How to Create the Optimal Salary Negotiation

The most important part of salary negotiations ISN'T the actual face-to-face part.

It's the setup - with a specific state of mind. Nearly everyone thinks of a salary negotiation as that point in an offer process when you get to hammer out all the details, starting with salary, moving on to bonus and benefits and cars and cell phones, etc. That order is wrong, but I’ll leave that for a discussion on figuring out the final strategy. By the way, that's the easiest part.  

The Setup

The setup is not only the most important part of a negotiation, it’s also the aspect most people find uncomfortable, in what already is usually an uncomfortable situation. 

When I ask many of my clients and students if they have negotiated much in previous salary discussions, the answer is usually "no." There is something about "making the ask" that creates an urge to say yes to everything and just be done with it. Or there's a fear that if the person receiving the offer doesn't agree right away, the offer will be rescinded. (Whenever that actually does happen, it's almost always a signal that something's wrong with the position and/or the organization.)  

Positive Mindset

It's important to go into any interview situation, including a phone screen, with a positive mindset  --  you feel like you've earned it, you have the background and skills, and you're qualified to not only get the offer, but also to be paid accordingly. You're prepared. 

At Columbia Business School's EMBA program, where I've consulted for many years, we call it the "EMBA mantra: sunshine, light, and success." An attitude.  

Talking About Money

Whenever the subject of money is brought up, at any point in an interviewing process, the negotiation has started. That includes a five-minute phone screen. Even if you haven’t had an interview or yet been considered a serious candidate.   

Here's the hard part mentioned earlier: You must try to avoid the subject of money for as long as you can. The longer you defer the better. The longer you defer, the more opportunity you have to build value. The longer you build value? The more money you will get offered. Isn't that what this is all about? 

If you don't set up an optimal situation for making the best deal you can, then you may get stuck later on during reviews with those COLA raises or some other bureaucratic organizational limitation.  

How to Avoid Talking About Money

There are many ways to avoid the topic. 

  • For example: "Money is very important to me, of course. But, if it's ok with you, could we defer this discussion until we figure out if there's a good fit?  I'd hate to knock myself out of contention because I'm coming in too high or too low this early in our conversation. I'm confident we'd be able to work it out."
  • Or, if that doesn't work, how about, "Could you give me an idea of your range?" If the interviewer does respond with a range, and it's anywhere near where you think it should be, you just say there will be no problem working it out if you get to that point.  
  • Or, if you find the interviewer getting impatient, you say you'll be looking for an "all in" (including benefits, bonus, 401K match, everything) of __________. That, of course, is if you're looking to bump your total comp up significantly. If you're seeking to keep it lower for any of a wide range of reasons, then you say you'll be looking for a base of ____________, which is close to what you're currently earning.  
  • Or, if the interviewer is insistent, you'll have to give in and tell the real numbers. You cannot fabricate your history; it's easy to verify. All the interviewer has to do is ask you for a previous W-2.   

Even if you have to give in, you've at least set a precedent where the interviewer will know  you're not going to be a pushover in any subsequent salary discussions. That's a great precedent. 

This pushback, of course, will be continued in the actual face to face negotiations later on.  Collegial and friendly, but still a pushback.  

The Exceptions

One note: Working with HR professionals or recruiters makes this much tougher. They're there to screen. It's why I encourage clients and students to do their best to get to decision makers, who will be far more amenable to the approach described here. 

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