10 Things Veterans Need to Know About Their First Salary Negotiation

Making direct contact with managers looking to hire, rather than going through the usual human resources contacts, pays off for job-hunting veterans. (US Congress photo)
Making direct contact with managers looking to hire, rather than going through the usual human resources contacts, pays off for job-hunting veterans. (U.S. Congress photo)

Negotiating a salary is one of the hardest things many military members face when leaving active duty to start a civilian career.

It makes sense. While serving on active duty, military members' base pay is set by rank or rate and time in service in what may be one of the most transparent compensation systems in America.

Privates and seamen, ensigns and second lieutenants are told what they will be paid at the beginning of their service, and the military's paymasters take care of the rest.

Veterans quickly learn that pay systems in the civilian world are very different, and compensation structures in corporate America are often opaque and extremely variable.

Worse, veterans receive little, if any, training on how to approach salary negotiations, and most struggle with determining how much their labor is worth.

Veterans may not consider the total package of compensation when comparing job offers, and there is more to total compensation than just the salary.

Here at Wounded Warrior Project, we often encounter veterans who feel anxious about salary and compensation discussions with potential employers, and we find many have never negotiated their salaries and total compensation when accepting a job offer from a private-sector employer.

Unprepared veterans enter this process at a disadvantage, because corporate hiring officials are fully aware of the upper salary limits for every open position and may lowball on initial offers.

Furthermore, these hiring officials have every reason not to disclose information, because if a veteran is willing to work for less, the company saves money on overhead.

Initial salary negotiations are critical, especially since every subsequent raise, bonus and promotion a veteran employee receives will be based on this initial dollar figure.

As a civilian employee, a veteran's long-term earnings potential is greatly dependent on initial negotiated salary and the total compensation package.

Here's what transitioning veterans need to know about salary and compensation negotiations:

1. Securing a fair wage for your labor is your responsibility alone, but you can get help from a career transition specialist and should do so.

2. Research the compensation ranges for similar jobs at similar-sized companies in your region. Websites like Salary.com and Glassdoor.com can be useful resources.

3. Know your worth and bring that information to your interviews. Don't focus on compensation during the first interview. You want to sell your skills and experience first and foremost. When the employer is ready to make you an offer, focus on the compensation after you know you have them interested in hiring you.

4. Make sure you've translated your military skills and experiences into language civilian hiring officials can understand. Your career transition specialist is especially adept at helping with this.

5. If the employer's recruiting team doesn't offer you information on a salary range, ask your recruiter what the pay range is for the position before going in to interview to ensure you are in the ballpark. Some recruiters will ask what you are making at your current salary. Know that you are under no obligation to disclose this amount, and you may weaken your negotiating position by doing so. The recruiter is going to make a recommendation to the hiring manager whether you move forward or not to an interview.

6. Understand that companies budget flexibility into their initial offers. Know this and don't leave money on the table.

7. With an initial offer in hand, have courage and ask whether they will accept a counteroffer. If you've passed the interview process and are at the job-offer stage, know that making a counteroffer for a higher salary won't sink the deal as long as the counteroffer is reasonable and delivered in a professional manner.

8. A good rule of thumb, after researching compensation for the same type of position in your community, is to ask for a salary that equals the average or better of the value you found for your area -- taking into consideration your experience and skill set. It is always best to work with your career transition specialist to get an unbiased, expert opinion. This counteroffer could be 10%-15% higher than the initial offer from the company.

9. If an employer is unable to budge on salary, know it is also possible to negotiate other terms of employment such as vacation, personal/sick days off, flexible hours, telecommuting, bonuses and, for military retirees eligible for Tricare, options to receive additional pay in lieu of using the corporate health-care plan. If the company has an employee stock plan, make sure you understand what could be offered in terms of equity in the company. Also consider whether the employer matches 401(k) plan contributions so that you don't leave "free money" on the table.

10. Remember that a successful negotiation means that both the company and the newly hired employee are excited. It is not about "winning" but finding the right deal for you and your employer. Total compensation is more than just a salary figure, and you will likely have to consider all the variables presented in comparison to other potential offers to arrive at what is best for you. Engage your career transition specialist for their help in doing the analysis with you. Your starting point may very well determine the rest of your working career.

Veterans can seek employment counseling from Wounded Warrior Project by calling the Resource Center.

Bryan Rollins is the Warriors to Work director at Wounded Warrior Project and a 25-year aviation combat veteran of the U.S. Navy. Joe Plenzler is a communications director at Wounded Warrior Project and a 20-year combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.

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