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How to negotiate a starting salary

You can easily talk your way out of a job or accept less than you’re worth.

How to negotiate a starting salary
When you have leverage, you’re able to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness.

A veterinarian interviewing for a job indicates that she needs to earn a certain starting salary.

The hiring manager decides the veterinarian is the best candidate for the position and offers the job at the requested salary. The candidate then asks for $50,000 more a year. The hiring manager is not pleased. Feeling as if she is the victim of a bait and switch, she tells the candidate “no.”

The candidate shaves $35,000 off her request. “No.” Another $10,000 off. “No.”

At this point, the hiring manager is both displeased and annoyed. She rules out the veterinarian for the open position and all future jobs at the hospital.

As a recruiter in the veterinary profession, I witnessed the situation first-hand and later asked the candidate about her thought process. She said, “If you don’t ask for it, you won’t know if you will get it.”

That response is not an acceptable or well-informed tactic. You can’t call it a tactic at all. That’s because it ignores the three main tenets of effectively negotiating a starting salary and benefits.

They are:

  • Know the leverage that candidates hold in the marketplace.
  • Know the potential value that a candidate brings to an organization.
  • Execute negotiations based upon the first two tenets.

The veterinarian in this story did not have a grasp of the three tenets. She threw away her chance at a prime opportunity.

So, how can a veterinarian effectively negotiate in today’s job market? The answer depends on many things, some within a person’s control and some that are not. Before I go on, allow me to list those factors.


  • Their skillset (hard skills and soft skills).
  • Their experience.
  • Their ability to negotiate.


  • The state of the economy.
  • The financial capacity of the employer.
  • The availability of qualified candidates.
  • The urgency with which the business needs to fill the position.

Let’s use these critical factors as the lens through which to discuss the issue in three steps.

1. Leverage

As I pointed out, some factors are outside the control of veterinary professionals. The good news is that all the factors listed as “Not within a person’s control” are favorable today to job seekers and job candidates. In other words, the following generally hold true:

  • The U.S. economy is doing well, especially in regard to a company’s ability and willingness to hire, especially veterinarians.
  • Because the economy is good, the financial capacity of veterinary practices is correspondingly good.
  • A shortage of qualified candidates exists within the veterinary profession, a point I touched on in my article “The Ripple Effect” [June/July 2018, http://bit.ly/2lXYQtn].
  • Because of the shortage of qualified candidates, veterinary employers typically attach a high degree of urgency to open positions, especially in terms of how quickly the jobs are filled.

When it comes to negotiating salary and benefits with a potential employer, veterinary professionals are in a good position today because of leverage. When you have leverage, you’re able to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness. When you have leverage, you’re able to make better decisions.

The problem is that starting in a good negotiating position is no guarantee that you’re going to finish in one.

2. Value

What’s within a job seeker’s control are their skills, experience and ability to negotiate — factors that pertain to the value a professional brings to a potential employer. Veterinarians who want to effectively negotiate with a new employer had better be acutely attuned to the value they possess. And when I say “acutely attuned,” I don’t mean guessing; I mean knowing the value they bring to a new employment situation.

Let’s start with a person’s skill set, which is broken down into hard skills and soft skills. Hard skills are characterized as:

  • Teachable, which means they can be learned. You can teach yourself or other people can teach you, or both.
  • Quantifiable, which means they produce quantifiable results that can be graded and evaluated.

Soft skills, on the other hand, refer to how you interact with other people, including your boss and co-workers. Soft skills can be learned but are more difficult to quantify. The most valuable soft skills are called transferrable soft skills, or those that can be applied to a number of areas within a specific industry. They can be transferred from one career to another.

Here are soft skills that employers value in candidates:

  • Communication
  • Time management
  • Sales (or the art of persuasion)
  • Leadership

As you might have guessed, negotiation is a transferrable soft skill. A veterinary professional has control over how many skills they possess, and through effort and study, their skill aptitude. They also have control, albeit to a lesser degree, over their experience in the profession. After all, to amass considerable experience requires a lot of time, over which no one has control.

A veterinary professional must know the value they offer to a potential employer in the way of skills and experience. This is critical when negotiating. If you don’t know what you have to offer, then how can you expect to effectively negotiate for a higher salary or better benefits?

3. Execute

Now that you know about leverage and the value you possess, it’s time to execute using this knowledge. To negotiate with a prospective employer, you must insert yourself into the hiring process. The stage at which you can begin to negotiate is the interview itself. If you don’t get that far, the point is moot.

Keep this in mind:

  • Your resume must be constructed well enough so that it persuades the hiring manager to give you a phone interview.
  • Your phone interview must go well enough that the hiring manager invites you to a face-to-face interview.
  • Your face-to-face interview must go well enough that the hiring manager believes that your candidacy merits a discussion regarding starting salary and benefits.

As you can see, you cannot put the cart before the horse. Even if you get a face-to-face interview, you can’t sit down and immediately start talking about money. Remember this: Your No. 1 priority during the interview is to secure an offer of employment. The best way to accomplish this is to convey the value (skills and experience) that you bring and how you will use that value to benefit the practice.

Once an initial offer has been made, start negotiations. The hiring manager or practice owner expects you to negotiate.

Here are three tips for negotiating salary and benefits:

  • Do not bring up the subject of money until the employer does. Why? First of all, your No. 1 priority is to secure an offer of employment. Focusing on money and benefits too soon could jeopardize it. Second, as a general rule, organizations sour on candidates whose top priority is clearly money. The hiring manager will think that your current employer might make a counteroffer or that you’ll leave the new practice as soon as another employer offers more money.
  • Do not provide a specific salary figure when the subject is initially broached. Once the hiring manager or practice owner brings up the issue of money, you are a serious candidate for the position. Your best response this: “Obviously, I am looking for your best offer, but career opportunity will weigh heavily on my decision. You have a range in mind that you are planning to pay the person in this position. I’d like to be somewhere within your range based upon my qualifications and what I bring to the table.” If you give a specific number and the number is too low, then you’re leaving money on the table. If you give a number that’s too high, you’ll price yourself out of a job. (Remember that it is illegal in some states for an employer to ask about your salary history. Research which states and localities outlaw pay history questions.)
  • Do not accept the first offer (with a caveat). An organization will not always make its very best offer right away. That’s because the hiring manager expects some negotiation. However, if you’re working with a recruiter, you can accept the first offer. This is because the recruiter should know your expectations and the employer’s salary range. The recruiter should be able to negotiate a compensation package acceptable to the employer and pleasing to the candidate.

As a recruiter, I can tell you some veterinarians who are aware of their leverage during negotiations try to abuse it. The case study presented at the onset of this article was an extreme example, but I know of others.

In today’s market, it doesn’t matter if you’re:

  • A new veterinary school graduate.
  • A well-experienced veterinarian.
  • An active job seeker who applies through online advertisements.
  • A passive candidate who was contacted about an opportunity by a veterinary practice or recruiter.

What matters most is your ability to:

  • Identify what you can and cannot control.
  • Recognize the leverage that exists in the marketplace.
  • Accurately assess the value you bring in terms of skills and experience.
  • Successfully execute your negotiation during the hiring process.

Without a doubt, now is one of the best times to negotiate a higher salary or better benefits when seeking a job. But you still need the proper awareness, preparation, approach and strategy.

VetPartners member Stacy Pursell is founder and CEO of The Vet Recruiter. She is a workplace and workforce expert who has served the animal health industry and veterinary profession for more than 22 years.