What You Can Negotiate Before Starting Your First Federal Job

What You Can Negotiate Before Starting Your First Federal Job
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(Updated November 2021)


Congratulations! You’ve landed your first federal job, or you’re about to change federal jobs. Before you accept the job offer, you should know what compensation items can be negotiated.


Most federal jobs are in the General Schedule (GS) and Senior Executive Service (SES). What can be negotiated is the same for both unless specified otherwise. This article is aimed at military personnel transitioning from active duty to civil service, but the concepts apply to anyone who is starting their first federal job.


A bit of background: You normally will receive two offers for a specific job – a tentative offer and a final offer. The tentative offer may outline pay and other important information, but its main purpose is to let you know that you must complete certain paperwork and screenings (like a fingerprint check) before you can be officially offered the job.


Assuming you get the paperwork done and pass the screenings, you will receive a final offer. Be sure your final offer details all the items you want included in terms of negotiable items.


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The job announcement you used to apply for your new job included a salary range. You should not expect to start at the high end of the range – this only happens in very rare circumstances. But you may be able to negotiate a salary above the low end of the range.


Start with your Leave and Earnings Statement (LES). Your total compensation (all allowances and all pay items) is the starting point for your discussion about your civil service salary. Map the bottom line of your LES (gross pay) to the appropriate civil service pay chart. For GS positions, find the step that matches your salary and ask for it in your negotiation. For example, if your military compensation maps to a GS-14 Step 6, aim for that. If your salary exceeds Step 10, aim for Step 10 – the agency cannot pay you more than that and cannot bring you in at a higher grade than was advertised, and Step 10 in the grade is the ceiling. At some point in the negotiation you will be required to provide a copy of your LES.


Any salary over Step 1 must be approved by an agency official for any salary over Step 1. This may take time; so, be patient.


The only difference for an SES is that salaries are pay banded, ranging from a low of $132,552 to a $183,000 (or $199,300 if the agency has a certified SES performance plan) in 2021. Use your LES bottom line as outlined above to request a salary up to the top end of the pay band. SES salary bands change each year; find the latest information at this link.


If your military gross pay is below the Step 10 or top SES pay level, you may want to try to negotiate a salary above your military pay. It is typical for the agency to match, but not exceed, your military salary.



All civil servants earn the same sick leave – four hours per pay period. This is not a negotiable item. However, annual leave is negotiable for many, but not all, servicemembers and veterans.


The amount of annual leave earned depends on your length of civil service. You earn four hours of leave every pay period in years one through three, six hours in years four through 14, and eight hours starting in your 15th year. SESs earn eight hours per pay period no matter what.


Civil service rules allow certain veterans/military personnel to earn six or eight hours of leave starting on first day of employment. Generally, retirees are not eligible for this unless:

  • The veteran had actual service during a war declared by Congress or while participating in a campaign or expedition for which a campaign badge is authorized; or
  • all active duty when retirement was based on a disability received as a direct result of armed conflict or caused by an instrumentality of war and incurred in the line of duty during a period of war as defined in 38 U.S.C. 101(11). "Period of war" includes World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam era, the Persian Gulf War, or the period beginning on the date of any future declaration of war by the Congress and ending on the date prescribed by presidential proclamation.


Civil service rules also permit an agency to allow you to earn six or eight hours of leave if you have equivalent civilian (that is, not civil service) experience that adds up to the number of years needed to earn additional leave. For example, if you have 15 years of experience in the same career field as the civil service job, the agency can allow you to earn eight hours of leave from your first day. You can negotiate this as part of your compensation. Remember, leave is a cost to the agency, so the more hours you earn, the more they consider you are being paid.


Be sure to ask if your service or your experience qualifies you to earn six or eight hours of leave.


Starting Date

Like all jobs, you can negotiate your start date. Keep in mind the agency has a job to fill and may not be willing to wait too long.


Relocation Incentive and Recruiting Incentive

Some announcements include a statement that relocation or recruiting incentives may or will be paid. These are different incentives, but they work the same. If the announcement does not include a statement about paying these incentives, the agency cannot do so. In this case, there is nothing to negotiate. This section covers similarities between the incentives; the next section focuses on the relocation incentive.


Agencies typically will not pay both incentives and relocation. If you are not relocating, you are not eligible for a paid move and are not eligible for a relocation incentive. However, you may be eligible for a recruiting incentive (signing bonus).


Relocation and recruiting incentives can vary widely by job and agency. The maximum amount that can be paid for either is 25% of your salary for each of four years. It’s a very flexible benefit:

  • Agencies can pay you less, can pay you a different amount in different years (using declining amounts in years two through four) and do not have to pay you all four years.
  • Payouts can be in a lump sum, can be a recurring amount paid several times a year, can be paid in advance, or can be paid after you serve a specific period of time.


The benefit is taxed in the year received, and you will be required to sign a service agreement for an incentive. If you leave before your service agreement is up and you have been paid in advance, you will be required to refund the appropriate portion of the incentive.


You have a lot of room to negotiate when it comes to these incentives, which are paid when a given position is hard to fill. Some agencies pay an incentive when they do not pay your moving (relocation) expenses as a way to help offset those expenses.


Agencies also pay an incentive because your starting salary is lower than your current earnings, and the agency knows that over four years, with annual step increases, your salary will increase quickly. The incentive makes up the difference in civil service pay and your current salary until your civil service salary catches up. This approach keeps the cost to the agency down – they don’t make retirement contributions for incentive payments like they do for salary payments.


You and the agency must come to terms about incentives before you accept the final, formal job offer. If not, you will lose the incentive. Be sure the final offer addresses the incentive in writing.


Relocation Expenses Paid by the Agency

A reminder: If the announcement does not include a statement about paying this expense, the agency cannot do so.


There are two kinds of relocation expenses: a mandatory payment and a discretionary payment. If the agency agrees to pay relocation expenses, they must pay all mandatory entitlements and may pick and choose the discretionary ones they wish to authorize.


The information below addresses only transfers between official duty stations within the 48 contiguous states. Other charts cover overseas duty stations; you can find these charts at this link


The references in the table below refer to the federal travel regulations at this link.


Mandatory Payments:

  • Transportation and per diem for employee and immediate family member(s) (Part 302-4 of this chapter)
  • Miscellaneous moving expense (Part 302-16 of this chapter)
  • Sell or buy residence transactions or lease termination expenses (Part 302-11 of this chapter)
  • Transportation & temporary storage of household goods (Part 302-7 of this chapter)
  • Extended storage of household goods (Part 302-8 of this chapter)
  • Transportation of a mobile home or boat used as a primary residence in lieu of the transportation of household goods (Part 302-10 of this chapter)
  • Relocation income tax allowance (RITA) (Part 302-17 of this chapter).


Discretionary Payments

  • House-hunting per diem and transportation, employee and spouse only (Part 302-5 of this chapter)
  • Temporary quarters subsistence expense (TQSE) (Part 302-6 of this chapter)
  • Shipment of privately owned vehicle (POV) (Subpart B of Part 302-9 of this chapter)
  • Use of a relocation services company
  • Property management services (Part 302-15 of this chapter)
  • Home marketing incentives (Part 302-14 of this chapter)


Your negotiation begins if the job announcement says the agency “may” pay relocation expenses. You should be clear about what the agency will do before you accept the job. Be sure you get the agency’s offer in writing, and be sure it details the discretionary expenses it will cover. This should be part of your final, formal job offer.


If you still have your final, DoD-paid household goods shipment for your final move, you might let the agency know that you would be willing to use your final DoD entitlement if the agency would consider a higher salary.


Agencies cannot combine your DoD entitlement with theirs. It’s one or the other.


Who You Negotiate With

Discuss salary and benefits with the individual who notifies you of your selection for the position – either the HR specialist or the hiring authority. Follow their lead and be prepared to put your request (and justification) in writing.


Your justification should be as factual as possible. For example, your military salary includes a non-taxable portion, and receiving a salary equivalent to your total military compensation results in less take-home pay because the entire amount of your new salary is taxed. You may be able to use the additional tax burden as a way to justify your request for a salary higher than your military compensation.



If you use your negotiating skills and are respectful of the agency and their investment in your future (Don’t be greedy!) you can maximize your compensation. Good luck, and let MOAA know how it goes!

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About the Author

Ralph Charlip, LFACHE
Ralph Charlip, LFACHE

Lt. Col. Ralph Charlip, USAF (Ret), is a retired member of the federal Senior Executive Service. He is a Senior Trainer for CATMEDIA, a certified Myers Briggs professional, and President of his own company, Inspiration Creek Management Consulting LLC, a VA-certified Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business.