Help me negotiate a federal salary
March 21, 2012 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Help me negotiate a better salary for a federal job. Also, if I start the clearance process (after tentative offer, before final offer), is it really bad form to back out and take another job?

I just received a Pre-Employment Notification for a federal job (basically a tentative offer with a salary listed). "Before we can finalize any formal offer of employment, you must be cleared for Entry on Duty by the HC Security Officer and granted a Secret clearance as a condition of placement/retention for this position"

I'm considering some other jobs as well, is it bad form to go ahead with the clearance process while I am looking hard at other positions?

When is it appropriate to negotiate on the salary? Now or after final offer is extended? I like this job, but the offer they made me is substantially less than other jobs I'm looking at. Though it is a permanent federal position instead of a post-doc. I am planning on asking to start at step 9 of the posted grade. That would be approximately a 3% raise on what I'm making now in a very temporary academic teaching position. I'd be willing to start at step 5-6 or so, but I would not be happy starting at step 1.
posted by pseudonick to Work & Money (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think your options are very limited unless you have years of prior federal service that can come into play. The whole point of the pay scale is that you get what you get, no discussion. It's not like working at a private company. But I'd be interested in hearing otherwise from people who know more.

I also want to mention that you may not be adequately valuing the benefits of the new job, particularly in comparison to working as an adjunct or whatever it is you're doing now. If it turns out you can't really negotiate on this one, it might be worth trying to engage in whatever mental gymnastics are necessary to make you view the job positively, as an exciting new beginning that gives you something you've never had before: stability.
posted by jsturgill at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2012

You don't negotiate with the federal government. Get a job with a federal contractor if you want a higher salary.
posted by empath at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh, and if you get a job with the federal government, you have a job for life. I left my federal government job for a job paying 20k more 10 years ago. But having been laid off once and dealing with shit like missed paychecks, buy outs and general corporate bullshit, I have been seriously thinking about going back, even for less money.
posted by empath at 8:21 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: Actually you can negotiate - I have done it before. It is not like the private sector, but there are ways a motivated hiring manager can bump you up, because many of the factors are subjective. And I think it is fine to continue looking pending your final offer. Generally, the more specialized and advanced the position, the more room for negotiation.
posted by yarly at 8:24 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't work for USFG but I have many (many) friends who do. I'm assuming you found the job posting through USA Jobs and that the posting had a stated salary range that varied based on what your current GS level is and/or related experience. After they've determined how you fit into this, there is very very little room for negotiation. Unless you think they have miscalculated or that there are other factors (experience in the field, degrees, related jobs/volunteer work?) that might boost you to a higher end of the range, it's generally not done.

As a side note, fed employees get excellent benefits and pay increases happen fairly quickly (depending on agency). So while you might start at a Step 1, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll be at a Step 1 for any significant period of time. It is also very, very hard to get fired from USFG and 'in this economy', that's worth a lot (since private companies tend to be "last hired, first fired.")

Re: Looking for other jobs. I don't think there's any real detriment to doing this; the FG is used to being in competition with private companies for talented people.
posted by Flamingo at 8:29 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I had an offer to start at my agency at step 1, and I asked for more. That request was initially met with a fair amount of resistance, but I eventually got a (very modest) bump over step 1. I am not sure what legerdemain my agency used, but the position I applied for is/was extremely specialized.

I did this all at the offer stage, before my background investigation. My position is a medium-risk public trust position, and does not require a secret clearance.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 8:30 AM on March 21, 2012

Yeah, those step increases are fairly regular, and once you get your foot in the door, you can go up fairly quickly if you make connections, plus there are cost of living increases and so on.
posted by empath at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2012

Oh, and if you get a job with the federal government, you have a job for life.

Not necessarily true. It's hard to fire a GS employee for cause, but I've seen it happen a few times. Takes a lot of effort though...

Keep in mind that you'll get a locality adjustment based on the cost of living for the area you'll be working in. That figure might not be built in to the scale you received. And while I've never been a GS employee, I know and work with a lot of former GS'es, and I've been told it's far easier to increase your step over time than it is to increase your grade. It might be in your interest to try for a higher Grade, but accept a lower Step.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 8:31 AM on March 21, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice everyone. I just got the letter this morning. It looks like the people with experience indicate that negotiation is possible. I might have been dreaming about starting at step 9. But I will make an argument for starting at step 5.
posted by pseudonick at 8:58 AM on March 21, 2012

I'm considering some other jobs as well, is it bad form to go ahead with the clearance process while I am looking hard at other positions?

Not at all. Things happen all up and down the chain during this process -- including security clearance issues that you never saw coming. You do not have this job yet. Remember that.
posted by Etrigan at 9:02 AM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: For a federal job you want a high grade and low step because automatic step increases happen more frequently at lower steps. Using this salary table as a reference, if an offer is for grade 11 step 9, then try asking for grade 12 step 3 where the step increase happens after one year instead of three. You should also find out the max grade for the job because that will determine the highest grade you can get promoted to. If the job maxes out at grade 12 and you successfully negotiate a grade 12 step 3 start, then you won't be able get a promotion in that job and step increases would be your only pay raise. It is possible to get promoted in that situation, but that would require your manager to get a new job billet with a higher max grade and you would likely have to compete for the job.

Also, after one year in grade, you would be eligible for a promotion (provided you're not at the max grade for the job billet). Promotions bump you up to the next grade/step combination that's 6% higher than your current salary. For example, if you start at grade 11 step 9, then a promotion would be to grade 12 step 5. Promotions are awarded based on points available and promotion points for higher grades are limited. When I worked in government, people got promoted up to grade 12 pretty consistently, but getting beyond grade 12 was a lot more competitive.
posted by hoppytoad at 9:08 AM on March 21, 2012 [6 favorites]

The best argument for mid-entry grade entry is experience, in my... experience. Show that you exceed the base requirements of the job in some quantifiable way (number of years experience, higher degree level, greater number of publications, etc...). You hiring manager needs to take that to HR or their management to justify the pay bump. The easier you make that argument for them, quantifiably, the more likely you will be offered a better starting salary.

The time for putting forth those arguments is most definitely now, however. It's much harder to do it after a letter of offer has been given to you.
posted by bonehead at 9:19 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks hoppytoad, that's helpful. Does that apply to moving between jobs? If I had a GS11 step 9 position and applied for and received a different job at GS12 would I start out there as GS12 step 3 based on the 6% raise principle?

The position I was offered was grade 11 with a promotion potential of grade 11. So I'm assuming increasing the grade is going to be not possible without a whole new job posting. That's why I am interested in negotiating on the starting step. I am coming into the position, which is a technical one, with; a PhD, a year of experience as a university instructor, and a solid record of publication in my area. I think I can make a good case for starting at step 5.

I will also argue that a mid-grade entry is appropriate given that even that will involve a reduction in my income and that I have (or will in a few days I think) an offer in hand for another position offering $X more. I am not asking them to match that offer, but to start me midgrade.

Any suggestions?
posted by pseudonick at 9:28 AM on March 21, 2012

I secured a starting position one step higher than my initial (verbal) offer by saying, "I am already taking a significant pay cut to join the public sector. I am not sure I could take the job at step X. Can I start at step X+1?" So your argument that you could make more in a private-sector job could work.
posted by hhc5 at 10:05 AM on March 21, 2012

If I had a GS11 step 9 position and applied for and received a different job at GS12 would I start out there as GS12 step 3 based on the 6% raise principle?

When I got a promotion via a new job, my new salary was based on a 6% raise so that would probably be the case for your scenario. Given that the offer is at the max grade allowed for the job, then negotiating for a higher step is your best strategy. You could also ask about non-monetary benefits, like if the agency participates in telework, compressed work weeks, or flexible schedules. If you decide to go with the government offer, most people stay at least three years to get fully vested in the retirement program and to retain credit for their years of service. Having at least three years of service mostly that meant people could leave and return to government jobs and maintain their higher level of annual leave accrual.
posted by hoppytoad at 10:26 AM on March 21, 2012

Bumping up the grade isn't always possible as a given section might have three GS-11 slots and a single GS-12. The manager/supervisor is constrained by the number of FTEs and mix of grades assigned to the section. Changing a position's target grade is difficult and requires the approval two or three levels above a first-line supervisor.
posted by llin at 10:37 AM on March 21, 2012

Hoppytoad's advice on starting at the highest grade possible is excellent. I got kind of screwed at my agency because I came in at a high step and couldn't get promoted for 3 years. The agency used to give people accelerated step increases, but apparently the political situation won't allow that now.
posted by yarly at 11:45 AM on March 21, 2012

Response by poster: When it rains it pours. I just got offered a post-doc that would involve working for another branch of government and would also require a security clearance.

I don't have a final offer letter in hand from either position, people have said I should keep looking. If I go ahead with both of them I'll be filling out two sets of the SF86 on eQIP, will that set off any alarms?
posted by pseudonick at 12:11 PM on March 21, 2012

pseudonick, congrats on the second offer. Anecdotally, I had heard of wonky things happening at the clearance stage, so I was really shocked when my preliminary came back really quickly last year. So hopefully you won't be dragging things out too long.

Just a thought on negotiation. They have offered GS 11 step 1, and you now say you can take step 5. If you ask them for step 5, and they counteroffer at step 3, how would you feel?

The difference between step 1 and step 5 in a major metro area (locality adjustment) is like $8k, but the difference between step 3 and step 5 is like $4k. All things equal, the higher pay would be nicer, but it might be helpful for you to think through in your mind whether you would REALLY walk away from the job at step 1 or step 3, and how credible that kind of threat would be perceived.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 12:56 PM on March 21, 2012

I don't have a final offer letter in hand from either position, people have said I should keep looking. If I go ahead with both of them I'll be filling out two sets of the SF86 on eQIP, will that set off any alarms?

If it's anything like the DOD side, the people doing the background investigations are completely separate from the people doing the hiring. It probably wont raise any flags.
posted by Fidel Cashflow at 12:57 PM on March 21, 2012

Best answer: Speaking as a federal manager, (1) we would certainly consider a salary negotiation if the candidate made a good argument and HR allowed us to agree to the higher salary. But FWIW and YMMV, (2) if someone withdrew their acceptance of our offer during/after the security clearance process, the bridge would be burned unless the person had a great reason. We invest a lot of time and effort into selecting the right new employee, and we endure the months of being short-staffed during the background check. Having to start from scratch (and possibly lose the FTE at least temporarily because of hiring freezes) would make us very bitter.
posted by semacd at 1:49 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just did this last week. I was offered an 11 Step 1. I asked if the hiring manager if they could raise it to step 5. She said she would check and got back to me two days later asking if a step 3 would be okay. I asked if they could do step 4, she came back the next day and said step 3 was the best they could do and I took it. I got an extra $5k a year from a couple of two minute phone calls. The hiring manager told me from the beginning that the salary negotiation would not affect the job offer so there was no negative in asking for it.

The new position will be a major increase from my present position, but if it were going to be equivalent or if I had other offers I would have used that to argue for the higher position.

I used this book as a guide throughout the process including negotiations and found it very helpful.
posted by Crashback at 2:50 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

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