming to an end, and every day felt like a horror show. I was afraid to lose my job, so I kept my head down and barely spoke up. I continued to work with little sense of ownership and fulfillment, and most definitely without a raise.
The silver lining in this story is that I managed to keep a finance job throughout the financial crisis. Gradually the stock market stabilized, and I stayed for two years before quitting to pursue a new career with tech startups.
Looking back, I bungled my salary negotiation because I didn’t know how to effectively negotiate for myself in the workplace. I realized this was partly due to the fact that, as a woman, I wasn’t socialized to negotiate or ask for more opportunities for myself.
Two and half years ago, I decided that it wasn’t too late to take initiative on turning this trend around. Working with local Meetup groups, I started organizing negotiation workshops for professional women. The workshops offered a safe space for women to practice negotiation situations, get feedback from other participants, and share their negotiation experiences and knowledge. Now, I speak and facilitate workshops for women in all stages of their career, ranging from the Women’s Leadership Network at SapientNitro to Barnard College’s Athena Leadership Center.
Without having failed to negotiate early in my career, I would not have this opportunity. That said, while mistakes are great teachers, they’re very costly when it comes to salary negotiations. Let me share with you what I learned from this experience so you can avoid making the same blunders I did.
1. I Didn’t Do My Homework
The biggest mistake I made—the biggest mistake anyone can make, really—is not taking the time to research the field, the fund, and the appropriate salary range before taking the offer.
First off, I should have dug deeper to try to see if this job was really a good mutual fit (it wasn't). If I could go back in time, I would ask people I know or in my alumni network for advice on everything from understanding inter-market arbitrage strategies to finding mentors in the secretive hedge fund industry. People are generally open to sharing industry insights to newcomers and young professionals, so use this to your advantage.
Further, it’s crucial to know the going rate for your position in your specific industry and in your geographic area if you are going to get the pay that you deserve. You can do this by doing an online search on sites such as Payscale or Glassdoor. I would also ask both women and men for salary advice to avoid falling victim to the gender pay gap. (Current statistics show that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men, often because they fail to negotiate.)
2. When Asked for my Current Salary and Salary Requirements, I Gave the Wrong Answers
The right answers? Not to answer at all. Frankly, the value I delivered at the beauty company as a buyer doesn't compare to the value I delivered as a hedge fund analyst. It's like comparing a banana to a turkey dinner. As such, I should have tried to establish my value based on the new job description, not a previous and unrelated one.
Especially if you're entering a new field, don't let your past limit your future earning potential. If you can, avoid answering the minimum salary question, because your minimum will become your starting salary. Try to get the other side to offer a range, instead. Of course, if you are making a big career change and have few transferable skills, it may make sense to take a pay cut while you build your skills. If you do have transferable skills, however, build a case for why you deserve the top of the range—or even beyond the range—based on the value you can deliver.
3. I Hadn't Shaken My Honor-Roll Student Mindset
I had this vague notion that this hedge fund manager—a complete stranger just two weeks prior—who picked me out of thousands of potential candidates, would see my unproven value, care about my career, and compensate me appropriately. All I had to do was keep my head and voice down.
And I was wrong. I had confused his intentions with those of the many kind and thoughtful teachers I encountered throughout the years. Like many bosses, his only intention was to hire for cheap.
The experience gave me the rich lesson that I am ultimately responsible for my own career—in fact, we all are. It's up to you to assume the power you already have, to speak up, to articulate your value, and to ask for what you’re worth. Don't pass up the opportunity to take charge of your career and negotiate for yourself.
If switching jobs or careers is something in the works for you in 2014, I wish you good luck. But more importantly, I wish that you’ll avoid the mistakes I've made. Go bold, take action, and ask for it. Because no one else will do it for you.