Image courtesy of Unsplash from the LinkedIn Sales Navigator team
Congrats, you have gotten a job as a Product Designer/UX Designer and now you are at the offer stage! The recruiter asks you about what you expect for salary and you don’t know what to do. Here are some tips that I have found helpful over the years from either personal experience, friends who both have been burned and successful with negotiations, and from coaching other designers. These pieces of advice can go a long way for anyone regardless of industry, but the stories I share are specifically from UX Designers.
* Note — By no means am I a professional when it comes to negotiations nor am I a recruiter, so these are all anecdotal pieces of advice. However, I hope these tips help you with making better decisions as you navigate the complexities of negotiating in this industry!
You will always miss 100% of the shots that you don’t take. The worst that can happen is the company doesn’t budge on negotiations and tells you no.
A lot of junior designers have a fear that the company will take out the offer from them if they negotiate. In my experience, I have almost never seen that happen. I’ve only heard of one instance of a friend who did not have a written offer yet, (it was just a verbal one) try and negotiate at that stage and they just moved onto the next candidate.
The company at this point has invested quite a lot into you to get you to this stage. Finding another candidate is an expensive and timely process. If they are giving you an offer, they want you on the team. If they do take the offer away from you, you do not want to work at a company with a toxic culture like that.
In 2018, California passed a Salary History law that prohibits companies from asking you what your previous compensation and benefits are. Since then over 20 states have followed suit with the similar legislature. This is important to know your rights when it comes to salary.
Image courtesy of Paycor.com on states with Salary History Bans
Don’t voluntarily disclose previous salary information when it is low. A friend of mine was in the middle of transitioning from the hospitality industry to tech. She was really eager to break into tech and spent several months networking and interviewing. During the negotiation stage with a startup, she accidentally mentioned her previous salary from Las Vegas. She ended up getting the same salary she had from working in Las Vegas, even though the job was based in a higher wage market of San Francisco and was in a different industry. She tried to negotiate and they said no, given that she was coming from another industry they considered it fair. After working there for a while, she later found out that she was 10K underpaid compared to counterparts in the same role. She had higher qualifications too and just felt really terrible and undervalued.
However, this did work in favor of another friend who was moving from SF to NYC. He was going to graduate school but also got an offer to work at a tech startup. He was previously working as an Associate UX Designer at a large tech company in SF. The NYC startup was offering him 80K initially. However in SF, his previous base salary was 120K, plus he got RSUs, and an annual cash bonus. At the startup, he was going to be also doing UX + branding + marketing work. My advice was to position the CEO that he was paid more in the past, had experience at a top tech company, and was doing the work of what would traditionally be two roles (UX and Marketing). His experiences should give him leverage to ask for more. He went into negotiating giving a range of 90–100K. He ended up getting 100K plus equity.
A mentee I coached to ask for more base salary with a startup
First of all, if you have not prepared to give a number when they ask, don’t give one until you have done the research. You don’t want to accidentally lowball yourself. I knew someone who once went to Glassdoor and looked up the national average salary for the job title and gave the first number he saw to the recruiter. He found out one year later that he was severely underpaid by almost 30% of his peers, and this was in the SF Bay Area.
You should ask the recruiter the question back to understand the range for total compensation. For example, with California’s Salary History law, the company also has to disclose the compensation ranges if you ask. It’s best to check first before saying a number. It’s important to understand what is included in that number for total compensation (base salary, RSUs, stock options, cash bonuses, signing bonuses, relocation, etc.). Don’t just focus on base salary, look at the whole package to understand what is of value to you.
Information courtesy of shrm.org FAQs on California Salary History laws
When you have done your research and you know what you want, it’s best to give a range. Go slightly higher than what your desired number is and have your ideal number as the low end of the range. For example, if you want 100K for base salary, I would suggest giving 100–120K as the range. This gives room for you to get more, and if they give you the low end of that range you would be happy because that is what you wanted.
There are a lot of websites out there that aggregate salary data: Glassdoor, LinkedIn Salary, levels.fyi, Blind, and more. I honestly don’t find many of these useful because each offer is very different depending on location, years of experience, title, and many other factors. When sites do an aggregation of salary data, you have to question how old the data is and what factors are being considered to get that number. On Glassdoor, I usually find the averages much lower than what they really are in the industry. Of this list, Blind is the most reliable since it is individuals anonymously reporting out their salary information, but it is harder to parse through cause the data is case by case per individual.
A reliable site is the H1B Salary Database. Companies that sponsor H1B visas have to disclose salary data to the federal government. You can filter by location, title, and year the offer was given to know the exact salaries that are being paid out.
Example H1B salaries from Facebook in San Francisco, CA in 2019 from the H1B Salary Database
The best source is if you know a direct source. I usually rely on good friends who are open to sharing salary information with me and my classmates. When I was in graduate school, a professor created a spreadsheet that collected anonymous data for our UX Designer offers. That spreadsheet was immensely helpful for my classmates and the next year’s cohorts.
If others have perspectives on reliable sites, please do feel free to share!
With negotiation, it is all about how much information you have vs. the person you are negotiating with. It’s the same as playing a game of poker. If you reveal all of your cards too soon or are too easy of a read, then you no longer have an advantage. You want to create an impression that you have an upper hand when going into a negotiation. That upper hand can be either a competitive offer that is higher, industry information about expected salaries, or it can be your sheer confidence (a bluff).
Image courtesy of Unsplash by Michał Parzuchowski
If you had multiple offers and the one that you wanted the most was lower, then yes share the higher salary to try and get more. If you have only one offer, but you are closing in final rounds at other companies, I would bring up that you will soon have other offers. It’s even better if you know the expected salaries of those other offers, as you can bring that into the negotiations. It creates pressure that the company will have to compete for you. If you had none of those things, then focus on what your research tells you to get a reasonable salary. Pull direct examples of companies by name based on your online research.
I had a friend who once had a competing offer to leave her current company. The offer from the competitor was actually lower in compensation, but the opportunity was more interesting as it was a high-growth startup. She was actually happy at her current company, but just wanted to be paid more to what industry standards were. She brought it up to her manager that she had an offer at a competitor. When he asked her about what the competitor was offering in terms of salary, she just kept saying that it was a very competitive offer and was indicative of the industry average, which is higher than what she currently had. At the end of the day, she ended up getting a raise at her current company and declined the competitor offer. Was it a risky move? Maybe. Did she lie? Not quite. She actually gave a non-answer to the direct question and refocused it on what mattered to her. Worst-case scenario, her manager could have not given her a raise, which then she could decide to stay with no changes in her role or she could have moved on to a new company with higher potential.
Sometimes it’s best to not react immediately after hearing the numbers, especially if it’s below your expectations. If you need time to process it, just tell the recruiter thank you for clarifying on the numbers and that you’d like some time to process understanding the offer before you commit. Then come back to the negotiation table when you are ready with your strategy. Sometimes when people are nervous, they tend to talk a lot more and might accidentally drop information that they don’t mean and it ends up creating confusion in the process.
There are usually different levers that one can pull during negotiations. Base salary is just one of those levers, but there are other levers that can be easier to pull. In my personal experience, getting a signing bonus or relocation is one of the easiest ones. RSUs or stock options tend to be another one that is more flexible. Think about what is the balance in terms of the compensation that you would be happy with. Base salary is always the best option to increase because it’s stable and guaranteed. If you need more cash now, then taking a higher signing bonus could satisfy your needs. However, if you plan on being at that company for a while, then more RSUs or stock options could benefit you. Understand some key things though such as if the company will be profitable and successful in the long run, the vesting periods it takes to get the whole amount (RSUs), and the strike prices (stock options). Bigger, more stable companies are safer than startups so I generally would value RSUs like cash. Stock options can be riskier and take longer to see the payout, so take those with caution.
Another important point is to be firm and repeat your needs to others in a position of power. Recruiters are usually the ones doing most of the negotiations, but aren’t the only ones that you can leverage for more compensation. If you have conversations with the hiring manager or CEO, those are great people to bring up your compensation concerns as well. They could have access to the budgets and can help close your offer. I gave a mentee this advice for a new graduate designer role at a tech company. Though the recruiter said no to her requests to negotiate for more base, the hiring manager was more open to hearing her requests and was open to helping her secure a higher bonus for her.
A mentee that I coached to ask her hiring manager for a higher bonus
Sometimes it’s not all about the money. I have a friend who was able to negotiate in a visa sponsorship and a higher title when the company would no longer budge on total compensation. She had two offers in the SF Bay Area, both in tech. One was a larger company that offered more in total compensation and visa sponsorship. The other was a startup, which she was more excited for. I asked her what her most important levers were, was it the money or the visa sponsorship? It’s good to aim for both, but if she had to double down on one thing, she had to be prepared to chose. For her, it was the visa sponsorship.
From there, she had to come in with a case on why she deserved more. I told her to tell the startup that she is super excited about the work there, brings direct experience that matches their needs, and that she wants to take the offer and is ready to sign (all true). However, she should mention that there are some things that are giving her second thoughts and it was the salary and visa situation. The hiring manager said he would see what he could do. From there, she had conversations with the recruiter and the CEO where they tried to close her into signing. Her story was consistent, she mentioned her hesitations, and she did not waiver on what she wanted. At the end of the day, the company gave her a Senior UX Designer title instead of a UX Designer and a visa sponsorship after 1 year of working there. Though her salary did increase by much, she still walked away with the negotiation with a win.
Another mentee I coached who got visa sponsorship negotiated in
Yes, but you have to bring it up to your current manager. You can’t expect your manager to remember or know that you have these feelings during the interview process, so it’s important to vouch for yourself. If you are a high performer, it’s even easier to bring up salary concerns. It generally costs more money and time for companies to replace a high performer than to retain them by giving them what they want.
For example, when I got my offer as a UX Designer the base salary was 20K lower than another competitive offer. However, I saw much higher growth potential at my current company, so I took that instead. After 1 year in, I was up for a promotion to the next level. When I got my promotion package, the base salary was still lower than what I could have been paid at that other company. I brought it up to my boss. I told him that I really appreciated getting the promotion so quickly and am grateful for the opportunity. However, when I took my current offer it was lower than what a fellow competitor was offering. He asked me my expected ranges and I did the research and gave him the higher numbers. Within a few weeks, I got a salary change and a higher base. Win-win for me and for my boss (he didn’t have to worry about me potentially leaving the company).