I received my very first “real” job offer on a Friday afternoon, from a payphone in a midtown Manhattan subway station, where I was in town for some job interviews (Yep, a payphone! It was the mid-90s, before cell phones were ubiquitous).
HR: “We’d like to offer you the position of Marketing Assistant.”
HR: “The salary will be… [insert insultingly low number, which was still more than I’d ever made as a teen or college student].”
HR: “We’d like you to start on Monday.”
Me: “Um… great?”
I’d just landed my dream job in book publishing at one of the world’s top publishing houses in New York City. It felt like a dream. The problem? I was a 22-year-old recent college grad living with my parents in Massachusetts. And I was about to start a job in Manhattan in just over two days. I had Saturday to pack up my belongings and figure out a temporary place to stay in NYC, where I did not know a single person. That meant Sunday was moving day. It was thrilling, but incredibly stressful. It didn’t have to be.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I made several mistakes on that 2-minute phone call. Here’s what I wish I had known ahead of time:
1. Never accept a job offer on the spot.
I was so excited to get the offer that I was irrationally afraid of it slipping through my hands. As if taking a few days — or even hours — to think about it would cause them to change their minds and revoke the offer. In reality, they most certainly would have paid me the courtesy of a little time to think it over, had I simply asked.
I could have expressed my excitement and then asked for the weekend to review the offer. This may have been an issue, since they wanted me to start right away, but probably not (I’ll get to that in #2). Though it wasn’t an option for me back then, anyone receiving a phone offer now should also ask to receive all the details of the offer via email. There’s typically more to negotiate than just salary and start date.
Even if it’s your dream job, even if you’re just beginning in an entry level role and feel you have no leverage, take a moment. Your potential employer is going to ask for the conditions that are best for your potential employer. It’s your job to consider these and counter with what is reasonable and best for you. There’s almost always wiggle room. An offer is just the beginning of the conversation, and you’ll rarely find yourself in a more powerful position than you are immediately after the offer has been made.
2. You don’t have to start immediately.
There are very, very few cases in which an employer will need you to start your new role on the next business day, and that would likely only be in a case in which you’d explicitly said you could do so. If you say you are available “immediately,” they may actually want you to start immediately, so don’t say it. Even if “immediately” is true, pick a reasonable date that would work for you and that won’t require you to scramble.
Remember to have that date in the back of your mind during your interviews. You don’t want to tell them you’re available immediately, and then surprise them by asking for an extra month when they offer you the job.
In my case, accepting the position meant moving two states away and finding housing in NYC. So even though the HR person likely wanted to fill the spot and move on to the next item on her list, she almost certainly would have recognized the difficulty of my starting on the next business day had I addressed it!
3. Don’t accept the first salary offer, unless you’ve specifically named your price and they’ve met it.
I knew that book publishing wasn’t known at the time for being a high-paying industry, and I had a vague sense that entry-level publishing salaries were pretty low. But I didn’t know what “low” meant, because I had no basis for comparison. Now, thanks to the internet, social media discussions and sites like Fairygodboss, it’s much easier to discover what’s a reasonable starting salary in your industry.
As it turned out, not only was my entry-level salary almost unlivable on a New York City budget, but it had bigger implications for my earning power over the course of my career. I was promoted regularly, but my raises were always based on what I was making at the time. Because I’d started out by accepting such a low salary, it took years to climb out of the low-pay ditch I’d unwittingly dropped myself into.
Again, coming from a place of fear that I’d lose the offer, I immediately accepted what was almost certainly their bottom-rung offer. Of course they wouldn’t come right out of the gate with their highest number. It was my job to push back and find the most they were willing to pay for the role. But instead, I let them off the hook and then paid for it throughout my 20s.
Looking back, I don’t regret accepting the job. There were many times in those early years that I found myself having so much fun, I couldn’t believe it was actually work. It was everything I’d hoped it would be and then some, and I ended up staying for eight years. I also don’t beat myself up over my non-existent negotiation skills as a 22-year-old. It was adventure, and I learned all the good lessons — particularly the importance of self-advocacy.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, the largest career community that helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.