Ask A Negotiation Expert: Job Negotiations In the COVID-19 Era

By PON Staffon / Salary Negotiations

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crisis have shaken up nearly everyone’s working life. We asked Hannah Riley Bowles, the Roy E. Larsen Senior Lecturer in Public Policy and Management at Harvard Kennedy School, for advice on how to adapt to this uncertain time.

Negotiation Briefings: What advice would you give to people who are currently looking for a job?

Hannah Riley Bowles: We’re living through a historic labor market shift as employers adapt to the current crisis. So it’s obviously important to think about your aspirations in light of prospective employers’ needs now and into the foreseeable future. Some sectors are experiencing high growth, while other parts of the economy have been completely crushed. Even within organizations, some departments are understaffed, while others are at risk of laying off or furloughing workers. You’ll need to research organizations’ needs, then try to match them to your aspirations and capabilities. The better able you are to explain how you can meet a prospective employer’s needs, the more attractive you will be.

Networking for a job has also changed, as there are fewer occasions to learn about opportunities through casual encounters or in large gatherings. You may need to be more deliberate about finding ways to meet and learn from people. But I’ve heard repeatedly that people are making remarkable connections through online settings. For instance, in a large Zoom meeting, people are having small breakout conversations with people they wouldn’t otherwise have met. Many senior people are more willing to speak at a one-hour Zoom conference than to devote a day to travel to give a talk. I have also witnessed a great deal of goodwill toward students seeking employment and those whose work has been displaced.

NB: Suppose you’re working from home for the first time and would like to make the arrangement permanent, but you think your employer may be resistant. How should you make this request?

HRB: I would start by looking into how your organization is thinking about remote work arrangements because, undoubtedly, it is. This will help determine whether what you want falls within the standard options that it is imagining or would require an exceptional arrangement. It’s going to be a much easier conversation if your proposal is already within your employer’s option set. If it’s not, you could reference standards from other organizations: “I’ve heard that companies similar to ours have been crafting this type of arrangement, and it’s working for them.” You want to convey that what you’re asking for is legitimate and appropriate.

If you do not have an obvious norm or standard to rely on, you’ll have to be prepared to justify why the benefits of giving you this special privilege outweigh the costs. Research suggests organizations view requests for flexible work arrangements more favorably when employees appear to be asking because they want to be more productive than when they appear to have conflicting loyalties or obligations, as with their families. So, frame your proposal in terms of why it would help you be more useful to the organization: “I have been successful working this way and expect to be more productive if I am able to stay on this track.” Your employer might appreciate that a worker who can be productive at home literally creates space for those who need to be at the office. You might suggest a trial period and offer to help your manager come up with a policy for the terms of remote work arrangements.

NB: What if, as a result of the pandemic, you’ve been asked to take on a lot of extra work but aren’t being compensated more?

HRB: It’s a really hard moment to ask for any form of wage increase—not because you don’t deserve it, but because people are losing their jobs. You can address the issue of being overloaded, but again, avoid having an “I” conversation—“I have too much work.” Seek advice on how you can be most effective and productive, such as by setting priorities: “I want to make sure I’m allocating my time appropriately so that I get the most important assignments done. Which tasks should go on front and back burners?”

NB: How can managers ease the added burdens facing employees while still looking out for the organization’s interests?

HRB: Managers are likely to benefit in terms of loyalty and morale if they acknowledge the extra stresses and demands created by the pandemic. Open up communication channels for creative problem solving. Again, because there are fewer opportunities for casual encounters, you may need to be more deliberate about creating spaces for employees to offer their ideas and perspectives. We’re literally co- creating new ways of working right now. Negotiation skills are critically important at this moment because that’s how you co-create change—between managers and employees, among employees themselves, and with those you serve.