Does "No" Really Mean "No"?

women who ask

Years ago, I got offered a job at a law firm that specializes in civil rights.

My inner revolutionary said, “Yes! I’m so excited to work here.” I wanted to use my law degree to do big, meaningful, important work. Protecting vulnerable communities. Advocating for people whose voices get ignored. Defending human rights. You know… saving the world!

Everything about this new job felt so exciting. Except for one thing… 

The salary they offered was less than what I’d been earning at my last firm. “This is all we can offer,” they told me firmly. No room for negotiation. Period.

I accepted it, at first. I figured, “Well, I’m doing world-changing work, and I guess that means I’ll be earning a little less. It’s all for a good cause. So I guess that’s OK.”

It was OK for awhile. But after a few months, I started to feel a bit resentful. It was a small firm with just three associates—me, plus two others—and we were all working incredibly hard and doing very difficult work, for not enough compensation. It didn’t feel right. We got together as a trio to talk about the situation. We all wanted some changes, so we decided to band together and do some research.

We emailed, called, and chatted with about dozen other attorneys in the area—people with comparable experience levels working at similar firms. During these conversations, we’d say, “This is what we’re earning. Does that number seem right to you?” Almost everyone we spoke to said, “No way! You should be earning more.” Some of the attorneys told us their exact salaries, which was very illuminating information! They were right—we were being underpaid. 

Armed with this new information, we asked our bosses to sit down for a meeting. As a trio, we presented the salary data that we’d found. 

We said to our bosses, “We’ve done some research. We’ve found that—compared with our peers at similar firms in the area—we’re being underpaid. We love working here, but if you want to retain passionate employees like us, then we need to be paid appropriately.”

We shared our findings. Our bosses were impressed—and they were surprised. They genuinely didn’t realize that our salaries were so much lower than the other firms. They’d been in the dark—until we showed them the light!

They were persuaded by the facts we shared—and they gave all of us raises. 

That was the day I realized that “No” doesn’t always mean “No.” Usually, “No” just means, “Show me some evidence,” “Make a more convincing presentation,” or “Make a different kind of proposition.”

My clients often say to me, “Asking for a better salary package is pointless. I already know what my boss will say. He’ll say, ‘We just don’t have the budget for that. Sorry.’”

Sure, your boss might say that—at first. But if you walk into that conversation with evidence and data to strengthen your request, then your boss might have an awakening. Your boss might realize that some changes need to be made. Mine did!

So, don’t be afraid to hear the word “No.” It’s not the worst word in the entire world, and it’s not necessarily the end of the conversation. It could be the very beginning.