How to Negotiate Your Salary When Leaving the Military

Before job seekers go into the salary negotiation process armed with a list of demands, they have to do their homework.
Before job seekers go into the salary negotiation process armed with a list of demands, they have to do their homework. (Elisa Amendola/AP File Photo)

When I left the Marine Corps, I didn't get any training on evaluating whether a job's compensation package was fair or how to negotiate it if it wasn't. This lack of knowledge isn't unique to veterans.

A study showed that about half of the thousands of employees surveyed never negotiate their salaries, and another large percentage rarely negotiate. That same survey showed that 54% of hiring managers are willing to negotiate on initial offers, and nearly half were flexible on other perks and benefits, if not the base salary. To me, that means a lot of people could be better compensated if they had asked.

Since my transition, I've learned about salary negotiation through mentors, research and personal experience. Here are some questions I wished someone would have answered for me when I first started to try to figure it all out.

Why Can't I Just Work Hard and Prove to My Company that It Should Pay Me More?

Companies won't hesitate to pay you less if they don't think you'll have an issue with it. It's not personal; it's business. Of course, you should work hard and prove to your company you're a great employee. But that's not enough.

You also need to speak up. If you don't, your employer will assume that you're happy with your compensation. When it's appropriate, such as during a performance review, make sure to point out that your outstanding performance deserves to be rewarded.

Will I Lose the Offer or My Job if I Negotiate?

It's always possible to lose an offer or your job, regardless of the situation. Welcome to the private sector. But it is improbable, especially if you negotiate the right way.

What's the right way? Being professional and reasonable. Think of it this way. If you make a logical case that you fulfill a position with your skills and experience, but the salary doesn't match the market rate for the position, wouldn't it be fair for the company to consider increasing that salary?

Sure, a company could say no to that. But it would be unreasonable for them to take the offer or job off the table because of it. In the majority of cases, the situation reverts to the original offer.

How Do I Ask for a Raise or Negotiate a Better Offer Then?

Well, there's a lot that goes into that answer (I wrote a whole book about it after all), but there are some basic things you need to know.

1. Do your homework. study indicates that more than a quarter of the people surveyed did not know the industry standard for their position. I bet this percentage is even higher if you poll recently transitioned service members.

I can tell you I had no clue when I first got out. I just trusted the salary ranges on the job position postings. This ignorance is a critical mistake that can be easily corrected. Sites like,, and have collected salary information from various industries and positions.

I would also recommend reaching out to people in the industry for informational interviews to learn more about expected compensation. Use this information to set your expectations and goals when you do your job search.

Related: Search for Veteran Jobs

2. Don't ask because you want it. Ask because you deserve it.

Understand the market. Don't ask for what you want. Ask for what you deserve. You deserve something if you can make a reasonable case for its value. For example, if everyone else in the industry makes $45,000 and the offer you received is for $40,000, you can make the case that for taking that position, you would expect $5,000 more.

3. Just ask.

Most people are afraid that if they try to negotiate, some dire consequence could occur. It's the No. 1 fear of people who say they never negotiate their salaries. I've consulted on negotiations worth more than tens of thousands of dollars in compensation this past year, for friends and other veterans, and I can assure you that this is an unreasonable concern.

Most employers actually expect a negotiation and budget this into their initial offers. An employer may say no to your counter, but that's the worst of it. Be professional and courteous in your dealings, and your employer will treat you the same.

Why Is It Important to Negotiate?

"Not negotiating, however, can be more costly than you think. In their paper, 'Who Asks and Who Receives in Salary Negotiation,' researchers ... found that employees who negotiated their salary boosted their annual pay an average of $5,000. According to the researchers, assuming a 5% average annual pay increase over a 40-year career, a 25-year-old who negotiated a starting salary of $55,000 will earn $634,000 more than a non-negotiator who accepted an initial offer of $50,000." -- Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield in "Fast Company"

Salary negotiation is just one skill that veterans may not be familiar with when they leave the military. But it is one that can provide the most outsized results. It is definitely worth learning.

Should I Always Negotiate?

Almost. You have to balance your priorities. Welcome to the civilian world: You now have the luxury of choice. If you only have one job offer after months of interviewing and your funds are getting low or if the job is with your dream company, consider what's more important to you. Salary may not be what you should prioritize in these cases. Like I said earlier, you act as your own agent. The agent's job is to make sure his client is satisfied. So make sure your decision makes you happy.

Since leaving the Marine Corps, Byron Chen has been on a mission to pass on success stories and lessons learned from other veterans who have made the transition. He started a transition resource site to help service members with their careers and lives after the military through articles, videos and podcasts. Chen is the author of "Barracks To Boardrooms: Negotiating Your Salary After Serving in the Military."

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