Whether you’re applying for your first job, negotiating your first raise, or counseling newbie friends on how to handle theirs, compensation is always a hot topic with young workers. So in the interest of doing some good this holiday, we checked in with Jenny Floren, CEO of Web-based college recruiting platform Experience.com, for a little advice on navigating the crazy compensation process. A corporate survivor herself, Floren and crew first partnered with Fortune for this year’s Best Companies for Entry-level Employees package. And though she thinks some age-old problems, like the compensation gender gap, are fading into the past with Gen Y, Floren says we still have a thing or two to learn. So to that end, a few thoughts on getting a great job — and the salary to go with it.
- Get as much information as you can. Compensation for entry-level positions is usually based on overall compensation structure, so to the extent that you can find out how a company sets its tiers, you’ll know what you’re in for in the long term. And that’s key, even when negotiating that first job. “Oftentimes, at the entry level, the flexibility might be limited, but they really leapfrog you when you take that next step up,” Floren says. “So getting an employer to explain how all of that works is ammunition for that next step up. Ask what it will take to get there, and consistently monitor where you are so that you can proactively manage it.”
- Start the conversation early. “Assume the offer you get is somewhere close to what they can offer,” says Floren. “The employer is not sandbagging you, trying to offend you, or saying you’re not worth $35 zillion by offering you $35,000. But it shows confidence and professionalism to come back.” Ask if there’s any flexibility, and when they ask what kind you’re looking for, come back with something reasonable, based upon your knowledge of your own situation and the industry in general. Floren recommends using available compensation services (salary.com, vault.com and her own experience.com), as well as widely available research and studies about industry norms to figure out where you should be and what’s reasonable to request.
- Ask, and you just might receive. Every company has a set way of handling compensation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t ask what’s possible. And that goes for everything — raises, promotions, and feedback. “The harm is in being obnoxious, never asking, or not receiving the feedback that you need to learn and grow,” Floren says. And remember that compensation doesn’t just mean cash: Ask about flextime, vacation days, stock options or performance bonuses. “Do your best not to come across as demanding, but as someone who wants to be recognized for the fantastic contribution you want to make,” says Floren. And once you’ve started making that fantastic contribution, make sure someone’s paying attention by asking to be reviewed in six months or some other fixed, near-term time-frame. That feedback is the best way to keep the compensation conversation going.
- It’s all in the delivery. We hear it all the time: These kids all want to be CEO — tomorrow! And while it does sound like a somewhat unfair characterization, all those bosses couldn’t be completely wrong. “There’s a misconception among employers that Gen Yers have out-of-whack expectations,” Floren says. “But many times, what they’re asking for isn’t necessarily a huge raise or promotion, but that’s how they express it. And that’s perceived as impatience, as not valuing the learning process, and as devaluing all the people who’ve gone down this path already.” So before you get carried away telling your employer what you want, make sure that you’re giving them what they want, too. “Realize that your audience wants you to be successful, but they also want you to contribute, learn, not race through or overlook things, like the importance of those entry-level posts,” says Floren. “So go to the point of explicitly overemphasizing that you’re not trying to skip steps in the process or looking for a new job before getting the first one done. Show that you just want to do the best job possible and be leading the pack.”
- Talk, but not too much. Yers, says Floren, are known for their multitasking, but this can come across as flightiness in professional situations. Especially when we’re constantly talking about everything we’ve done, will do and want to do. Ever. “This can work against Yers because employers won’t consider them for opportunities that require focus and thoughtfulness,” Floren says. “Employers fear they won’t have the sticktoitiveness required to get the job done.” Instead, use your face-time with higher-ups to ask for guidance on how you can make more valuable contributions to the organization. Framed in those terms, your interests and the company’s seem aligned, which will encourage your superiors to look for opportunities for you, instead of opportunities to get rid of you.
- And remember, money isn’t everything. “Provided you can have a place to live and put food on the table, actual compensation would be at the bottom of my list for an entry-level position,” Floren says. “The things I’d look for at the beginning of a career are the growth opportunities, the training and skills you can acquire, the network you can build within the organization and with the customers you’re serving. The launching pad those will give you matter more than whether you’re making $30,000 or $60,000. It may seem like a 100 percent difference, but that 30k job in the long run could put you on a path that’s worth so much more than 30k a year.”