The do's and dont's of salary negotiations

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Whether you are reaching the offer stages of a job application or are asking for a raise with your current employer, salary negotiations can be tricky. When is the right time to ask, how do you calculate your worth in the job market, and what is the best way to communicate your salary expectations are all common dilemmas. Many women in particular find salary negotiations intimidating so may avoid them altogether.

Devex spoke to Alamelu Deivanayagam, an international human resources and organizational development consultant who is certified by the American Association of University Women as a salary negotiation facilitator to find out the do’s and don’ts of salary negotiations.

When it comes to salaries in global development, look at it holistically, says Deivanayagam. This is especially important for those who are new to the sector. While salaries may be lower than other fields such as the private or financial sectors, the development sector is generally competitive on benefits, she explains, so look at the “total compensation” and be mindful of added benefits such as health insurance, vacation days, and retirement packages.

Negotiation is a hard skill, says Deivanayagam, but it is a skill that can be learned. From knowing when to bring it up to determining market rates here are some suggestions for what to do, and not do, in salary negotiations.


While you don’t want to turn-off potential employers by bringing up salary immediately, you also don’t want to waste your time applying for a job that will ultimately not meet your expectations. Salary is definitely something you want to avoid mentioning in your cover letter but you also shouldn’t wait until the offer stage, says Deivanayagam.

“At that stage you don’t want any surprises, it should come up sooner,” she adds. While Deivanayagam recommends avoiding discussing salary during the application stage, some online application systems require this information. When required, she suggests providing a range as opposed to a fixed number.

Ideally, salary is something you bring up during a call with the recruiter at which time you should also have a better understanding of the nuances of the job. If the salary offered is below what is minimally acceptable to you, you can remove yourself from the application process — it’s better for both parties if you do this sooner rather than later, says Deivanayagam. This conversation with the recruiter is also a chance to for you to further sell yourself.

“When someone has actually had a conversation with you, they are more likely to understand your value,” explains Deivanayagam, so you want to avoid having that conversation about salary before they have had a chance to see what you can bring to the organization.

Reframe your approach

Don’t think about it as a negotiation but rather as the start of a relationship with someone you could potentially work with suggests Deivanayagam. “You want to have positioned this as a conversation,” she adds, so ideally you speak with the person on the phone or in person.

“I try to stay away from emails because it’s very difficult to judge tone,” says Deivanayagam but “once you have the conversation, summarizing it in an email is good to make sure both are you are on the same page.”

Always provide a range

This is the golden rule according to Deivanayagam and candidates should always provide a range as opposed to a hard figure. “It’s a discussion and a conversation so you want to have that leeway,” she says.

While you will at some point be talking about an exact figure you always want to start with a range and have the organization be the one to respond she explains.

Know the market

When it comes to figuring out an acceptable salary range, you must first do your homework. This starts by establishing your needs and financial commitments. This is important to know, says Deivanayagam, because if your financial needs are not met, it can create a lot of stress down the line and cause you to question whether the job is right for you after all.

Calculating your worth is both an “art and a science,” she adds, because it involves looking at both objective and subjective criteria.

Candidates should also use multiple data sources to see what the salary range is for that type of job role. While comparison sites such as Payscale and Glassdoor are not specific to the development sector, these sites can provide broad salary data on job types and geographical factors.

You next have to narrow it down and match this information with jobs in the nongovernmental organization and development sector, explains Deivanayagam. Reach out to friends and contacts in the industry who work in similar jobs, and consider factors such as the size of the organization, the scope and complexity of the role, and job titles, which can be misleading and differ between employers.

Recruiters and HR contacts can be another good source, she adds, and might be able to provide you with information based on what they are seeing in the marketplace. If you are meeting these types of professionals at career fairs they will usually be happy to help you because they are not actually involved in the salary negotiation discussions and can help to validate your research.

Candidates then need to see where they lie within this range and how they “stack up” says Deivanayagam. “Is this a lateral move, have they done a similar job, have they relevant experience and can add value quickly?” she adds.

If this is the case then the individual might fall into the mid or higher end of the salary range. If the job is going to be a step up for them, they may be on the lower end.

Candidates should also consider whether they have a specialized skill set that is hard to find, for example, a niche area of expertise or experience in a country that is considered a hard-to-fill location. “If you have experience working there and you know that there are a limited number of people, then you know there is a premium to be charged for that,” says Deivanayagam.

The final phase is to assess the market forces and whether it is “a buyers market or a sellers market.” Candidates should be mindful of this as they start negotiations and get a sense of the competition, says Deivanayagam. During the interview process she recommends trying to get a better understanding of the “organization-specific forces” — has the job been open a long time and if so what factors are contributing to this, and is there an urgency to fill the position?

For women working in development — don’t be afraid to ask for that raise

Women often have a higher apprehension than men when it comes to salary negotiations. Deivanayagam says that in her experience dealing with candidates, women are less comfortable at negotiating and worried that coming across as pushy will impact their likeability factor.

“My advice is really being self aware of where on the spectrum you lie — do you have a high need of that likeability factor or are you worried about that,” says Deivanayagam adding that “self-awareness is important.”

She also advises not taking the negotiations too personally and believes it is better to ask than to later beat yourself over it. “If you start a job thinking that you are paid less or you are not getting everything that you want, it does impact your performance.”

When it comes to asking for a raise with an existing employer, it is advantageous that it is an “established relationship” says Deivanayagam — however you shouldn’t assume that your manager, who might be overseeing large teams, knows your value.

“You want to make their job easier by highlighting that,” she advises. “One way is of course documenting your performance, having more specific conversations with your manager about it, setting a time separately to have these kind of conversations and being prepared for that.”

Employees should take into consideration the goals they have accomplished and their contributions to the employer, as well as the growth of their role, which can be something quite specific to the development sector says Deivanayagam.

“You may be hired to do something then crisis hits and you do this and that and then your job is bigger,” she explains. “And that’s fine, but when you don’t address it, that’s when the resentment starts building,” so take stock of how your role has expanded and how that constitutes a pay increase.

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About the author

  • Emma smith

    Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a reporting and communications associate at Devex, based in Barcelona. She focuses on bringing the latest career and hiring trends, tips, and insights to our global development community. Emma has a background in journalism and, in addition to writing for news publications, has worked with organizations focusing on child rights and women’s rights in sustainable development.