In 1998, when I was 30 years old, I interviewed with a consulting firm. The interview process was grueling — five-rounds culminating in a meeting with the managing partner. I prepared long and hard for the final interview, thinking it was my chance to convince him that I was the man for the job. But when I arrived at the meeting, he had no questions, just an offer.
I was completely caught off guard, and replied simply, “I’ll take it!”
Over the course of the next year, I slowly realized that accepting the offer without negotiating was a huge mistake. I was one of the lowest paid associates at the firm — I hadn’t negotiated, but my colleagues had. I was disgruntled not only because of my salary, but also for the lack of diverse work, learning opportunities, and autonomy. I blamed the firm, and eventually left the organization.
I know now that my unhappiness wasn’t the firm’s fault — it was mine. I failed to negotiate in the beginning to make sure I was paid fairly, and I failed to negotiate towards the end to resolve the issues that were making it untenable to work there.. The job was one big failure on my part.
The message I have for my 30-year-old self — and the message that I have for everyone just starting their careers — is that most problems at work can be solved by negotiation. You have to learn how to negotiate; you have to learn how to negotiate well — and then you have to do it.
I have spent the past 15 years negotiating offers on behalf of others, first at an executive search firm, and then as the Assistant Dean at the Simon Business School. Now, as the Head of Career Strategy and Professional Development for SoFi, I teach job candidates how to negotiate the best offers for themselves. In all the time working in this space, I have negotiated well over 1,000 job offers and advised at least another 1,000 candidates on the negotiation process.
The goal in salary negotiation is not to get the highest offer. It’s to get the best offer without compromising your relationship with the employer. Over the years, I’ve learned a handful of crucial lessons about how to achieve that best offer, which I use as the basis of my advice to job candidates.
Ask the right questions.
There is a difference between negotiating and asking questions. Often a salary offer can be increased by asking the right questions rather than countering. For example, you can let them know that the offer came in lower than you expected, and ask if there’s room to increase the base salary. Or, you can ask if the scope of the role could be increased to justify higher compensation. Asking questions make the conversation feel morecollaborative — you and the recruiter are solving a problem together.
I worked with a candidate who wasn’t thrilled with her salary offer, but didn’t think she could do much to change it. I worked with her to let go of her fear and approach the process by simply asking a few questions. She spoke with the hiring manager and mentioned how excited she was about the opportunity — but that she was not as excited about her offer. She then simply asked if there was anything that could be done to improve it. The employer increased her salary by more than 10%, because, in their words, they wanted her to be excited.
It doesn’t always pay to go first.
Research shows that whoever puts the number on the table first will get the best deal; however, in reality this isn’t always the case. Going first comes with risk (you risk being eliminated from the opportunity if you ask for too much, and you risk limiting your earning potential if you ask for too little).
Consider this example. I worked with an unemployed candidate that had been out of the market for an extended period of time. He was more than ready to get back to work, but was afraid that he wouldn’t be compensated enough since he had no leverage. He decided to tell employers up front what his compensation requirements were, and was honest whenever a recruiter asked about salary expectations. Unfortunately, he never got far enough in the process to actually get an offer. He was eliminating himself from consideration because his number was too high. I counseled him to not give a number when asked, and instead say only that he expected to be paid fair market value for the role — knowing that we could always negotiate once they put an offer on the table. He took my advice and went through a grueling interview process with a telecommunications firm. They asked him on five separate occasions what he expected to earn, but he stood his ground. He even called me for moral support — I thought he was going to break!. Finally, the firm made an offer and it was 30% higher than his goal. He was shocked. If he had given his number first, it would have limited him on negotiation and possibly cost him some credibility points.
Candidates should weigh their own risk tolerance for elimination or limitation. For example, unemployed candidates may prefer to let the employer go first since the risk is much greater, while employed (and passive) candidates should put the number on the table before the employer.
It’s not a game to be won.
Drawing a hard line rarely works. I worked with another candidate whose approach to negotiation was competitive — a game to be won or lost. He put a take it or leave it counter-offer on the table, and almost lost the offer as a result. The hiring manager shrugged it off and then told my candidate he would get back to him with an answer, but went radio silent instead. Two weeks went by with no answer. Stunned, my candidate called me for advice. I worked with him around the concept of “tentative talk” versus “assertive speak” — the former being much more effective than the latter. We developed some problem-solving questions to move my candidate towards a more collaborative approach to negotiation, which allowed him to re-engage the hiring manager.
Put others first
If you’re nervous about standing up for your salary requirements, the “agency approach” can work well. Agency is simply removing yourself as the principal — you’re not negotiating for yourself, you’re negotiating for your family. When you think about other when negotiating, you’re often more likely to fight harder.
Fair is best in the long run.
It is possible to be paid too much. The more you make, the more the employer expects and your risk of failing to deliver on expectations increases significantly. I’ve seen plenty of candidates end up losing their job due to this issue. It is far better to negotiate a fair salary for all parties involved and then earn the rest.
Negotiation is a critical component to managing your career, but it’s not only about money — it’s about relationships too. Think of it as a conversation — you can manage your career one conversation at a time. We negotiate not only to ensure we are paid fairly, but to line up our goals and pave the way forward for building a successful career.