How to Negotiate That Job Offer
By my count, in the last five years, I have negotiated around three dozen job offers.
It begins like this: a company or organization would like to pay you for work, and you would like them to pay you for said work.
The crucial part here is desire. The company is offering you this work, not your friend or the person next to you on the train. And now you must decide what your number is.
Make your way toward a safe space. Maybe you take an ostrich pillow nap first. Whatever makes you feel cozy, because cozy means that you have a firm grasp on your desire—and that brings us closer to creating meaningful work situations that we actually want to list on our resume. We make better decisions when we are not under duress.
All set? Great. Now, the level of effort with sorting out your particular number for work (skip ahead if you already know your number) should be proportional to the scope of the job. Your number is really your numbers, plural. Decide your hourly rate, daily rate, weekly rate, monthly rate, and/or a fixed sum with a retainer for maintenance. If this is a full-time offer, adjust for benefits, but also for lost work opportunities, taking into account promotion and bonus structures. Ideally, you leave with more skills than you came in with.
I base my number on two things: How much I like who I would be working with, and how interesting the work itself is. The truth is that the personal costs of working with non-imaginative/restrictive/boring people are higher. I loathe working with people in charge of groups who are cowardly, so my rates for those jobs are much higher. As a general rule, the vaguer the project is (and often, the newer it is), the smarter way is to charge a rate instead of a fixed cost as this kind of work will drag on for.ev.er. and tie you up from doing other projects. And your rates go up the shorter the duration of the project—your hourly rate is higher than your day rate, and so on. (The number, of course, goes in your signed contract/job offer. Good fences make good neighbors, and productive working relationships.)
Okay, you have your number. At this point, you have met with the project lead and the team so you know how much you like or dislike them, and you have given some thought to what the work really is. This is usually the point that the conversation moves over to HR, be that a department at larger companies, a specific person at smaller companies, or an outsourced agency. Sometimes you submit the proposals to the project lead and it goes into a freelance database managed by an external company.
In any of these cases, now it is time to negotiate. Woo! You never not negotiate because the offer is not the offer. Think about this as a game show—no, really!—not “Press Your Luck” (yikes) or “The Price is Right,” but one of my favorites: “Supermarket Sweep.” Perhaps without the matching team sweatshirts.
You need a protein-driven strategy to fill your cart, and the attitude that when the timer goes off, you smile and shake hands regardless of outcome. Your professional life is not a guessing game of how closely you can match your potential employer’s actual price for your work. You are sailing down the aisles of a marketplace deciding what is most important for your cart full of assets at that moment.
When I am in an interview process or hiring for teams, I think a lot about fit. By fit, I really mean best fit. In a negotiation, both sides are trying to get what they want. This isn’t about whether you like each other or the work (we worked through those above to come up with your number), the negotiation is about whether this is the right time to work on this project with this team. There are no hard feelings if it isn’t, and many times a later project is a better fit, so these initial conversations are long and might span years while you take other offers on.
You wait for the company to make you an offer or give you a rough estimate of the allocated budget for the project.
Then you can say, this is my rate. Sometimes you will hear, “oh, we never pay over ___,” or similar, and if their number is significantly lower or untenable, you can respond, “I understand. I hope we’ll be able to work together in the future on another project.” But most of the time, there is a range and they are offering you the lowest end of that. Go in with the knowledge that salary ranges are created with the expectation of negotiation—there is more money available for a highly desired candidate.* It isn’t greedy to negotiate. Go get yours.
A few years ago I was told at a first interview after a friendly lunch; “We do about twelve interviews and then you meet with the CEO.” I said, “Wow, that sounds comprehensive. I leave the country in three days for a 10-day project and I have two other offers right now.” They called the next day and I met with the CEO that afternoon, who offered me the job. I considered it over a weekend and walked onto the plane with a signed acceptance letter. How it begins sets the tone for the rest of the project.
If you just say “yes,” the negotiation is over. And the worst thing they can say is no. So, try: “How close can we get?” or, “How can we make this work?” and see what happens. There is plenty of work in the world, trust me. I am just as grateful for the jobs that didn’t work out. As Nicki Minaj says (yes, Nicki Minaj), if you accept what you are offered, you will forever be drinking pickle juice.
Further reading: Professor Margaret Neale of the Stanford Graduate School of Business explains her excellent negotiation framework.