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How to negotiate your salary after a career break

If you've taken time off from work, here’s how to avoid making costly mistakes when you start talking salary.
Image: Mature businesswoman shaking hands with prospective employee at job fair
Steve Debenport / Getty Images

Do you know what you’re worth in the job market today? For anyone who has taken time off from work, this is a thorny question. Depending on how long you have been out of the workforce, you may wonder if your “value” has diminished, right along with your self-confidence and savings account balance.

When looking for a job after a career break - whether it’s a few years or a decade - how do you know what you should be paid? If you try to negotiate for more, will you scuttle any job offer? If you don’t negotiate, are you being taken advantage of and eroding future earnings?

“You like me. Right now, you like me!”

Maybe this sounds familiar: You have now been working for free for so long (the PTA! Fundraising! Athletic Boosters!), that when you are offered a job with an actual paycheck, you nearly kiss the human resources director before you really know what you’re getting into. Stop, breathe and consider:

  1. Do you fully understand the job description, responsibilities and benefits package?
  2. What is the salary range for this job in your market? Is your offer commensurate with that range?
  3. What are your priorities, wants and needs in a job? What are you willing to compromise?

Here’s how to avoid costly mistakes when you start talking salary

Before you start interviewing for a specific job: Do your homework. Find out how much similar jobs pay in your market.

There are online resources like, and that can tell you what similar jobs pay in your market. You can also ask people in the industry and look at job postings for related positions. The key is to do the research in advance.

After you get an offer: Stop. Breathe. Say thank you, then take a few days to consider, and if appropriate, negotiate.

“Be excited, respectful and thankful, but ask for some time to consider – do not immediately say yes,” career coach Mary Beth Barrett-Newman of 2nd Career Consulting told Know Your Value. “Get all the information – salary and benefits – and ask for a few days to consider it. Most employers expect this.”

Next, get the offer in writing. When you go to negotiate, put in all of your asks at once, Barrett-Newman added. “Do not deal with it piecemeal.”

And be reasonable. “If you negotiate for more money, make sure what you are asking for is reasonable and that the company can potentially say yes — they may be offering you as much as they can afford. If they can’t or won’t meet your salary requirement, you can also ask if you could have a salary review sooner than normal – for example, 6 months versus 12 months,” she said.

And, if you’ve been out for a while, remember that first job back is about trade-offs. This is not necessarily the job you will have forever. Career and executive coach Carroll Welch of Carroll Welch Consulting told Know Your Value it’s more about having a jumping-off point. “Ask yourself: Does this opportunity, despite the pay not being exactly what you were hoping for, help you move forward toward your career vision for yourself in 2, 5 or 10 years down the road?

“It is okay to have the approach that ‘My first job back as a re-launcher doesn’t have to be the one that I retire from.’ Sometimes just getting back into the game and working for a couple years before pivoting into the job you really wanted is a perfectly good strategy. Keep that in mind when you are considering salary.”

Welch added: “In general you have to strike the right balance between not grossly undercutting yourself and seizing a great opportunity to re-launch even if the pay is lower than you’d wanted.”

For more information on salary negotiation after a career break, Know Your Value career comeback contributor Ginny Brzezinski will appear with career coaches Carroll Welch and Mary Beth Barrett-Newman at the iRelaunch Return to Work Conference in New York on October 4. Click here for the detailed agenda and to purchase tickets.

You can follow Ginny Brzezinski on Twitter @GinnyBrz.