Get the best job possible in a tough market

Competition for new jobs is fierce in many fields. Here’s how to stand out from the pack and negotiate a satisfying employment package.

By — on / Leadership Skills

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The numbers are staggering: As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment in the United States rose from 3.5% in February to 14.7% by the end of April, the highest rate since the Great Depression. The number of unemployed Americans leapt to 23.1 million by the end of April, according to the Labor Department. With many Americans staying home, the hospitality industry lost 7.7 million jobs in April; millions of retail, manufacturing, white-collar, and government workers also lost their jobs.

Clearly, job seekers in most industries are facing tough competition in a tighter- than-ever market. Expert negotiation advice can help. “In tough economic times, knowing how to negotiate well can actually give you more of an edge over your peers than during good times,” write Rutgers University professor Terri R. Kurtzberg and DePaul University professor Charles Naquin in their book The Essentials of Job Negotiations: Proven Strategies for Getting What You Want (Praeger, 2011). We’ve rounded up the best available advice to help you get noticed, make a good impression, and negotiate the best offer possible in light of organizations’ growing constraints.

Set yourself up to make rational decisions

Economic downturns necessitate painful tradeoffs. To prepare to make those tradeoffs wisely, begin with thorough preparation. Even before identifying promising job leads, spend some time thinking about what you are looking for and what you are worth.

University of California, Berkeley professor Don Moore advises job seekers to develop a scoring system—a metric against which they can score and compare any offers they receive. When you use a scoring system, you set yourself up to make more rational, less intuitive decisions and to look at the whole employment package rather than simply fixating on salary. A good scoring system identifies all the issues that are important to you, provides a common metric that allows you to compare different issues, and offers a useful shorthand that transfers your preference into a quantitative system of measurement, according to Moore.

Begin by listing all the issues of concern (such as salary, responsibilities, various benefits, commute, and so on). Generate alternatives for each issue (for salary, that might be $60,000, $70,000, or $80,000 per year, for instance). Score each alternative according to how good it is (perhaps on a scale of 1–10). You could then add up these scores, provided all the issues are of equal importance to you. Or you might want to weight each issue according to how important it is to you (for example, salary might be worth 30%, the health plan might be worth 15%, your title might be worth 10%, and so on).

Your scoring system will help identify a deal that would take care of your wants and needs, and that you are realistically optimistic about getting, as well as the least acceptable deal you would accept. Knowing when you would walk away depends on being able to score your BATNA. Your BATNA is your best alternative to a negotiated agreement— what you will do if you can’t come to an agreement in a particular job negotiation, such as staying at your current job, if you’re employed, or perhaps enrolling in school or training to learn new skills or change your career trajectory.

Network effects

How can you make the case that you are the right person for a job when you know the competition is fierce? In part by mobilizing your network, recommends Simmons College professor emerita Deborah M. Kolb, coauthor (with Jessica L. Porter) of Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins into Big Gains ( Jossey-Bass, 2015). “In this time we’re in, mobilizing your network can help in a number of ways in different phases of the process,” Kolb told Negotiation Briefings.

Kolb recommends beginning by identifying anyone you might know who works for the organization(s) you’re interested in. “Such ‘informants’ may be able to give you information about not only the positions you seek but also the culture of the organization—as it has been and as it is now during the pandemic,” according to Kolb. How well is the organization weathering the downturn? What cutbacks is it making? Is everyone working from home? Informants can help you figure out ways to connect your skills and what you have to offer with what the organization needs. “They can help you express your value in a currency that has value to the organization,” says Kolb.

You can also learn from informants what type of offer to expect, in terms of compensation and other parts of an employment package. The more you know about what to expect, the more comfortable you will feel asking for what you think you’re worth. “Having good information can make you feel that your ‘asks’ are defensible,” explains Kolb.

Beyond the hiring organization, this is also the time to review your broader network—not just those you are in touch with now but also former colleagues. Do you know people who might have the ear of those you want to negotiate with? Can they make the case via phone or email that you’re worthy of consideration? Women leaders, in particular, may benefit from letters that support not only their job-relevant experience but also their relational skills, according to research by University of South Australia professor Carol T. Kulik and Melbourne Business School professor Mara Olekalns.

Negotiating to avoid being laid off

Layoffs often come as a devastating surprise. During an economic downturn, though, there are often signs that downsizing is imminent—and ways to stay employed. Naquin recommends the following steps:

  • Read the writing on the wall. Look for clues that your unit or team is struggling, such as lost business, budget cutbacks, or a failure to replace departing employees. These signs that your area may be in trouble should motivate you to explore your options before layoffs occur.
  • Reach out to your network. Within your organization, open up conversations with people in your network to try to assess whether your job could be affected and to identify any areas of the organization that are doing better.
  • Try to pivot within your organization. Determine whether some of your skills could be transferable to a department or division that’s holding steady or growing. Ask influential members of your network to make any necessary introductions so that you can discuss pivoting to that area of the company, whether permanently or until your current area bounces back.

Interviews and offers

Justifying your requests and backing up your credentials with hard evidence are especially important moves during tough economic times, according to Charles Naquin. If you are unemployed, remember that the negotiation should be framed around the going rate for such positions rather than on your current (lack of) salary. Research market wages, and prepare to use them to justify your expectations.

Naquin also stresses the importance of coming across as personable and likable: “Even if you won’t be working together in person at first, most employers will be looking for someone who can not only do the job well but will be pleasant to work with. They also want someone who really wants the job, so be sure to make that point clear as well.” It’s also important to probe the organization’s most pressing needs and constraints—and suggest ways you might help meet them.

If you’re fortunate enough to get an offer, avoid the temptation to accept it on the spot. “One of the big mistakes people make during normal economic conditions is to not negotiate their job offers,” Naquin tells Negotiation Briefings. “That’s even more true during tough economic times.” With unemployment soaring, many people will be so grateful to have an offer—understandably so—that they take it as presented. “You should still negotiate—keep it respectful and short, but still negotiate—even in the current economic downturn,” says Naquin.

After receiving an offer, thank the interviewer and tell them you’ll think it over. Then consult your scoring system and see how the offer measures up. Identify where you would like to ask for more, and anticipate the different responses you might receive.

Job negotiations from a distance

During the coronavirus pandemic, many job negotiations are taking place virtually rather than face-to-face. “Meeting in person tops both phone and video in terms of how much information is communicated, but that may be out of the question for most interviews right now,” says Charles Naquin.

Is it better to interact via phone or video? “The general evidence suggests that video allows more information to flow between parties than a phone call will,” says Naquin. “You not only get the content and tonal inflections of a phone call, but body language as well.” But most candidates will not have a choice in the matter, he adds, and should probably agree to whatever interviewers propose.

If an interview will take place over video, be sure to dress professionally and choose a neutral backdrop that won’t be a distraction from your ability to make a good impression, advises Naquin. Do a test run beforehand to see how you look, check the lighting at the appropriate time of day, and address any technical issues.

Because rapport can be harder to build at a distance, you might try to open your virtual interview with a bit of banter, or schmoozing, unrelated to the actual job offer. “Such small talk can be especially effective if it’s about something you have in common with the interviewer, such as being from the same area or rooting for the same sports team,” says Naquin. “But even just talking about the weather or how excited you are about the prospects of working for the organization can help create rapport.”

Negotiate the offer—flexibly

During difficult economic times, flexibility is often the key to walking away with a satisfying job offer. “Most companies are keenly aware of their budgets and may not have much to offer in terms of salary flexibility,” says Naquin. “If you find that salary is not an open issue for negotiation, then move on to other aspects of your offer.”

In particular, try to identify integrative and compatible issues for which value creation is possible. Integrative issues are those where mutually beneficial tradeoffs are attainable. After being laid off, a former student of Naquin’s returned to his previous employer at his former salary. He had to accept a painful pay cut but negotiated for a new title that he believed would improve his future career mobility. Compatible issues are those where both the employer’s and candidate’s interests intersect. Another former student of Naquin’s negotiated for training to obtain a new skill set that will increase her marketability both internally and externally. She was able to frame the training as a win-win for both her and the employer.

When organizations are struggling financially, contingencies, or “if . . . then” arrangements, can be especially appealing to them. If you are confident that you can prove your value, you might suggest starting at a lower base wage than you would normally accept in exchange for the promise of a raise at a later date or greater sales commissions if you achieve clearly specified performance benchmarks. But be sure that your goals are within reach and not beyond your control, and it’s critical to get any contingency agreements in writing so they can’t be disputed later.

Finally, Don Moore advises against asking yes/no questions, such as “Is this offer negotiable?” Instead, you might say, “What options do we have for improving the compensation package?” or “I’d like to talk about the moving allowance.” Moreover, try to ensure that nothing is settled until everything is settled. When you leave various issues open for discussion throughout the conversation, you put yourself in a position to make the types of tradeoffs across issues that Naquin’s students identified.

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