6 Tips That Will Help You Negotiate a Better Nursing Salary

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

Keith Carlson, BSN, RN, NC-BC

For many nurses, the job search process – resumes, cover letters, interviews, etc – is an anxiety-producing endeavor. Professional development is given woefully little attention in most nursing schools, so graduates are often on their own to improve their skills over time.

One aspect that seems especially difficult for nurses is salary negotiation. Nurses apparently don’t like talking about money, and this manifests most insidiously in such conversations.

Here are six important tips to consider when discussing salary with a potential employer:

1. Negotiation is normal

Negotiating is expected. The employer has a salary range in mind, and you’ll usually be offered the low end of their budget. It’s assumed that you’ll negotiate, and not doing so puts you in the position of potentially being seen as passive and not knowing your own worth.

And here’s a very important tip: whoever names a number first is the loser of the game. Play your cards close to your chest and force them to name their budget or a specific number first. And remember that taking a low-paying position means that future promotions or raises will be based on a percentage of your entry-level salary – if you undersell yourself now, your subsequent raises may not be what you deserve.

2. Know Your Stuff

Walk into an interview knowing what you want. Do your due diligence by researching what nurses with comparable experience and education are earning in your area for the type of milieu you’re applying to. In other words: be armed with data.

Ascertaining what other nurses are earning isn’t always easy, but you can give it a go. If you’re applying for a wound care position, call the Wound, Ostomy, and Continence Nurses Societyand ask for salary data for your region, state, or city. If they have a local chapter near you, ask to speak with a member who lives nearby.

GlassDoor, PayScale, and other job websites will give you some information about salaries. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) only allows you to see national data without regional breakdown; in fact, “Registered Nurse” in the BLS database covers every possible type of nursing job (with the exception of APRNs like NPs, midwives, and nurse anesthetists, whose data is reported separately), so the numbers are by nature broad averages.

If you have a robust professional network, you can tap your contacts for information or referrals.

3. Understand What’s Legal 

In certain states and cities in the U.S., legislation has been passed to protect job applicants from having to reveal their earning/salary history. This was intended as a method for narrowing the pay gap between the genders, but it’s helpful no matter your gender orientation. Here’s the 2018 list according to Business Insider

  • California: Both public and private employers cannot ask about salary history (effective: January, 2018).
  • Delaware: All employers banned from asking about pay history (effective: December, 2017).
  • Massachusetts: All employers banned from asking salary history questions (effective July, 2018).
  • New Orleans: Such questions are banned only for those applying for city positions.
  • New York City: All employers prohibited from any inquiries regarding past salaries (effective: October, 2017).
  • Oregon: Ban against all employers’ salary questions (effective: January, 2019).
  • Pittsburgh: Like New Orleans, the ban is only for applicants for city positions.
  • Puerto Rico: Island-wide ban for both private and public employers.

NOTE: Wisconsin and Michigan have essentially prohibited any such bans from being enacted in those states.

4. Know When to Negotiate

Best practice dictates never asking about salary until an offer is on the table. It’s also recommended that, when you receive an offer, express gratitude and enthusiasm, and then ask for the courtesy of several days to think it over.

5. The Negotiation Process

This is where the rubber hits the road. When you enter into negotiations, know what number would cause you to decline. (Walking away is a strategy that could force their hand to offer more, but don’t count on them calling your bluff – be seriously ready to walk away.)

Using your research, consider what a reasonable salary should be for your credentials, experience, skills, and similar jobs in the region.

Most experts agree that asking for 15 to 20 percent more than offered is generally a normal place to begin, especially since most will offer the bottom of their budget. If you’re being offered $55,000 and your target is $60,000, ask for $65,000. Since $11,000 is 20 percent of $55,000, that’s a relatively reasonable request but you could go a little lower – perhaps $62,000 – if you think that would go over more easily. If you ask for too much (e.g.: requesting $90,000 for a job offering $60,000), you could be pegged as negotiating in bad faith. However, always ask for more, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

So, when they lowball you, you can say, “That’s a nice offer, but I was hoping we could compromise at $________, a salary that I think is more commensurate with my experience and skills.”

6. Consider the Value of Benefits

Remember that a non-negotiable salary still leaves you with some other bargaining chips. Some state or federal facilities (e.g.: the Veterans Administration) may have budgets that are set a year in advance, but they may be able to flex on benefits.

In terms of benefits worth negotiating over, consider the amount of paid time off, 401k benefits, stock options, sign-on bonuses, and other factors that could sweeten the pot if improved for your benefit.

Know Your Value

In the end, you need to know your value and be able to articulate it clearly. These negotiations are simply business, so don’t take anything personally. Some employers are truly locked into a budget, while others just want to pay you as little as they can. Others will be quite fair and generous.

The bottom line is that you know what you need to earn in order to make ends meet. You also need to remember that a lower paying job is sometimes a more powerful key to your future than a well-paying one. This may seem counterintuitive, but certain positions prepare you for long-term success more than others. Keep your career goals in mind, and choose an employer and position that will move the needle for your career and contribute to a positive and constructive work history.

One thought on “6 Tips That Will Help You Negotiate a Better Nursing Salary”

  • Lori says:

    I am currently in my second year as a school nurse. I have over 1200 students. just to name a few of my responsibilities ,Immunizations ,hearing screens , vision screens and running the clinic are just to name a few . I would like to approach our superintendent
    about a contract/ salary that is similar to our teachers. Currently I am paid hourly. No pay for holidays, summers, or spring breaks.
    I would like help on writing a letter to submit to the Administration . Can you help?
    Thank you!

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