In Career Dealmaking, Strike the Right Balance

By — on / Dealmaking

Two stories emerged in the news this month that illustrate polar opposite attitudes toward negotiating salary and benefits in the workplace.

First, a New York Times profile revealed that Ira Glass, the creator and host of the popular radio show “This American Life,” is uncomfortable earning a high salary. In recent years, Glass earned about $170,000 in compensation and benefits. In 2013, the board of WBEZ public radio—his show’s producer—raised that figure to $278,000 to bring it in line with his stature and success.

Glass felt “weird about it,” he told Cara Buckley of the Times. In fact, he felt so weird about the increase that he asked the board to lower his salary the following year to $146,000. “Then this year, I asked to lower it again,” he wrote in an email to Buckley, adding, “It’s still a lot of money.”

Now, to help cover his and his wife’s living expenses in New York City, where they recently bought a $1.2 million one-bedroom apartment, Glass regularly books speaking engagements, the fees for which now constitute the bulk of his income, he says. He fits the talks around his 60- to 70-hour work week for This American Life.

Presumably, given that Glass works in the non profit world of public radio, he feels more comfortable earning a relatively modest salary. “He’s not motivated by money at all,” Julie Snyder, a senior producer at his radio show, told Buckley. At the same time, it is difficult not to wonder why Glass doesn’t make life easier on himself by accepting a higher salary and slowing down his breakneck pace.

Contrast this attitude to that of 35-year-old former Goldman Sachs mortgage-backed securities trader Deeb Salem, who recently sued the bank on the grounds that the $8.2 million bonus he received for his work in 2010 was too low. How could that be? Salem argues that the 2010 fell disappointingly short of the $13 million he had promised his mother he would earn that year and the $15 million he had earned in a prior year. As reported in The Guardian, Salem’s assessment of his own value was based in part on allegedly being told by a superior at a cocktail hour that he was a “steal” at $15 million. Salem earned a total of $35 million during his six years at Goldman Sachs.

We are often cautioned that we do not advocate aggressively enough for ourselves in our career negotiations. (Women, in particular, often pass on opportunities to lobby for higher pay and benefits.) On the other hand, we are also warned about the risks of overconfidence in negotiation—the common tendency to overvalue our worth to our organization, a bias that surely affected Salem.

How can we strike the right balance between Glass’s extreme humility and Salem’s unbridled hubris? Here are a few guidelines:

1. Know your value. Don’t measure your worth to your organization based on rumors, cocktail-party conversation, or your own personal estimate of what you think you might be worth. Instead, research the going rate for people of your experience in your field by speaking to knowledgeable contacts and referencing industry employment data.
2. Don’t undersell yourself. High-minded ideals are admirable, but you should think twice before asking for or accepting less than your true market value. After all, you could end up feeling resentful and overworked later on. Self-sacrifice is only one way to address perceived inequities in your workplace.
3. Don’t aim too high. Employees who make sky-high demands could win short-term gains, but they risk being disliked and distrusted. Moreover, the most overpaid employees are typically the first on the chopping block when organizations must tighten their belts. So, aim high, but keep your requests within the realm of the reasonable.


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