Further Questions: When is the salary negotiation stage of the process (generally), and what is an acceptable range to negotiate to?

Every other week or so, I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week’s question is from a reader:

When is the salary negotiation stage of the process (generally), and what is an acceptable range to negotiate to? Any other salary negotiation tips?

Headshot of Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor, who wears a floral print cloth mask

Ellen Mehling, Job Search Advisor/Instructor: Ideally, salary negotiation takes place when the applicant is being offered the position. Sometimes employers will want to discuss salary much earlier, though, to make sure that the salary they are willing to pay and the salary the applicant is willing to accept are not too far apart.

Applicants should be clear on what is reasonable pay for the kind of work they do, with the skills and experience they have, in the area where they are seeking employment. They should never go into a negotiation without doing their homework re: salary, and without a firm number in their mind for the minimum salary that will work for them.

The lower end of the range an applicant gives (always give a range rather than a minimum, so there is some flexibility) should be one that they are truly willing to accept. The job seeker may be focused on the higher end but the employer will be focused on the lower end. The upper end of the range should be a bit more than they really want/expect to get, but not unreasonably so.

In general, the person the applicant is negotiating with has more experience with negotiations, and less at stake personally, than the applicant. Without preparation, job seekers may find themselves bulldozed by an experienced negotiator, and risk walking out of a negotiation thinking, “What did I just agree to?”

If an agreement on salary can’t be reached during a negotiation, applicants should end the discussion firmly but politely, thanking the employer for their consideration so as not to burn bridges. The employer may come back later with another offer, but it is best not to expect that. Applicants should put that position out of their mind and turn their attention to the next job they are going to apply to.

Headshot of Alan Smith, who wears glasses, a tie and suspenders

Alan Smith, Director, Florence County, SC Library System:

Like a lot of local government agencies, we have a rather lengthy hiring process. Between the interview and the final offer of employment there’s a background check, a drug test, and documents to sign. Any time within this range is fine for salary negotiation. Interestingly, most candidates do not try to negotiate the salary at all. Those who do usually mention it at the end of the interview in a general way (“Is the salary negotiable?”), or at the final offer of employment more specifically (“I need $XX to accept the position.”) 

If you absolutely can’t afford to accept the position at the advertised salary, ask at the interview, at least in general terms. If your minimum requirement is more than we can offer I’d rather know sooner than later! Though, and this may go without saying, do wait until the end of the interview. We have had a few people try to get into salary negotiations before the interview even started. There’s the standard advice about using the interview as a chance to evaluate the hiring organization as well, and if you lead with salary negotiations it gives the impression that you’re not really interested in the job itself.

Finally, and again like a lot of local government agencies, we unfortunately don’t have a lot of room for negotiation. Our budget is set a year in advance and we cannot exceed it, which means any increase above the advertised pay has to be cut out of the budget somewhere else. The exception is if you are applying for a position vacated by someone with a higher salary, since that’s already budgeted. Some candidates will ask in the interview, “what happened to the last person in this position?” That’s a good question to ask in general, since it can reveal a lot about the interviewers, but as far as salary goes, “she retired after 30 years!” means you may have a better opportunity to negotiate. 

Celia is running across the finish line of the Clarence Demar Half Marathon

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College:

If a candidate wants to negotiate salary or other job conditions, I’d suggest asking within a few days of the offer. Staff and faculty work in unions at my institution. And I am also limited to the dollars available in my budget. So there is not much flexibility to negotiate and I have no authority to make a change without authorization of my Provost. This is an area I don’t have a lot of experience with although I did negotiate my salary for my current job (as an administrator, I am a non-bargaining unit staff member, not a faculty member). Ask within a few days, think about what you would accept, ask for a bit higher, and see what happens. For public institutions you may be able to find salary information that you can point to as part of your negotiation, and also indicate your current salary if the offered salary is equal to, or less, than what you currently earn.

Headshot of Jimmie Epling, who wears a suit and glasses and smiles into the camera

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System:

In public libraries, generally only the most upper level management position involve salary negotiations.


I have received some wonderful salary negotiation advice from colleagues and love to have an opportunity to share what I learned!

When you have been offered the position, that is usually the time to start salary negotiations. Depending on the type of organization, they will let you know if there is a top number for the salary range. Most of the time, they can’t go above that amount. If you want to negotiate, have data to back up your reasoning – industry salary data, years of experience, etc.

If you really want the job, let them know! That might go a long way towards negotiations. If they can’t budge on salary, ask about non-salary perks, such as a number of paid conferences, moving assistance, job for spouse or partner, etc. Think creatively. If they want you, they should be willing to try alternate options, especially since salary often comes out of a different fund than other expenses.

Donna wears glasses and a red t-shirt. She is feeding a bottle to a kangaroo wrapped in a grey blanket.

Donna Pierce, Library Director, Krum Public Library:

No clue!

Head shot of Laurie Phillips, Who wears burgundy glasses and is posing in front of a bookshelf

Laurie Phillips, Associate Dean for Information Resources and Systems, J. Edgar & Louise S. Monroe Library, Loyola University New Orleans:

In our case, there isn’t much negotiation available. We squeeze out every bit of available money and that’s all we have to offer. There isn’t a range. That said, please be sure that you know the salary early on and don’t make assumptions. You’re wasting our time if you want far more than what we have available. 

Anonymous Federal Librarian: 

For federal positions, there is room for negotiation on the starting salary if it can be justified. Each federal position is given a grade level, or salary range. All (exception to some military positions) Executive Branch agencies operate on the GS schedule. Legislative, Judicial, and some independent regulatory agencies have their own pay scale. But I will focus on the GS schedule. Most GS librarian grades start at a GS-9 and go from there.  If there is a position that is being advertised for multiple grade levels, say one that is a GS-9/GS-11, then you would apply to the grade level that you are most qualified for. Within each grade there are 15 steps. HR will almost always offer you the step 1 for that position (unless you are already a current government employee). If you have been in the field for a long time, you can always request to start at a higher step level. For new employees to the government, I’ve never seen anyone approved for more than a step 3. The hiring manager can turn down your request for the higher step level and has complete discretion to do so. For example, if you have been a librarian for 4 years and apply to a GS-12 position, chances of you getting more than the step 1 would be small since it would be expected you have that level of experience to even get a GS-12 position. Your request for the higher step level would also need to have backing documentation to justify the higher step. You would have to provide pay stubs from your current or most recent position for HR to approve the higher step.  So, while it is possible to negotiate salary in the federal government, it’s not easy, and it really must be justified. The Office of Personnel Management has a list of the salary tables for this year here: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/2023/general-schedule

Amy G, Head of Adult Services: To be honest, there’s not a lot of negotiation that goes on at my library: we’ve budgeted out what the position pays, and that’s that.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Retired:

For most of professional life, negotiation has not been part of our process so more traditional answers to negotiation questions aren’t what I can contribute. But, applicants need to find out the following and then represent themselves fully so they can express what they think they have and are worth and how their full credentials should be interpreted.

  • Is there a salary scale? How do people move between or among steps? Are any steps collapsed?
  • Is an individual salary range for a level on the salary scale identified? Does this range have a top? Bottom?
  • What affects a placement on the overall scale? A placement on a salary range? General or specific experience? Education? Certifications? A status or characteristic? Performance?
  • What other elements could affect a choice of a position in an organization other than ongoing salary? Relocation money? Training/professional development money? Increased income after a certain period of time? Automatic movement among salary levels? Financial retirement issues? Benefits package? When can you ask this? (And, rather than asking this before or during the process, ask this question in advance in an email or with HR to see when you CAN ask them. If they aren’t answered or you haven’t asked them by the end of the interview process, ask when you can ask such as “When can I…?….When should I…? or “When is it appropriate to ask…? my HR questions and of whom?”

In general, asking for more of anything should be accompanied with the answer to “why?” What do you bring to the position others can’t or “few” can’t.  In addition to their own credentials, applicants might have done their research to indicate – given the environment or organization – things like frequency (or lack of) raises, the cost-of-living in the location, the unemployment rate/lack of other positions in the environment, etc.

If you’re a job hunter I have a survey for you! Will you please fill it out?

If you’re someone who hires LIS workers, the current survey is still open. There’s also a mini survey on cover letters.

And if you’re in either or neither of the above categories but you have your own personal professional website, here’s a survey for you!

Other ways to share your thoughts:

If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

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