How I Learned to Demand My Worth in Salary Negotiations
Illustration: Richard A. Chance

How I Learned to Demand My Worth in Salary Negotiations

You can’t put a price on self-worth, but you can definitely value yourself

I never expected to land my current job. But it wasn’t for lack of relevant experience or work ethic. Thing is, I was coming off a series of fruitless interviews with other companies, and after nearly two months, it seemed like this recruitment process would fizzle out just like the others. I’d already started looking elsewhere when I got word that I landed the position. My first reaction was shock, then elation, then both were wiped away by the anxiety that descended when I realized I’d need to have the salary conversation — the most dreaded of special cloth talks.

Negotiating your salary is an exercise in tactics. You obviously don’t want to shortchange yourself, and padding your salary history a bit is just good business, but you also need to be wary of overshooting your shot. It’s a delicate balance for anyone, but when you’re a Black person in spaces where there are very few people who look like you, that tightrope feels thinner and higher than most.

When you’re used to being one of the few Black guys in your career field, at times you can be so sure of yourself, like you’re right where you belong. But on some days — the ones that end in “y,” generally — doubts and insecurities tend to creep in. Imposter syndrome shows its ass at the most inopportune moments, causing your self-worth to fluctuate like a yo-yo dieter. Am I really deserving of this job (and the income attached), or do I look like a clown holding a trick-or-treat bag?

Being one of a very few folks of color around (let alone the only one) creates a feeling of gratitude just for being in the room, which I’m starting to think is by design.

It’s in those moments where I don’t know if it’s my place to push for more — even a slight increase — to nab the salary I feel I really deserve. That may speak to the fact that I’m a Black person trying to move in a world that’s not really made for us. Being one of a very few folks of color around (let alone the only one) creates a feeling of gratitude just for being in the room, which I’m starting to think is by design. Do I just take what’s handed to me? Am I being ungrateful by negotiating?

So, I used to lowball myself. Just say yes to the first figure an employer would offer, leaving bread on the table like a server at Olive Garden. At the start of my career, when my student loans hadn’t yet ballooned due to sometimey payments, I could chalk up that financial trepidation to inexperience. I was just eager to build on the crucial skills I’d picked up in my internships (like differentiating venti from grande on Starbucks runs) with actual on-the-job experience. I had a lot to learn, but I was a go-getter and planned to advance quickly so I could land a max contract, like Melo before the hoodie.

But as I grew in my career and moved around a bit, my reluctance to negotiate morphed into a new sort of defense mechanism, one built on pride. I wasn’t keen on a non-Black person telling me the pay that I deserve — so, rather than throw out a number and have it shot down, I’d preemptively skip that step and just accept the initial offer. It’s backwards as hell, I know, but those were the gymnastics taking place in my head.

The salary spectrum has been a difficult puzzle to crack. I haven’t really had conversations with my White colleagues about the figures they’re pulling, but I’ve done enough eavesdropping during beer-thirty happy hours to know how those exchanges go. It’s some variation of: “Bro, you should totally ask for more money. What the fuck? I can’t believe they’re paying you that!” They’d talk about all the mediocre shit they’ve done at work and why it entitles them to earn the big bucks. Those snippets give me all the corporate thug motivation I need; if I’m gonna head into weird waters with the Snow Patrol, I’d rather save the discomfort for convos that actually matter.

I already knew the salary range when I was applying for my current job and was expecting the proposed salary to be toward the bottom. By this point in my career, I knew the drill — and my hiring boss followed it like a script. He called me up, offered some pleasantries and flattery about how impressed everyone was with my interviews and portfolio, and then dropped a number we both knew was saving the company some cash.

But this time was different. I thanked him for the kind words and mustered up the courage to ask for the maximum salary that was being offered, plus a little extra on top — I like to think of it as a diversity bonus. My delivery may have been meek, but I touted my strong suits. Really, I just wanted to get the words out of my mouth. I’d channeled the Caucasity of my peers and figured the worst this guy could say is no. It’s not like the company would rescind the job offer and tell me to be on my merry Black way. He played it cool: “Let me speak with HR and see what I can do for you.”

My self-talk kicked in immediately after ending the call: You might not get the high-paying salary, but just be grateful. You tried it. But he hit me back within the hour: “We are so excited to give you the salary that you asked for.” I couldn’t believe it, but I didn’t let it show in my voice. I thanked him and offered to start ASAP — I’ve got student loans to pay.

The experience made me realize I need to drop some of these expectations, because I’m being proven wrong in a great way. That’s part of the unlearning process. I’m happy to be in my thirties, redefining and challenging the lessons and non-serving mental barriers of my twenties. Sometimes you just have to get out of your own way.