Five Do's and Don'ts of Negotiating


Most Americans don't grow up haggling in marketplaces, and that's probably a real disadvantage for us. It means that we tend to go into salary negotiations with the idea that the price and terms are already set before we get there. Occasionally that is true, but with most jobs you should assume there is some room to make the salary, terms or both work better. And getting off to a good start means your career (and your finances) progress that much faster. Here are five quick points for getting the best terms for your new job:

1. Do your research.

Anyone who has tried haggling at a market stall knows that one of the best opening lines is "I could get it for less down the road." In a job negotiation, that concept should translate to something like, "I am really interested in working for your company, but I am not sure that I am willing to take the lower salary that you are offering me." You could bluff, of course, but this strategy plays out much better if you know what compensation ranges look like in your industry and even better, what the people who are already employed with this company are making.

2. Never say "yes" on the spot.

I've made this mistake myself. You are fumbling along in the middle of your day when the phone rings and someone offers you a job right there and then. They throw in a salary number pretty close to what you were hoping for. Assuming you're interested in this job, your instinct is probably to say "yes" right then and there. Don't.

Instead tell the person on the line how excited you are to get the offer and ask for some time to consider your options. If they don't offer up a timeline, ask when they need to have answer. Hang up the phone, have a little spontaneous celebration, and then sit on your answer a bit while you move on to points 3 through 5...

3. It's not about you; it's about them.

I know you have financial needs; you know you have financial needs, but focusing on how much you need (for housing, food, transportation, etc...) takes the negotiation away from the more important topic—how much you are worth to this company. It's alright to throw out the old "I'm going to need X dollars to make this work" line, but otherwise always bring the conversation (and the thoughts in your head!) back to how much the company needs you.

Not usually your style? Focus your thoughts on the company's challenges. Are they struggling to get the job done because they don't have someone with the right skills? Are they hoping for someone who can make the existing team work better? Do they need someone with enough energy to get things started? Your ability to solve these challenges is what they are going to pay for. Highlight that value to yourself and say out loud to them how excited you are to bring those abilities to the new job—but only if they can make it worthwhile, of course.

4. Attack the problem from all angles.

One of the best tricks of talented negotiators is finding those creative ways to get more. Let's say you've already brought up the fact that you'd like a higher salary (and could possibly get a better one from a competitor), only to learn that the company has a policy or a financial constraint that makes the higher salary impossible.

Remember, the person doing the hiring went through a good bit of effort to get to this point with you—she or he has every incentive to find a way to make it work. This is why managers often use perks and benefits beyond salary to sweeten an offer to a good candidate. But you often need to prompt them. Here are some extra perks that often get thrown in to improve a job offer:

  • A better job title (even if it doesn't come with more pay, it sets you up for better lateral moves)
  • Moving expenses
  • More paid leave time (this can be vacation time, sick leave, sabbatical, etc...)
  • Allowance or reimbursement for parking or transportation
  • Housing subsidy
  • Flex time
  • Full or partial work from home schedule
  • Tuition reimbursement for further education
  • Wardrobe allowance
  • Signing or sign-on bonus
  • Options or performance bonus

Obviously, not all of these will make sense to your job. But at least some of them will. Someone expected to host events probably should have a wardrobe allowance; housing subsidies are used to lure great candidates to more expensive cities; signing or performance-based bonuses are a common way for employers salary level policies; and further education can benefit both you and your boss if you are in the early stages of your career.

What all of these perks have in common is that they either 1. make it easier for you to progress in your career, or 2. allow you to put more of your salary toward you own savings. Some of them do both.

How do you make your move? Keep your tone firm, confident and friendly. Approach the employer with no more than two of these "perks," choosing options that make sense for the job and for the employer: "I understand that the company can't offer more salary, but I would really like the chance to work with you. Would the company commit to at the end of the year if I meet X targets?/ include a wardrobe allowance to help cover the costs of running these events/be willing to offer more vacation time until finances are better?"

5. Get It In Writing

This may be the last item on the list, but that doesn't make it any less important. The employer should be proving you with a written job offer and job description anyway. But make sure they do with a polite request: "I think this is a great offer. I will call you back with a firm answer after I've received the written offer and job description."

There are guarantees that a new job is going to be everything you hoped it would be, but going through a strong negotiation process in the beginning is a great way for both you and the employer to establish a level of professionalism that sets the tone going forward.

Still feeling anxious about asking for more? Remember you aren't just improving your terms; you are proving that you have the confidence and skills to be a successful negotiator for their business.