Real Talk. Negotiating Salary in Archives

I’ve written and spoken about this issue before. The long and short of it is that women don’t tend to negotiate their salaries, and not doing so goes a long way toward accounting for the wage gap between men and women. So, now that I’m in my fifth professional job, I’m going to give you some real talk about my approach to negotiating.

You do not work for the joy of the collections. You do not work for the joy of research. You work for money. And even if you don’t, I do, and I don’t want you sending bad messages to employers that we’re compensated by the joy of our experiences.

Do everything you can to make sure you’re not negotiating with your future boss. If possible, it’s best to negotiate with someone from HR whom you’ll never see again in your life. If your future boss calls to make you the offer, say “I’m very happy to consider this offer. Could you please arrange for me to negotiate details with a human resources representative?”

On the flip side, if you’re a manager, you should also insist within your organization that negotiation must happen between the candidate and someone from HR (or the business office, if you’re a teeny-tiny organization and you don’t have an HR department). It is in your best interest that your new employee has the opportunity to negotiate an employment situation that works for everyone. Do you really want them to get a bad deal because they’re worried about how they’ll come off to you?

For my first job, my future boss emailed me and said that he would like to interview me, but I should know that the salary was set and that he would require me to stay for three years. I said that we could talk about that after he made an offer. Guess what? I was able to get a little more money and I didn’t agree to stay for three years. Don’t assume that a bogus first offer is final.

Educate yourself about market salaries for your job type and in your area. This is obviously really tricky when job ads don’t post salary information. But, salary information for public employees is freely available. You can even call the reference desk at a university or public library to ask them to help you look up salary information.

I’m a huge advocate for talking about salaries with friends (or anyone who asks — I’ve worked for five university libraries and I’m happy to answer questions about what I earned to anyone who contacts me). It’s hard to know if you’re making less money than you should be, or less money than male colleagues.

When I negotiated for my current job, I called the person who filled my seat before (it was a slightly different job, but the skill set is comparable and he came in with about the same experience and education). At one point in my negotiation, I point-blank said “I know that this person was making $X when he started four years ago and $Z when he left. $Y would be an equitable salary.” This did a lot to re-balance power in that negotiation. If you can say “I know that someone with the same job title at X peer institution makes $Y,” you can help demonstrate that they need to be competitive with the rest of the market.

They’re going to say a lot of stuff about equity within the institution, their budget, blah blah. And I don’t buy it. Let me tell you why. Librarians/archivists are the second-lowest paid profession that requires a master’s degree (we’re ahead of social workers… woo). We’re ALL already underpaid. If you’re an accomplished candidate, play hardball. And if you’re just starting out, start getting them used to the idea that archivists are worth money and that we’re going to ask for it. Professionals in other specialized fields wouldn’t put up with this, and neither should we. It may be absolutely true that this institution is broke and suffering. But this is not your responsibility. You have no obligation to let them balance their budget on your back.

For me, this has hit really close to home. I don’t work at a poor organization — in fact, I work at an extremely wealthy organization. My husband has pretty much the same job I do, but he’s in a museum at my university and I’m at an archives. He had been in his position for a year before I started, so I obviously knew his salary and the resources available to him. He also doesn’t have a master’s degree, and I have a very good one. I’ve been working as a professional for slightly longer than he has. Anyway, I was pretty gobsmacked when the starting salary I was offered was $13K less than what he earns.

I was ready for a serious negotiation. I’m not here to help protect this university’s decisions about which professionals in which departments deserve better salaries. The HR rep’s concerns about parity within the department rolled right off of me — they’re very welcome to give everyone else a raise to help achieve parity. I knew that I was a very desirable candidate, and I knew how much money they needed to offer me for me to take the job.

Negotiations can be full of bullshit. Stay cool with your list of what you want. HR reps like to talk about the intangible benefits of working at a wondrous institution like theirs — listen politely and let them say their piece, but don’t fall for it. I’ve worked at three Ivy League universities and two very wealthy private research universities, and really, the benefits (especially the “intangibles”) are all pretty much the same. The “merit increase” process is all pretty much the same, so don’t assume they’ll come to realize that you’re a spectacular employee and will give you a big raise. They won’t. You need to be in the ballpark of where you want to be at the time of negotiation, or it’s never gonna happen.

Obviously, you need to be polite and you need to listen. It’s best to start the conversation by asking “are you able to negotiate salary?” As we know, “tone” is important for women. You may end up with a crappy salary, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if the negotiation doesn’t go the way you want it to. You may even have to walk away from a truly crappy offer. The very most important thing is for you to develop a sense of responsibility and solidarity so that when you’re in the position to affect a new employee’s salary/hire package, you won’t participate in the bogus hivemind of scarcity and sacrifice that seems so prevalent in archival institutions.

6 thoughts on “Real Talk. Negotiating Salary in Archives

  1. I also think that many candidates underestimate the power that we have. Seeing this from the hiring side, on every search committee that I’ve been on (which is plenty at this point) once we make a decision to extend an offer we become really committed to making the hire work. Even if we were very torn between two candidates throughout the entire selection process, as soon as a decision is made people become emotionally invested in that candidate. Employers goes through a lot of time and effort to recruit new staff and once they have selected someone they really want that choice to be work out. I

    • I agree, Carrie. Having been lucky enough to recruit and hire three high performers in all cases, all of us, including my boss, were virtually apoplectic about making sure we secured this person. From my experience, if you’ve been offered the job, you’ve got the upper hand.

  2. Thank you for this post. I have had issues negotiating even before I entered the archives world. I didn’t even try to negotiate in my current position because it was such a step up from what I was paid in my previous position. It was then that I realized how underpaid I had been. I suspected at the time, but getting that new job really brought it home. I will certainly try to negotiate in the future. The more we discuss this issue the better we will be at taking steps to negotiate.

    A huge problem is the taboo about discussing what you make. In my pre-archives job I was actually informed by a male colleague that I was not being paid as much as another male counterpart who was junior to me and had less education. I never would have known if he had not told me. Now that my current salary is public knowledge I have shared that information with my previous supervisor to let him know that the compensation there is too low. He was really surprised at the difference!

    While I am on a roll here I will share another story. I applied for a position at a historical site as an assistant to the president. I had a minimum amount that I needed to make as I was supporting my husband while he was in school. When I talked with a woman in HR she and I discussed the salary. I told her my minimum and she told me not to mention that to the president. She said he thought that people should work for the joy of the job and that he would likely offer it to me at a lower amount “to see if I was serious about working there.” She said that he didn’t seem to understand that “most people need to be able to eat and cannot simply take a job for the love of it.” Needless to say that after that warning I was not very interested in the position no matter how much I would have liked to get my foot in the door there.

  3. Fantastic post, Maureen. I’ve heard of so many cases in which job candidates walk away from an offer that starts with low-balling without trying to have further conversation. Your advice about bringing an HR person into the loop if that’s not offered is excellent.

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