Since this is as a super common question, I’m writing this up in a more general way, though I hope it helps in your particular circumstances.
There’s really two different aspects to this kind of conversation.
Knowing the field
One of the hard problems to solve is just getting data: what do similarly experienced people make in your area? This is a key part of the equation but unfortunately the “real” numbers are usually collected by private research firms and sold to big companies who are interested in knowing where they sit relative to their industry. The big companies – EA, Microsoft, etc – set their salaries relative to the local market: a common internal conversation starts with “we target the Nth percentile for comparable jobs in the region.” This is a pretty good example of what framework at large employers tends to look like from this employer’s point of view. If your company uses this kind of data, the odds are that you compensation is really tied to a job ladder: a series of predefined ranges tied to experience. In a case like that a “promotion” usually brings with it a change in comp but, conversely, it’s hard to make significantly more money without a title change. The “negotiations” end up being all about finding your place on the ladder.
This banded approach has become more common even at smaller companies in the last decade – but smaller companies don’t always have access to the data and they tend to be a lot more impressionistic in terms of salaries. Thus, individual negotiating skills and history matter more at smaller companies .
All of this is a long winded way of saying it’s really useful – but, at a smaller company, really hard – to go into that negotiation with a solid reference number.
It is always useful to know what the general figures in your area are. However, this is a socially awkward conversation for lots of reasons and most of us shy away from it . If you have friends in the local area who are managers or leads who know comp numbers, see if they can help out in a suitably anonymized way: “hey Joe, what would you budget for a junior TA on your team” is a fair question but “what does Jane make?” is not. Remember there are many personal factors there: don’t push people to do things they consider unethical or which they might not legally allowed to talk about.
If you can’t get numbers you trust there are always surveys: We have as little bit of survey data here , here and here. but (as you’ll see if you read the threads) it’s hard to tease out the numbers that apply to a specific market and job level. Glassdoor can be useful in some areas but the quality of the info depends on how active the folks in that area are on the site. Unfortunately the best data is for-pay only and very market specific. US averages don’t tell you much about compensation in the EU, for example, and a US average can easily hide tremendous differences between different markets. Salaries vary a lot by locale: a senior tech artist in Austin, TX makes less money than the same person would make in San Francisco; the same is true for Paris or London vs Warsaw or Belgrade. So use bulk survey data with care.
The second aspect of the conversation is the actual negotiating. Ideally, though, this is invisible and ongoing, not a one-time faceoff. There are people who can go into these kinds of things with the negotiating chops of a high-powered Hollywood agent. Generally those folks know who they are (I know I’m not one) and they tend to be born not made. For us ordinary mortals, the key is not tactics – it’s about making your relationship with the person who handles they pay be as candid and transparent as possible on both sides.
A single meeting that’s all about money is not a great place to start from for either of you. Ideally, compensation talks are part of an ongoing conversation about where you are at and where you are going in your career. The key issue here agreement about where you are currently at: you really don’t want to go into a once-a-year meeting with a bunch of reasons why you deserve a raise only to be told that your work is sub-par or your specialty is not that valuable these days. Conversely your employer doesn’t want an annual review that was supposed to be a victory lap for a successful year to turn into an argument about an extra thousand bucks – or a tense session with an employee who is flailing still has high expectations. If either the employee or the manager is significantly surprised by the outcome of a compensation review somebody has screwed up.
Ideally, instead, you and your manager should be aligned about how well you are doing, where you need to improve, and how the company plans to keep you happy. If you are routinely good about communicating your achievements and also about taking constructive feedback all year long you’ll be in a good place to have positive discussions. Next year’s goals and how they might relate to next year’s job arc – which includes comp – ought to be something you’re talking about all through this year. That’s all easier said than done, of course, but that is supposed to be what management is there for.
This kind of stuff is often much less formal at smaller companies – in a big shop you’ll probably have it as part of a process, in a smaller place it might be a conversation you want to start or to remind people to have on a regular basis. If you and your manager have some pre-existing level of agreement about where you are now and where you want to be going professionally, the money discussions should be mostly about making sure that the numbers reflect that agreement. Money should not be an independent variable here, it should be where the local market numbers and your career trajectory intersect.
You may however have the bad luck to work someplace where money is the only thing that matters: where the psychological interaction between your personality and your manager’s is more important than anything else: the cheapskate boss, the boss who throws money at their friends, and the clueless boss who just doesn’t understand the market value, and the boss who undervalues people because of their background or their looks are all out there. If you become convinced that you are working for one of them, the safest long term plan is to start looking for another job: it’s very hard to turn those things around on your own. In the meantime you can use Bad Boss as a chance to practice the skills that will pay off in a better work place: try to create the relationship you wish you had with them as a way of understanding what to look for someplace else.
You really need to know three, or maybe four things:
- Where you are at professionally
- Where your manager/boss thinks you are at.
- The going rate for people in your area.
- If #1 and #2 don’t line up, why?
If you know roughly what’s going on in these terms, the range for traditional used-car-style dickering is pretty narrow: if you’re pretty sure you’re an 8-out-of-10 kind of employee getting paid like a 4-out-of-10 for your area, the key is to figure out if that’s a cluelessness or exploitation. OTOH if you think you’re an 8 and your manager thinks you’re a 4, that’s a different conversation. It is not pleasant but avoiding it is also not going to make things improve.
Obviously in the real world this stuff is murkier than I’m making out here: it’s easy to say “find out what the going rate for folks like you is” but hard to do, particularly if you’re in an area where there are not many points of comparison. It’s also hard to have candid self assessments – a good manager should be able to help you with that but good managers are not a given.
All of the most difficult career conversations I have had (on either side of the negotiating table) have happened when there was significant disagreement about where somebody was at. Usually that happened when from people could not see the difference between expectations and reality. And getting that unblocked takes a lot of work – it’s not going to come out of one single session.