The ArchiteXX Guide to Salary Negotiation

The ArchiteXX Guide to Salary Negotiation

By Sara Arfaian

Part 1: Strategies and Tactics for Asking for the Raise You Deserve in 11 Steps

The first thing to understand about salary negotiation is that asking for a raise is never about money. It’s a matter of principle. You deserve to be paid a fair market rate commensurate with the value of your contribution, which will inevitably increase over time.

Secondly, asking is hard. It requires ingenuity, gumption and drive. But sometimes it is the hardest things, the things that scare you most, that are the most important to do. It is a meaningful enterprise, demanding and rewarding in equal measure. Per the late great Teddy Roosevelt, “all daring and courage … make for a finer and nobler type of [wo]manhood.”[i]

Thirdly, it is imperative that women ask. Because women, as data on the persistent wage gap suggests, do not ask, or perhaps not as successfully as their male colleagues. It is time women started relying in their own agency and understanding themselves as the central protagonist in their own lives. And this means you should ask for the raise you deserve – with charm and poise and grace– but no matter what, ASK.

Finally, it’s important that architects ask. We all bemoan the exploitative culture of our profession, but if we can’t bring ourselves to ask our bosses for adequate compensation, how can we expect to ask our clients for it? Effecting change starts at home, with a simple question.

So, how should one going about this sensitive task? Successful salary negotiation relies on a subtle rhetorical strategy. There are three types of rhetorical appeals: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. It is this author’s opinion that a winning negotiation should consist of both a strong logical argument (logos) and the right tone (ethos). Be wary of your use of emotional appeal in your negotiation (pathos).

Logos (logical appeal) means persuading by the use of reasoning. You are coming to the table with a classic conflict of interests as old as the market economy itself. You want them to pay you the highest amount they are able, while they want to pay you the least amount you are willing to accept. What you need to accomplish is demonstrate that your interests are not mutually exclusive, that a raise for you is a win­win situation for both parties, that it is in your employers best interest to pay you more. In order to convince someone that paying you more money is in their favor, you have to first convince them that you have their best interest in mind.

Ethos  (ethical appeal) amounts to, in the words of David Foster Wallace, a complex and sophisticated “trust me”[ii]; one that requires the rhetor to convince her interlocutor not just of her intellectual acuity or technical competence, but of her basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears.

Convincing by the character of the author is a tricky thing. Your trustworthiness or credibility, your reputation as it exists independently from the matter at hand, determines the force of your argument. Aristotle  tells us that three things inspire confidence in the rhetor’s own character: good sense, good moral character, and goodwill.

But regardless of the strength of your character, the actual content of the argument we hear, the way it is spoken and what it says, always conveys an impression of the rhetor’s character. This impression created by the discussion itself is the intrinsic ethos. In other words, people judge the credibility of your ideas by your speaking skills. This is a question of ideology, style, tone. Generally, in salary negotiation, your tone should marry rigor, humility, and honesty.

Pathos  (emotional argument) means persuading by appealing to the audience’s emotions. An example of this would be to argue that you would like a raise because you just can’t afford to live on your current salary. It is this author’s opinion that this strategy lacks integrity. It seems to confuse need with merit and it shifts the scope of the argument from professional to personal in a way that may detract from your goals.

Once you have determined your negotiation strategy, here are some tactics to consider, offered by a modestly competent (and accomplished) negotiator.

1)     Don’t wait for an annual review to ask. Waiting has serious opportunity costs and breeds complacency. Ask at every opportunity ­ the end of a project, the beginning of a project, after a big success, etc. Do not tarry!

2)     Consult a trusted mentor in the office about what to expect. At some firms management is trained with standard responses to avoid your request or to thwart your efforts. Be prepared for the typical excuses they like to use.

3)     Try to speak to the most senior person who both knows you reasonably well and has authorization to approve or review raises. Office politics are sensitive ­ use your discretion and judgment here to decide who is the most appropriate person to meet with.

4)     Explicitly outline/itemize what your rationale is for your case. Come with a printed agenda that lists the different arguments for why you deserve a raise, along with printed supporting documents for each reason. Providing a printed agenda and supporting documents with examples/evidence that you can leave with whoever you are meeting is important for the following reasons:

  • a)     Whoever you are meeting with either might need time consider your request or might not be authorized to make the decision on their own and need approval from other senior management in the office. You want to give as much material as you can for her to use in building a case for you and argue on your behalf.
  • b)     You should have a record of what you presented anyway, it’s always a good idea to have things in writing for future reference.

5)     If you’re asking for a fair market rate salary, a deductive argument that compares your current salary to the standard salary for the responsibilities and position you already have is a pretty strong one. If you can establish agreement that A is true and B is true, then C must be true. For example, if A) you are currently performing the role of project architect for your firm and B) the market rate for the position of project architect in your area is a given salary, then C) you should be making that salary. It’s a solid rationale that’s hard to argue with.

  • a)     Use  glassdoor.com and  salary.com to find market rates for your position at similar firms in the area. Be exhaustive in your research.
  • b)     Be precise. Detail your responsibilities and duties to clearly demonstrate that your role is consistent with a higher billing rate/salary.

6)     If you’re asking for an above-average salary, here especially the onus is on you to provide evidence to substantiate your claims. You have a high burden of proof. The general argument should be something along the lines of “I understand that the salary I am requesting is in the 90th percentile, but I also perform in the 90th percentile.” You have to prove that you are exceptional.

a)     Detail your achievements and positive feedback you’ve received. This would include things done at the office (beating a deadline, compliments from a client, referrals from a client, internal awards, leadership or initiatives within the firm), related to academic involvement (publication of writing or projects in a journal, invitation to serve as guest critic, teaching or speaking engagements, exhibitions, external competition work*), or related to skills and expertise (certifications and registration such as licensure and LEED). Start the list now. This should be a running list. Keep a document that you can add to throughout the year.

b)     Emphasize your continued and demonstrated investment in the firm (overtime, initiatives, etc.), which is always a good reason for why the firm should invest in you.

c)     If you know how much your firm is billing for your time, assume a generous fee multiplier of 3X, and you are able to calculate the firm’s profit from your billing rate and what your salary should be based on the estimated profit margin. You can prove that there is a discrepancy between the value you provide and the compensation you receive.

7)     Give an actual number for your desired salary. This is not an offer negotiation, so there’s no threat of pricing yourself out of a job opportunity. Be very well­researched and as long as your number is laughable. Being vague leaves room for biased interpretation. This way you set the tone and define the terms of the negotiation. You stay in control of the conversation. Also, it’s probably a good idea to give a number that is reasonably higher than the minimum raise you would be happy with. If someone were to actually systematically collect data on salary negotiations, I would bet that the final raise is about 50% of the requested raise. Giving a higher figure for your desired raise is not posturing, it’s just pragmatic.

8)     The person you’re speaking to is a sophisticated audience who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy and clarity and reward you for minimizing the unnecessary effort they have to make. There is no need for fancy prose. Communicate with simplicity and candor.

9)     Make it clear that you are not holding your audience hostage. Express that you won’t be upset if you don’t get the raise you want and that you understand that there are a number of constraints and that your employer is trying their best to meet your request. Appeals to our sense of identity are more compelling, forceful. Flattery is naturally persuasive. When you create a positive image of your employer, an image they can identify with and aspire to, they will try to confirm that image.

10)  Your greatest leverage is a bit of indifference. Try as much as possible to not care about the outcome of your discussion and avoid becoming excessively emotional. Emotion clouds your judgment and negatively impacts your credibility. This is difficult to fake, unfortunately. The ideal state you should feel is an effortless cool detachment. I know, it’s easier said than done.

11)  Ask and ask again. If you are told to wait, ask when you can talk again, and be sure to stick to it.

Remember, half the reason you get the raise is because your boss, manager or principal is so impressed with the thoroughness and professionalism of your conversation with her. It’s also a good representation of your quality of work in general. If you don’t get the raise, recall that we all have social contracts we enter into, tacit agreements around a specific quid pro quo. Understand that while they have to look after their interests but you have to look after your own interests. Consult with your self to consider whether this is the right context for you to be appreciated.

Finally, commend yourself on your courage in this admirable undertaking. We are a nation of movers and shakers, founded by pilgrims who leapt onto leaky boats to get here. Simply asking for the raise builds character and is a laudable accomplishment in itself.

Sara Arfaian is an architect, writer, and negotiation enthusiast practicing in NYC.


[i] From “Washington’s Forgotten Maxim,” as published in The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: American ideals and other essays, social and political (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 90.

[ii] David Foster Wallace, “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” Harpers Magazine, April 2001: 44

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