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The Secret to Smarter Salary Negotiation: Vacation Time


Negotiating your salary is hard. Especially when you’re first starting out in your career, there are countless unknowns that only seem to affirm your fears: You don’t know what your firm’s budget is, and you feel expendable – like one wrong counter-offer and the ticking time bomb that is your career will explode. In reality, good negotiating isn’t about low-balling yourself into irrelevant safety. It’s about playing with what you’ve got. In this case, you’ve got time.

two men's forearms locked in an arm wrestle over dollar bills

(Photo Credit: Ryan McGuire/Gratisography)

More specifically, you’ve got time off. It may seem like this article was covertly written by HR personnel laughing their way back to the negotiating table, but that’s not the case. Leveraging your vacation time in a salary negotiation shouldn’t be your lead – but it’s also not a dumb card to play mid-round.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

If you’re on board from the get-go, then great: here’s a fantastic How To from HBR. (And of course, all the tips you need for negotiating your salary are right here in Payscale’s Salary Negotiation Guide.)

Assuming you need a little more prodding, let’s take a look at the Why. For many, this may strike you as a tactic that puts you on the losing end of things, and for others the leverage just doesn’t add up.

Here are at least three reasons why bartering with vacation time is in your best interests.

1. No Risk on the Bottom Line

As mentioned before, this negotiation tactic isn’t meant to be your strong opening point. It’s reserved for a time and circumstance where you know the company doesn’t have the cap space to give you quite the salary you want – but they’re still ready to do what they can to keep you.

What makes it so smart, as Amanda Augustine pointed out a while back, is that vacation time won’t hurt your employer’s bottom line. You’re not asking them to come up with more money, but rather you’re asking that that money be used more to your benefit. Is it a perfect parallel? No. But you’re proving a point: you’re worth something more.

2. You’re Helping Your Boss to Think Creatively About Your Value

You can argue that with you out of the office, that added vacation time is ultimately hurting a company’s bottom line – but if you’re thinking that way then you’re in no position to be negotiating at all. You see, the secret to negotiation is that you have to think of your time, skills, and ability as a value-add to your company.

In this case, you’re telling them that it’s worth it to pay for you to be out of the office a little more, because what you bring outweighs that cost. You’re a smart investment.

If you don’t believe that, your boss is going to have a hard time with it as well.

3. It Opens a Door Instead of Presenting an Ultimatum

One of the biggest reasons that contract negotiation can be scary is that you don’t want to blow it. You want to stand firm in your self-valuation without fronting so hard that you’re forced to walk away. If your employer doesn’t have the money you want, they may feel compelled to send you packing.

In this case, when you’ve put vacation time on the table, you’re opening a door to creative solutions. You’re telling your boss that something’s got to give; but there’s room to define what that something is.

Being smart about salary negotiation doesn’t mean crumbling under the financial pressures of your employer. It simply means you know your value, and you’re going to find a way for your employer to prove they know it too.

Tell Us What You Think

What’s your strategy for salary negotiation? Have you ever put vacation time on the table? Leave a comment below or join the conversation on Twitter

Peter Swanson
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The other time to negotiate this is when changing jobs where you currently have more vacation than your new employer will give you as a new employee. Don’t go backwards in other words. If the employer has an accrual system, ask to accrue more per pay period than they’re offering which is even easier on the employer than a one time upfront award of time. Be wary of companies that track vacation leave by a dollar amount based on your… Read more »

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