WHEN I decided to quit my first job a few years ago, I started lining up a series of interviews and prepping for the intense interrogation that would ensue.
But halfway into the process, I realised I was unprepared for the most crucial question of all: what level of salary I was expecting.
"One rule of thumb is, take your current monthly salary, add 20 per cent and round off," advised one headhunter I spoke to.
"Of course, they will come back with their own number," he added. "Then you can start the salary negotiations."
This sounded terrifying, as I had never bargained on salary before. I had always assumed I would be offered a generally acceptable amount and accede to it.
Yet, most employers in Singapore expect to engage in some back-and-forth regarding pay, said Ms Stella Tang, director of recruitment firm Robert Half.
A recent survey done by Robert Half found that seven in 10 human resource directors here are comfortable and willing to negotiate salaries with top candidates.
Job applicants should come to the table well informed and ready to negotiate, Ms Tang said.
"Savvy salary negotiating does not involve throwing out a ridiculously high figure and hoping the employer says yes," she added.
"There is no magic number you can put forward which will guarantee you the pay you are after. Our advice is to be realistic and be prepared to negotiate."
A candidate should do ample research to understand his market value - for instance, by reviewing salaries for similar positions at rival firms, suggested Ms Tang.
Using this data, as well as examples of special skills acquired to date, the candidate can demonstrate to his potential employers why he is worth a certain salary.
This tactic worked for me when I was trying to clinch a new job that would have paid less than what I was earning then.
I managed to convince the interviewer that I could use my previous job experience and contacts to add value to the new role, and wrangled a salary offer that was slightly above my pay at the time.
There are also other ways of illustrating your worth, as a friend of mine recently found out.
He had interviewed for a new job and received two simultaneous offers from similar firms.
One was from a company he really wanted to work with, because of the firm's culture and the nature of the work he would have to do. But that company was offering a monthly salary 15 per cent lower than the second offer, from an equally good firm but with a different focus.
Even though he, like me, was disinclined to negotiate on pay, he couldn't bring himself to accept the first offer without at least trying to narrow the gap in salaries.
As he was doing his best to haggle, a third job offer came in from yet another firm, which was prepared to pay him almost 40 per cent more than the first firm.
Armed with a new decisiveness, my friend informed the first firm that he would be declining its offer in favour of a rival firm with more pay. Almost immediately, the first firm bumped up its offer to match the new salary - a happy result for my friend.
But even without the help of many job offers, candidates can strengthen their negotiating position by using smarter strategies.
For instance, a new study by Columbia University in the United States suggests that starting salary negotiations with a round number can result in a lower outcome than proposing a more specific figure from the get go.
Previous research has already established that the value of the first offer put on the table serves as an "anchor" for negotiations, and has a strong influence on the direction of the discussions.
So, if I want to earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, I should tell my interviewers that my desired annual salary is $60,000 - or even $65,000 - rather than $55,000.
If they agree to that right off the bat, good for you. But even if they bargain you down, the negotiations would have started from a higher value, and so are likely to end up higher as well.
On top of this, the Columbia study found the first offer should be not only high but also specific.
In other words, rather than proposing $60,000 to start, I might ask for $62,000. This will give the impression that I have done serious research into the industry standards of pay for my job.
Because of this, my interviewers are likely to make a counter-offer that is closer to my proposal than if I had started off with a round number, the study said.
Other negotiating tips include identifying what goes into the annual package on top of the monthly base pay, said Mr Craig Brewer, director for banking, financial services and legal at recruitment consultancy Hudson Singapore.
"A lot of companies simply pay a base and bonus, but people are always surprised at how different the overall package can be from firm to firm," he said.
"You need to take all the components into account before offering a base salary expectation."
Lastly, always remember that the process is a negotiation, Mr Brewer added.
"If you play hard ball and do not show a willingness to be negotiable, your new employer may simply look elsewhere."

When I decided to quit my first job a few years ago, I started lining up a series of interviews and prepping for the intense interrogation that would ensue.

But halfway into the process, I realised I was unprepared for the most crucial question of all: what level of salary I was expecting.

"One rule of thumb is, take your current monthly salary, add 20 per cent and round off," advised one headhunter I spoke to.

"Of course, they will come back with their own number," he added. "Then you can start the salary negotiations."

This sounded terrifying, as I had never bargained on salary before. I had always assumed I would be offered a generally acceptable amount and accede to it.

Yet, most employers in Singapore expect to engage in some back-and-forth regarding pay, said Ms Stella Tang, director of recruitment firm Robert Half.

A recent survey done by Robert Half found that seven in 10 human resource directors here are comfortable and willing to negotiate salaries with top candidates.

Job applicants should come to the table well informed and ready to negotiate, Ms Tang said.

"Savvy salary negotiating does not involve throwing out a ridiculously high figure and hoping the employer says yes," she added.

"There is no magic number you can put forward which will guarantee you the pay you are after. Our advice is to be realistic and be prepared to negotiate."

A candidate should do ample research to understand his market value - for instance, by reviewing salaries for similar positions at rival firms, suggested Ms Tang.

Using this data, as well as examples of special skills acquired to date, the candidate can demonstrate to his potential employers why he is worth a certain salary.

This tactic worked for me when I was trying to clinch a new job that would have paid less than what I was earning then.

I managed to convince the interviewer that I could use my previous job experience and contacts to add value to the new role, and wrangled a salary offer that was slightly above my pay at the time.

There are also other ways of illustrating your worth, as a friend of mine recently found out.

He had interviewed for a new job and received two simultaneous offers from similar firms.

One was from a company he really wanted to work with, because of the firm's culture and the nature of the work he would have to do. But that company was offering a monthly salary 15 per cent lower than the second offer, from an equally good firm but with a different focus.

Even though he, like me, was disinclined to negotiate on pay, he couldn't bring himself to accept the first offer without at least trying to narrow the gap in salaries.

As he was doing his best to haggle, a third job offer came in from yet another firm, which was prepared to pay him almost 40 per cent more than the first firm.

Armed with a new decisiveness, my friend informed the first firm that he would be declining its offer in favour of a rival firm with more pay. Almost immediately, the first firm bumped up its offer to match the new salary - a happy result for my friend.

But even without the help of many job offers, candidates can strengthen their negotiating position by using smarter strategies.

For instance, a new study by Columbia University in the United States suggests that starting salary negotiations with a round number can result in a lower outcome than proposing a more specific figure from the get go.

Previous research has already established that the value of the first offer put on the table serves as an "anchor" for negotiations, and has a strong influence on the direction of the discussions.

So, if I want to earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year, I should tell my interviewers that my desired annual salary is $60,000 - or even $65,000 - rather than $55,000.

If they agree to that right off the bat, good for you. But even if they bargain you down, the negotiations would have started from a higher value, and so are likely to end up higher as well.

On top of this, the Columbia study found the first offer should be not only high but also specific.

In other words, rather than proposing $60,000 to start, I might ask for $62,000. This will give the impression that I have done serious research into the industry standards of pay for my job.

Because of this, my interviewers are likely to make a counter-offer that is closer to my proposal than if I had started off with a round number, the study said.

Other negotiating tips include identifying what goes into the annual package on top of the monthly base pay, said Mr Craig Brewer, director for banking, financial services and legal at recruitment consultancy Hudson Singapore.

"A lot of companies simply pay a base and bonus, but people are always surprised at how different the overall package can be from firm to firm," he said.

"You need to take all the components into account before offering a base salary expectation."

Lastly, always remember that the process is a negotiation, Mr Brewer added.

"If you play hard ball and do not show a willingness to be negotiable, your new employer may simply look elsewhere."