transcript of “What Should Salary Negotiation Sound Like? (episode 9)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast, episode 9: “What Should Salary Negotiation Sound Like?”.

Alison: We have a letter this week on a topic that I think a lot of people wonder about – negotiating salary. For most people, negotiating is pretty intimidating. You worry about undercutting yourself and leaving money on the table, or you worry that you’ll ask for too much and maybe lose the offer. Some people decide they’d rather not bother with it at all, and so they just take whatever they’re offered and don’t do any negotiating, which almost definitely means they’re leaving money on the table. So I think this is a great topic to really delve into. Let’s welcome our guest to the show. Hello and welcome.

Guest: Hello.

Alison: Thanks so much for joining us.

Guest: Thank you for having me on here.

Alison: Why don’t you start by reading the letter that you sent me and then we’ll talk about it?

Guest: Okay. I would really appreciate a good in-depth lesson on negotiating salaries. I see a lot of basic advice on the Internet, but I’ve never personally done it. There’s such conflicting advice about if women should or shouldn’t, how they should do it, and to top it off a mix of horror stories of offers being pulled because of negotiation. The things I’d like to know most are: what kind of tone should you be using? How do you know if you’re being reasonable and how to get more confident and not feel so nervous about pushing for a little bit more?

Alison: I’m so glad we’re talking about this. I think those questions are on so many people’s minds and you’ve got a lot of company in finding this confusing and nerve wracking. One thing that is really frustrating to me about this topic is that I’ve heard so many women say they worry about negotiating because they’ve heard that it can hurt you, that people will perceive you as being pushy in a way that they wouldn’t if you were a man. The big thing that I want you and everyone listening to know is: while it is true that sometimes women get penalized for negotiating, it is not true that it happens in most cases. And also – and this is huge – you get penalized far more if you don’t negotiate because of the long-term financial impact that will happen.

And one thing it’s interesting to know, and I think maybe a lot of people don’t realize this, is that most of the research about this is not based on actual real world outcomes. Most of it is based on surveying research subjects. They show them women negotiating and they ask about their feelings toward those women. It’s of course very bad that a gender disparity does show up there, but it’s not the same thing as studying real world outcomes of real salary negotiations by real people, and I think that fact has gotten lost in a lot of discussion about it and has really freaked women out a lot more than it should.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: The reality for most people, men or women, is that you’re really not taking a huge risk by negotiating. It’s really uncommon for job offers to be pulled because someone asked for more money. It does happen occasionally and those are the horror stories that you mentioned reading, but it’s rare, and when it does happen it’s usually because someone asked for something wildly out of sync with the market rate for the work. Truly, negotiating salary is such a normal thing to do that if an employer does pull an offer because you tried to do it, it’s usually a sign that they are going to be nightmares to work for anyway because it’s such an irrational and unusual act. Does that make sense?

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: Let’s talk through your questions. What’s the nitty gritty of how you actually do it? I think the first thing to tackle is how do you know that you’re being reasonable in what you’re asking for. You’ve just got to do research beforehand. This is a pain in the ass and no one really wants to do it, but otherwise you’re just kind of winging it and hoping that you’re landing in the right place. So do some research beforehand. Talk to people in your field, talk to recruiters, get a feel for what positions like these pay. One really good way is to just talk to people in your field and say, “Hey, how much would you expect a position like this to pay?” And people will tell you! People aren’t always thrilled to talk about their own salaries, so it’s different to say, “How much are you earning?” A lot of people are not going to be excited about answering that. But if you frame it as, “Here’s this job, here’s the title, here’s the company it’s at. Where would you expect the salary to come in for something like that?” most people are down for having that conversation.

And once you have a pretty good feel for the market rate, then you want to think about what are the factors that might move you up or down in that range. That’s stuff like how much experience you have, whether you have some additional qualifications that the employer seems excited about, whether there’s any kind of special hardship attached to the job, like a lot of travel, and even how enthusiastic they seem to be about you. And the other thing is, in most cases whatever number they come in at first, it’s almost always reasonable to ask if they can go up a little bit. If you’re not sure, if you’re feeling really uncertain about what the market rate really is, and you’re kind of nervous about asking for something that’s quite different than what they’ve offered you, you can always ask them to go up a little. So if they offered you, let’s say $80,000, they’re not going to think that a request for $84,000 is outrageous. They might not say yes to it, but they’re not going to be outraged that you would even ask because it’s in the same ballpark.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: I mean, there’s some exceptions to this. If they had asked you about your range earlier on and you said, “Oh, I’m hoping for 75 to 80,” and then they come in at 80 – at that point you can’t ask for more, because you told them your range and they offered you the very top of it, so if you then try to negotiate for more it would look like you were operating in bad faith. But aside from something like that, you can always ask for a little more and so much of the time when people do that, they get it.

And it doesn’t have to be a big deal either. I think when people imagine negotiating salary, they think they have to create this whole case and lay it out and it’s a big deal. But honestly, I’ve had a lot of people negotiate salary with me when I’ve made job offers, and the majority of the time it’s one sentence. It’s something like – we’ll use that $80,000 offer – it would be something like, “Any chance you could go up to 84?” And that’s it. It’s not a big detailed case. It’s, what was that, eight words? “Any chance you can go up to x?” And that’s it.

And once you say it, stop talking. Wait for an answer. It might take them a minute, there might be a pause there. That’s totally okay. Sometimes people get really nervous when there’s a pause there and they start talking again to fill in the silence, and then they end up undercutting themselves and kind of backtracking. Say the words and then wait.

Can you picture yourself doing it that way?

Guest: I think so, yeah. That does take a lot of the mystery out of it (laughs). I was under the impression it was more of a discussion than just, “Hey, can you come up a little bit more?”

I do have a question. Say you gave them a range of $80,000 to $85,000 and they come in at 82 and you were hoping for a little bit higher. Is that still okay to just be like, “Hey, any room to come up to 84?”

Alison: Absolutely. When I was saying earlier it would be operating in bad faith if they came in at the top of the range, that’s the top of your range. If you tell them 80 to 85 and they offer you 85, at that point they’ve given you the top level of what you asked for. So it would seem kind of disingenuous to be like, “Oh wait, I didn’t really mean it when I gave you that range. Now I want more.” But in the question that you just asked, where they’re not at the top of the range, they’re in the middle – that’s not disingenuous at all on your part. You told them that you’re interested in a slightly higher range. I think you might be feeling like, “Well maybe it’s a little disingenuous because I gave them a range which implies that I should be okay with something anywhere in that range,” right?

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: Part of it is convention. It’s just so common for people to give a range they’re hoping to get, but after hearing all details about the job and having a chance to reflect on it and maybe learning about their benefits package – at that point, you are excited about the job, you want to be able to take it, but 84-85 is where you’re coming down. And that’s okay.

As we’re talking about this, I’m thinking that so much of the anxiety associated with this is that people don’t have any window into how other people are handling it. Having been on the offer-making side of things, I’ve seen dozens and dozens of people handle it exactly the way that I just described, so I know that it’s normal. But if you haven’t made a bunch of job offers, you have no idea what other people are doing. You have no way to calibrate and make sure that you’re seeming normal about it. So I think, go away with the knowledge that so many people do it this way – it’s not going to raise any eyebrows.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: And there’s other phrases you can use too, and all of them are quite short. In addition to “Any chance you can go up to X,” you can also say, “Do you have any flexibility on the salary? I had had something closer to X in mind.” Or a good thing to say, if you know that you would definitely accept for sure if they give you the number that you want, you can say, “If you able to do X, I would be thrilled to accept.” That works best when X isn’t super far off their original offer. You don’t want to say that when it’s significantly higher. But just those short little phrases. And I think how you were saying you were picturing it being a much longer thing or you had to present a full case for why you deserve it – it’s actually pretty rare for that to be needed. The only times when that really comes up, if you were asking for something that was significantly higher, you would probably want to explain where you would come up with that number, why you thought it was warranted. Or if they were saying, “No, we only have X budgeted, that’s all we can offer,” and if you felt really strongly that you were going to walk away if they didn’t come up, then I would do a couple of sentences making a case for why you thought more made sense. But in like 95 percent of salary negotiations, truly all you have to say is, “Any chance you can go up to X?”

Guest: Okay.

Alison: And that’s the tone too, by the way. The tone I was just using. The more matter of fact you can sound the better. You don’t want to sound nervous or tentative. Just super matter of fact. The way you would say it if you were asking any other business person for something. Like, if you were hiring a handyman for your house, you would just be like, “Hey, any chance you can get it done for X?” Same tone here. It’s business, you’re business people, you’re both looking for what you need, and this is just you expressing your side of that. It doesn’t have to be a big fraught thing.

I think too, it feels so scary and emotional on the job seeker side. I mean, this is how much money you’re going to be earning. You’re really, really invested in what that number will be and rightfully so. But on their side it’s actually pretty impersonal, so that might make that tone make more sense if you look at it that way – it’s just another day at work for them.

Guest: Yeah, that does make a lot more sense. I think in my mind, I always kind of assumed it’d be the same as asking for a raise at your normal job, but I kind of get it now that they’re two completely separate things.

Alison: Yeah, they really are. I mean, I do think there’s a lot of similarities. I think when people are asking for a raise at a job they’re already at, I think they often think it has to be a bigger deal there too, but it can be even less of a big deal in this situation. It really can be.

Let me ask you this and you can totally say no to this, but would you want to actually practice the conversation with me right now? I could make you a fake job offer and you can try replying by asking for more money.

Guest: Uh, yeah.

Alison: Yeah?

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: Okay. I think there’s something about doing this, actually, that will make it easier to do it in real life. Okay, so I’ll just make you a fake job offer and you can ask me for more money.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: Hey, I’m so glad I reached you. I’m calling because everyone here was so impressed with you and I want to offer you the job. We would be thrilled to have you come on board and we’re offering you a salary of $80,000.

Guest: Okay. Is there any flexibility on the salary?

Alison: Well, what were you looking for?

Guest: Probably closer to 84.

Alison: Well, let me see what I can do. I need to get approval for it on my side, but I think we can probably do that.

Guest: Excellent.

Alison: Yay! You just negotiated.

Guest: (Laughs)

Alison: (Laughs) Now let me point something out. You did sound a little bit hesitant with the first sentence that you said, which is fine. If that had been a real job offer, I wouldn’t have held that against you – people are nervous in that situation – but if you’re looking to really strengthen your negotiation skills, I would try to come in more matter of fact.

Now I will say, the answer will not be yes every time. Sometimes it’ll be no. Sometimes they’ll offer you something in between. It’s not a sign that you failed, that you somehow got it wrong, if the answer isn’t yes. But that’s really all there is to it. Sometimes they’re able to do it and sometimes they’re not, but it’s so reasonable for you to make the request.

Guest: Yeah. (Laughs)

Alison: Does that help?

Guest: Yeah, I think it does help a lot. I mean, I think there’s always going to be that fear in your brain, like, what if they just say no? What do you do then?

Alison: Yeah. Well, let’s talk about that, because that’s a great question and I think people wonder about that too. So let’s say that we have just had that conversation, you asked if I could come up to 84 and I say something like, “You know, I wish we could, but we’re already at the top of our range for this and that’s as high as we can go.” At that point, you can take a couple of different paths. If you know that you want the job anyway, you can say, “Okay, well I understand. I can certainly understand you having a budget range. I wanted to check, I am really excited about the job and I’d love to accept.” Or if you want some time to think it over, if you’re not quite sure or maybe you have other questions, it’s totally fine to say, “Okay, well I appreciate you telling me that. I have some other questions about the offer and then I’m hoping, can you give me a couple of days to think it over?”

I think sometimes people worry, well if I asked for more money and they tell me no, then do I look foolish if I go ahead and accept anyway? Will I look like I was bluffing somehow? And no, employers understand that we’re all hoping for more money all the time, and sometimes it’s a deal breaker, but other times it’s not a deal breaker – so you won’t look foolish if you accept anyway.

Guest: That’s actually really good to know.

Alison: It’s a weird topic because it is so emotionally fraught and it is shrouded in mystery, and we don’t have much of a window into how other people are negotiating. So hopefully this is helpful to get a little bit of insight into it.

Guest: Yeah, I’m finding it very helpful. It’s taking a lot of mystery out of it, which is really nice because it does, you were saying, it is very much a behind closed doors thing, like it’s not something people often talk about.

Alison: And actually on that note, I so encourage you and everyone listening to talk to people about it. Talk to your friends. Maybe it’s weird to talk to your coworkers about it, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it is, but talk to your friends, talk to family members, ask about how negotiating has gone for them and what do they say and what was said in reply. I think you’ll get so much more of a lens into how this is actually transpiring for other people and you’ll probably hear things that will make you more comfortable negotiating too.

Well, thank you for coming on.

Guest: Thank you so much for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast, produced in conjunction with Penguin Random House and Anchor. If you like what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Play. If you’d like to ask a question on the show, email it to podcast@askamanager.org. And check out my new book from Ballantine Books called Ask a Manager: Clueless Coworkers, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. It hits stores May 1st, and it’s the ultimate guide for tackling any and all workplace dilemmas. You can pre-order a copy today at penguinrandomhouse.com or anywhere books are sold.

Thanks for listening! I’m Alison Green, and I’ll be back next week with another question.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.