Negotiation is an important way to advocate for your professional skills and experiences. Let me start, in fact, with a sweeping generalization that, whatever your circumstances, you should negotiate for something as part of your next job offer. We all need to take opportunities to tell others the value we bring to a new position, and ideally employers should find value in supporting their new employees.
That said, knowing that you should negotiate is not the same thing as finding yourself in a position where negotiation is easy, enjoyable and in no way stressful. I will highlight some general negotiation best practices that can be helpful in most cases, and then I’ll identify a few scenarios where those practices don’t always work.
Given that no one ever taught me any job offer negotiation strategies, that job offers could or should be negotiated, or that doing so would be important to my professional trajectory, it is not surprising how I approached my own first offer. I hadn’t officially finished my Ph.D., and I had traveled from the U.K. to Disney’s Animal Kingdom to interview for a (just about) postdoc position. Everything was overwhelming: Florida, the temperature, Disney, the giant Disney characters parading past my future boss’s window, and also my future boss saying that she would like to offer me the position and asking, “The salary for this position is $XXX -- does this work for you?”
“Um, sounds great” was probably my answer. With all my preparation focused on succeeding in the interview, I hadn’t given any thought to actually receiving the offer. At that moment, I remember my brain focusing on all the projects I was going to be working on, all the information I would have to learn, and all the new responsibilities I would have when the position started. At no point did I reflect on the post-offer, pre-acceptance period where negotiation can happen -- or on whether the salary offered was good, bad or somewhere in between.
Many of you may experience the same rush of thoughts when you receive a job offer: you jump straight to the new (and hopefully exciting) responsibilities of the role that you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about during the application period and skip over many of the logistics of the offer itself. Being goal-focused and project-oriented is one of the reasons you will bring value to the role you have been offered. But that doesn’t mean you should overlook the equally important goal of advocating for yourself.
Let’s quickly cover a few negotiation basics that provide a general set of best practices.
First, wait for a written offer, but don’t rush into any negotiations as soon as you receive it. Once you have the written offer, ask for more time to get back to your potential employer. Some organizations, for some positions, will offer weeks. Others will give you days. It is a good idea not to make a hasty decision if you can avoid it, especially if you may have other interviews or potential offers that might materialize in the next few days.
Then, before you actually start negotiating, gather all the information you need. Speak to people in your network who might have insight into the role or the company, or seek their advice based on their own experience negotiating. While you can’t ask them about their salary, you can get their thoughts on what a fair offer looks like in the field.
Also, if anything in the offer letter is confusing, ask for clarification from your main point of contact at the employer. Let’s say a that a company offers you stock options as part of the offer, and your response is “Huh?” This is a great opportunity to ask if you can talk to someone at the company who might be able to share information about it. Whatever questions you may have about what is written in the offer letter, this first phase is the time to get some answers. An email might work for most questions, but scheduling a time to chat might be better in some cases.
Once you have answers to all your questions, then you can decide on what you want to negotiate for and why. Asking for more money is often the focus -- but everyone would like more money, so what is the positive argument you can make as part of your negotiation? In typical situations, a good argument is that you have highly sought-after skills, knowledge, experience or even a network of contacts that can be especially helpful to the role. In other cases, your ask may be based on the research and networking outreach you conducted, from which you might have discovered that average salaries at similar organizations and for similar roles are higher.
Any good negotiation happens in real time by phone/video and with the person who is in a position to discuss the offer. (Figuring out who this is may be something you need to find out as part of your information gathering.) Once you have scheduled a time to chat with this person, then a well-practiced ask as part of this conversation is a good outcome. For example:
“I’ve spoken to several of my contacts in my network who work in this field, and they mentioned $X as being an industry standard for someone with skills doing X and Y. I’m really excited to bring my rich experience doing X & Y to this role, and so this higher amount seems appropriate. What can we do to get closer to this?”
An effective negotiation strategy is to ask such a question and then not say anything else until the person with whom you are talking has responded. But you need to practice that approach.
Also, if you are looking for networking strategies, consider some of these resources:
Keep these best practices in mind, but in some scenarios, the process doesn’t quite follow those steps.
For example, some job descriptions or the careers pages of organization websites specifically state that salaries can’t be negotiated. That might be because the jobs are associated with a union or a city/state department or just reflect the organization’s philosophical approach. I think it’s refreshing to have clearly stated, nonnegotiable salary levels and to provide an equal playing field for candidates, including those comfortable with negotiation and those who are not (but then again, I dislike negotiating, so that is not surprising). Employers that are transparent with salaries up front provide candidates with enough information to decide if it is even worth applying. It is also worth noting that you can negotiate other elements of the job beyond salary that can still play a key part in supporting your professional success in your new role.
Some employers want you to negotiate before they give a final offer. You might get a verbal confirmation that they will be offering you the role, but no specific details or numbers. That often happens when the office or department that is making the offer isn’t the entity that makes salary decisions. For example, a centralized HR office may decide on salaries to ensure parity across the organization. That approach puts the onus on the candidate to come up with a preferred salary without knowing all of the details. Students and postdocs who experience this scenario often worry that any “incorrect” negotiation may result in a written offer never materializing. That typically doesn’t happen, and most of the negotiation best practices are still relevant in this situation, but the lack of a written offer first makes the negotiation process feel a lot more stressful.
Another recent scenario I heard about was a job for which an organization made a written offer but required the candidate to first decline that offer before starting to negotiate. The candidate could then submit a justification for whatever was being negotiated, and if the organization accepted it, they would make a new offer. The idea of declining an offer to negotiate certainly raises the stress level, but given the time and effort it takes for employers to choose a final candidate, they would very likely entertain a counteroffer from a candidate whom they were excited about -- especially if that candidate could advocate positively for their value.
In another situation, the hiring manager told a final candidate that they had to accept the offer promptly because the hiring manager didn’t want to lose out on a great second-choice finalist. Of course, that doesn’t sound like a great way for the employer to begin their relationship with a potential new hire!
Again, I dislike negotiation and the uncertainties involved. But I’ve found it always feels better to advocate for yourself in the best way you can when you have an offer than to miss the opportunity and regret it. No one will advocate for you as well as you can, and whether or not you successfully increase your salary or gain access to other professional benefits, the process of verbalizing your value to others will always be professionally fulfilling.