In job negotiations, set yourself up for long-term success

Status concerns, insecurity, and inattentiveness to our bargaining power can prevent us from negotiating for a position that will be satisfying over time.

By on / Salary Negotiations

When you enter a job negotiation, what goals are foremost on your mind? If you’re like most people, you are primarily preoccupied with making a great impression and winning the job. Acing the interviews can seem like the only thing that matters, especially if you’ve been out of work or desperate to escape a miserable job.

But consider the results of a 2013 Gallup survey of 230,000 employees in 142 countries, which found that only 13% of respondents felt engaged by their jobs. This statistic suggests that many people are capable of getting a job, but not necessarily one that they will find enjoyable and fulfilling in the long run.

To negotiate for employment that we find more than just tolerable, we must overcome three common traps: (1) mispredicting what we will truly value in life; (2) holding ourselves back in job negotiations; and (3) failing to recognize our relative bargaining position.

1. We overlook what we truly value.
Harvard Business School professor Max H. Bazerman notes that during recruiting season on the school’s campus each spring, he overhears lots of discussions in the student center about interviews and job offers. Students might share information about starting salaries, the name of the firm, the city where the job is located, their work responsibilities, the amount of travel involved, and so on.

What type of information do you think is most likely to travel through the MBA grapevine? According to Bazerman, data that conveys the most prestige, such as a high salary or an offer from a top consulting firm, will probably get the most attention. The impressed reactions of one’s peers to a job’s high-status attributes will enhance its appeal to the job candidate.

Meanwhile, less flashy characteristics of the job, such as the freedom to pursue one’s interests or the length of one’s commute, may recede into the background.

Because of their close focus on status, according to Bazerman, many Harvard MBA students end up accepting high-paying jobs with prestigious firms—only to quit soon after and take jobs that are more rewarding on levels that ultimately matter more to them, such as a shorter commute or more interesting responsibilities.

It’s not just newly minted MBAs who fall prey to the so-called vividness bias, or the tendency to focus too closely on vivid information and overlook dull but equally valuable information. As Bazerman writes in his book The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See (Simon & Schuster, 2014), we are all susceptible to overlooking key information that would improve our satisfaction with the outcome of our negotiations.

How can you get a better sense of what you value? By creating a scoring system. A scoring system allows you to weigh different issues, determine how much you value each one, and compare them more accurately. A good scoring system is complete (it identifies all the important issues), measurable (it provides a common metric for comparing qualitatively different issues), and useful (it offers a shorthand for understanding what’s at stake and what you value), according to Professor Don A. Moore of the University of California at Berkeley.

To develop your scoring system, begin by listing each issue relevant to a given job offer on a spreadsheet, such as salary, health insurance, location, and so on. You can add issues to your scoring system as talks unfold. Next, list the possible options within each issue, such as two, three, and four weeks of vacation. Finally, establish a point system that can help you determine how much you value various issues. For example, you might assign 50 points to two weeks of vacation, 75 to three weeks, and 100 to four weeks. If you receive multiple job offers, follow this process for each one, then add up the points and think about whether the outcome reflects your true desires.

Avoid sharing details about your job prospects with others until after you have used a scoring system to determine what matters most to you, Bazerman advises. When you do get feedback from someone, consider whether the reaction tells you anything new. If not, you can feel satisfied with your decision.

2. We get in our own way.
We also have a somewhat self-destructive tendency to hold ourselves back in job negotiations. Consider the recent salary negotiations of Ira Glass, the creator and host of the long-running public-radio show This American Life. In 2013, the board of WBEZ, the show’s producer, raised Glass’s salary from $170,000 to $278,000 to reward his achievements. Glass felt “weird” about the big bump in pay, he told Cara Buckley of the New York Times—so weird that he asked the board to lower his salary to $146,000 (less than the starting point of the negotiation), and later asked them to lower it again. Though Glass says he still earns “a lot of money,” he has been booking speaking engagements around the edges of his 60- to 70-hour workweek to help cover his and his wife’s living expenses in New York City. Why would Glass negotiate his salary down rather than up? He apparently felt self-conscious about earning a high salary from a not-for-profit organization funded by grants and listener donations.

Negotiation is difficult enough without creating extra roadblocks for ourselves. But as this anecdote suggests, that’s exactly what many of us do. This tendency can be particularly strong in hiring negotiations, where we often feel vulnerable and insecure about our worth.

Negotiation is difficult enough without creating extra roadblocks for ourselves.

To negotiate more effectively, we have to recognize how we “get in our own way,” write Simmons School of Management professor emerita Deborah M. Kolb and Jessica L. Porter in their new book Negotiating at Work: Turn Small Wins Into Big Gains (Jossey-Bass, 2015). Pitfalls include failing to recognize opportunities to negotiate, focusing on our own weaknesses, and making the first concessions in our own heads, before we have even given other parties a chance to voice their positions. That’s what Glass did: He bargained with himself without giving WBEZ a voice.

Bargaining ourselves down starts with self-doubt about our value to the hiring organization. Before a job negotiation begins, we consider what we want, what we think we can get, and whether we’re willing to fight for it. We think that the employer has all the cards—that they are in the driver’s seat and our only choices are to acquiesce or reject an offer outright. These internal dialogues are where the first concessions in the negotiation are made, write Kolb and Porter. We might decide that we won’t ask for plum assignments for fear of seeming pushy. Or we might decide in advance not to negotiate salary because we want to negotiate hard on another issue, rather than looking for ways to negotiate about multiple issues that are important to us.

Take the long view

Rather than focusing on the job you’re applying for, think about how that job will set you up for your next job and the one after that, recommends Negotiation Briefings editorial board member David Lax of Lax Sebenius, LLC. This shift in mind-set will motivate you to negotiate for the tools you need to learn and thrive, such as resources, a support staff, and an appropriate title. You might negotiate for more administrative support that will enhance your productivity to the benefit of yourself and the organization, for example. The employer should, at the very least, be indifferent to spending money on your salary versus on support or benefits you would value more.

When we fail to recognize our own value, we are vulnerable to accepting less than we’re entitled to and even to giving back what the organization believes we deserve, as Glass did. It’s important to be fair to your employer, but you also need to be fair to yourself.

In addition, our beliefs about what will satisfy someone are not necessarily correct. Glass’s employer, for example, might have preferred that he accept a raise that would enable him to focus fully on his work without the need to overtax himself with side jobs.

Kolb and Porter suggest ways that you can position yourself to be a more effective self-advocate. Begin by gathering information so that you will feel that what you are asking for is defensible. Prepare to explain the value you would bring to the organization. Develop alternatives to the current negotiation to increase your flexibility at the table, and remember that the other party’s alternatives may be less attractive than yours. In addition, examine your vulnerabilities and plan ahead to compensate for them. For example, if you are insecure about a gap in your work history, think about the important things you were doing during that time and prepare to share them with enthusiasm.

3. We fail to recognize our relative bargaining power.
Job seekers, and women in particular, recently have been so inundated with the message that they fail to negotiate forcefully for themselves that they face the risk of overcompensating. Take the now-infamous story, related on the blog Philosophy Smoker earlier this year, of an anonymous academic who said she had received an offer for a tenure-track position as a philosophy professor from a small liberal-arts college after a round of interviews. The woman responded to the offer by e-mail, sending a list of numerous requests—for a salary increase, a semester of maternity leave, a pre-tenure sabbatical, and so on. Rather than continuing the negotiation, the college revoked the job offer, saying it appeared the candidate was looking to work for a research university rather than a teaching-focused college.

The woman was dismayed and confused by her negotiation failure. But her principal mistake was an obvious one: She failed to recognize the strength of her bargaining position relative to that of the college, says Kolb. In the job market for philosophy professors, a hiring college is clearly in the better bargaining position. It likely has received applications from hundreds of qualified candidates. Meanwhile, the average job candidate might be lucky to get even one interview. Consequently, a job candidate who presents a list of requests or demands is giving the hiring college a good reason to end the negotiation and turn to other candidates.

The philosophy candidate’s list was also risky because it had a common theme—requests for time off from teaching—
that may have given the impression she wouldn’t be a hardworking teacher. Negotiating via e-mail is also usually a mistake in such situations, as it tends to be less collaborative.

Savvy job seekers remember to treat the negotiation as the beginning of a long-term relationship. You can get that relationship off on the right foot by looking for opportunities to give the employer what it wants even as you seek to get what you want.
Begin by using your network to gather information, advises Kolb. The philosophy job candidate, for example, could have consulted with her fellow graduate students or an online group about how much leeway she might have in negotiating her job offer. Then, rather than e-mailing a list of requests, she should have called her contact at the college (or, if possible, met in person) and started asking questions, advises Kolb. For example, she might have asked about the college’s early-career sabbatical policy. What criteria do they use to award it? Then she could have looked for ways to make an early sabbatical palatable to the college, again by asking questions. She could have asked if she could teach extra courses before taking the leave, for example, or give undergraduate students opportunities to get involved with her research while on sabbatical.

Prioritizing is key, as well. Referring back to your scoring system, think about the issues that matter most to you. Focus on two or three of them during your negotiations rather than overwhelming the other side with a list of demands. Less important issues can wait until after you’ve been on the job for a while and proven your value to the organization.

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