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Fast Track: Ignore your inhibitions - let's talk about money

You need pay negotiating skills to sell yourself in today's jobs market
JAMES DELANEY is a 26-year-old graduate who has just landed his first job with a thriving computer consultancy. Coming straight from university, he was not used to having to negotiate about money, and simply expected to be offered a set figure. But it took two interviews before the subject of money was finally broached - and not in the way Delaney anticipated: "I had expected a ball-park figure which I could either accept or try to negotiate, and instead I ended up being forced to pluck a figure out of mid-air when they asked `How much do you want?'"

However, he was not told on the spot whether the figure he had "plucked out of mid air" was acceptable. In fact, he was called back a couple of days later for a third meeting with the head of the company, who formally agreed the figure. On his first day, staff were told in a meeting that discussing their salaries would count as a sackable offence. A few voices of dissent were raised, but when one staff member pointed out that a previous employer's pay policies were very open, he was told in no uncertain terms that it was not his present company's policy. Delaney, therefore, now suspects that he is earning more than those at the same level, but he has been warned to enquire no further.

Today, being able to negotiate your pay is an increasingly essential part of work. James was lucky in that he picked a relatively high figure for the line of work he entered, but for many graduates, negotiation about salary can be a minefield, fraught with worries and, for many, embarrassment. Just how high do you price yourself, and as a correlation, how much are you actually worth?

It seems very clear: the employer wants the best person for the least money, and the potential employee wants the most money for the skills he or she has to offer. The growth in the number of short-term and freelance contracts available make it even more pressing to master skills in negotiation. These contracts mean that you are expected to negotiate your pay with every new job, or to renegotiate your pay throughout the employment. It is also more frequently left to the individual to ask for a pay rise; previously, they may have been awarded as a matter of course. With the erosion of "jobs for life" and the rapidly-changing psychological contract between employer and employee, these areas are becoming increasingly murky.

Negotiating a decent salary was once the preserve of unions, which would also ensure that pay was in line with inflation. In a market less dominated by unions, the majority of employees are out on their own. Nowadays, it does not just take skills relevant to your line of work to land a job. Pay negotiation skills are just as essential a part of the jobseeker's arsenal of weapons; the sharper the better.

So how should you handle your discomfort about discussing money with a prospective employer? David Hollands is a freelance television researcher who has a deep fear of such situations. "I get so worked up about having to discuss money in an interview that when the time comes I either crumble and accept whatever is offered, or over-assert myself and sound half insane when I bark out my figure," he says.

David is not the only person with this problem, but for those in his line of work there is help at hand. The TV Researchers' Register, which has more than 300 researchers on its books, is managed by Diane Miller. Researchers feel they can rely on her not only to find them work but also to negotiate a good wage in line with their experience.

What is the secret? "I find that talking very gently about money is the best way to do it. You don't need to be super-tough," Miller says. "If I think a candidate isn't getting offered enough, I will gently negotiate on their behalf." Perhaps it is also easier to negotiate on behalf of somebody else: that way, it is less personal.

Unfortunately, many companies do not deal with agents, either because they already have their own personnel departments or because agents charge commission - which, according to the Federation of Recruitment and Employment Service, can cost up to 30 per cent of an employee's starting salary. Using an agent may not be an option.

For those without a guardian angel, the main thing is to value yourself and the skills and experience you have to offer. It is a good maxim that whatever you think you are worth, you are probably worth more. The old idea that employers will automatically give you what you are worth tends to prevail, however untrue it is in today's competitive world. Negotiating a decent wage is all about setting parameters. Bid high and let them beat you down. It is an age-old method of haggling, but it works. Remember, they are always going to offer you the minimum they can get away with.

Rachel Anderson, who works as an agent for some of the country's top footballers, believes that talking about money is a taboo which is gradually being overcome; it is to do with British modesty and reserve, she believes. She negotiates salaries of up to pounds 750,000 - yet she confesses to having had problems negotiating her own wage. "I think pricing other people is far easier than pricing yourself. Ninety-nine per cent of the population find it difficult to talk about money with their employers. I think it is all to do with insecurities; we worry that we sound too vain if we ask for a lot." While Americans may find it easier to be brashly honest, they are not necessarily any better at negotiation than a practised Briton, she says. But it is something which people need to work at. She notes: "We've negotiated peace and war in this country, but we still can't talk about money."

James Delaney's name has been changed