6 Mistakes to Avoid When Negotiating Your Job Offer

It takes some practice, but if you know and understand the basics, you can become much better at it, advises Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis.

April 23, 2018

You networked, you prepared, you aced one interview after the other and -- finally -- the hiring manager tells you that you are the one they want! You’re so excited, but this nagging feeling suddenly appears once you realized you should probably now negotiate.

An unscientific observation I made is that, among graduate students and postdocs, negotiation is the most dreaded word that starts with N after networking, and it has a magical power to make people uneasy just thinking about it. Granted, we scientists don’t receive any formal training in negotiation, and if we ever managed to score a free antibody sample from a vendor, we feel like we just made a deal on par with the ones on Shark Tank.

Joking aside, negotiation takes some practice, but if you know and understand the basics, you can become much better at it. Here are six mistakes to avoid while preparing for your job negotiation.

No. 1. Negotiating at the wrong time. Even if the interviews are going well, or the interviewer tries to start a negotiation, the interview is the worse place to start negotiating. One of the key concepts in negotiation is that you should never make the first offer. That concept is key when it comes to job offers, and you should not start the negotiation until you have a written one in hand. Then you should ask for a few days (up to a week is usually OK) to think about it.

No. 2. Not negotiating at all. Several factors make trainees think they should accept an offer just as it is. Some people think that the company would be offended if they negotiated. Let’s bust that myth right now: no, they won’t be offended.

In addition, some trainees transition into high-paying jobs where the offered salary can be three to four times their current one. Or they are so desperate to get out of the lab that they think they should take any offer that pays them more than what they are earning now. (And let’s be honest, it’s not very hard to beat the salary of a graduate student.) So they don’t negotiate because they don’t want to appear greedy. Ample research also shows that if you are a woman or from certain cultures, you are less likely to negotiate or you don’t negotiate as hard as you should.

The problem with simply accepting an offer is that you’re signaling you’re not someone who stands up for themselves, and that is not the type of image you’d like to create when starting a new job. What’s more, your starting salary will determine your career earnings trajectory, and salary increases are usually just a few percentage points, no matter how great an employee you are. Even if you change roles within the company, your current salary is often the base for the new one.

By negotiating, you’ll create an image of someone who can manage themselves well and who knows what they want and how to get it -- the image you want when you embark on your professional journey.

No. 3. Approaching your job negotiation like buying a car. When most of us think about negotiation, a sleazy car salesperson often comes to mind. But in the world of negotiation, buying a car or a house falls into the category of “competitive negotiation,” where one side’s loss is the other side’s gain. And that scenario applies to a one-time deal, where you’ll never see the other side again.

That is clearly not the case with job negotiations, which are about mixed interests. First, they can be oppositional: usually employers want to pay you the least possible, while you want to get as much as possible. That is the reason you should leave the salary discussion to the very end. Second, they can be differential: something that is of high importance to you may be of low importance to your prospective employer, such as job location or a relocation package. Those interests are points of potential trade-offs that make both sides happy. And finally, they can be complementary: both sides want the same thing, but if you take a win/lose approach, like buying a car, you won’t reveal that and thus miss agreeing on things that could sweeten the deal for both sides.

To get the best results, you should examine the whole job package and list in order the issues that are most important to you to negotiate. If you fear appearing greedy, be honest with yourself and differentiate your needs from wants. Just always be careful not to sell yourself short.

No. 4. Not knowing your BATNA. Your Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, or BATNA, is key when preparing for any type of negotiation. When you don’t know your BATNA, you literally have no power.

And when it comes to a job offer, your BATNA varies in strength. If you have another written job offer, you have a pretty strong BATNA, but if your alternative is to stay a trainee or leave the work force, you don’t. Knowing your BATNA helps set up what is called your “reservation price” -- in this case, the lowest salary for which you’ll take the offer.

Let’s go back to the car example. As the customer, you will want to pay the lowest price possible, while the car salesperson will try to sell you the car for the highest price possible. The difference between the two is what’s called the “bargaining zone,” and as long as that difference is positive, an agreement is possible. Now, don’t quickly assume that you can just meet in the middle and close the deal -- that’s not how it should work. Once you understand your BATNA, you should do your homework using online resources (for example, Glassdoor or LinkedIn) to find the salary range or your network (friends with similar job offers or a contact within the company) to determine your reservation price.

Be sure to remember that the other side has a BATNA and a reservation price as well, and to revisit the three types of interests when you prepare for the negotiation. The company has already invested time and money in screening and interviewing candidates, and they probably needed someone yesterday to fill the position. So even if your BATNA is on the weaker side, that doesn’t mean you’re powerless.

No. 5. Thinking salary is the only thing you can negotiate. You can negotiate many things besides salary, including: a signing bonus, an annual bonus, benefits, relocation costs, a starting date, vacation time, professional development opportunities and so on. After you reviewed the whole offer and have an understanding of what’s acceptable to you (and you know your BATNA, reservation price and the order of importance of the issues), you can start the negotiation. I’ve known postdocs who have negotiated a signing bonus for the buying professional clothes or furniture for a home office. Other examples of things that trainees have negotiated successfully are vacation time, 401(k) contributions that start immediately or funds for professional development.

No. 6. Forgetting your manners. Now that you know why and how to prepare for your job negotiation, don’t forget the basics of communication. First, negotiation isn’t something that you should ever do via email. This is a conversation you will most likely have over the phone, which, shall you need it, gives you the opportunity to have your list of talking points in front of you.

You also need to remember this is not a win/lose negotiation. You should be polite and start by showing your appreciation for the offer and excitement about the opportunity. Then bring up the different elements you’d like to negotiate and explain your reasoning. That signals that you’ve done your homework and your concerns deserve consideration. Also, whether you’re negotiating with your future manager or with HR, always keep in mind that your employer’s perspective, as this is a relationship-building process.

If you hit a roadblock in the negotiation, such as if the other side says, “This is nonnegotiable,” ask why. If it’s really not, ask whether it can be traded with something else that is negotiable. Another example of a roadblock is when the other side says, “I don’t have the authority to negotiate this.” In that case, ask to schedule a time with the person who has that authority.

I hope that you’ll find this essay helpful for your future job negotiation. And remember: you’ll never get what you haven’t asked for.


Graduate Career Consortium logoGaia Vasiliver-Shamis is the former assistant director of the office of postdoctoral education at the Emory University School of Medicine and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.


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