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 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.

* It’s a good rabbit hole to chase down how much people who do your type and level of work in the same field charge. HR will call and verify previous full-time salaries at positions you have left, so be honest with your work history. Job boards are very useful for creating your own spreadsheets (because this is a spread) of ranges and then what specialized skillsets mean for a team.

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.



Kristen Taylor drinks raw milk, is the editor and founder of Saucy Magazine, and writes a weekly gif horoscope.


27 Comments / Post A Comment

Cup of T (#2,533)

Wait- you’ve negotiated for 36 jobs of your own in the last five years? Or negotiating for jobs on behalf of other people is your job? 36 job offers in 5 years seems like sooo many! I’m intrigued (and maybe a little frightened).

sherlock (#3,599)

@Cup of T I’m glad I’m not the only one confused (though I don’t actually see where the 36 number is in the piece?) At first I thought she was talking about normal job offers, but then it kind of veered into freelancer territory, and then it seemed like she is actually joining various project teams as an employee but on a short-term basis? I’m guessing it’s just that she’s in an industry that has a structure I’m not familiar with?

sherlock (#3,599)

@sherlock Oh, duh, the 36 offers is in the very first sentence . . .

@sherlock my understanding is that she does a lot of project and contract-based work!

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

@Cup of T I was a little lost here too. Obviously she’s a contractor of some sort. It might help to know what industry she’s in as a way to frame this advice.

kthread (#5,746)

@Cup of T Thanks, yes, I have done full-time roles and also contract work in the past five years. Often multiple projects at once as a contractor or a full-time + some shorter side projects. It does sound like a lot, but often contracts are for a month or two, and sometimes you re-up the contract (when there is another chance to negotiate!)

bgprincipessa (#699)

Sentences such as, “We do about twelve interviews and then you meet with the CEO.” make me blind with rage. That is incredibly absurd unless you are referring to a super-high level position. What a complete disrespect for everyone’s time – the other interviewees, you, even all those employees conducting the interviews.

kthread (#5,746)

@bgprincipessa Yes, and often you are interviewing for many roles at the same time, which makes those dozen interviews even harder to stomach (and schedule) at one company. I do think that unless you make clear what your availability is to interview that the process can go on and on…

aetataureate (#1,310)

@bgprincipessa I went through a similar multi-role million-step interview process in 2011, and when I finally took another job offered to me after ONE interview, the company seemed offended that I was terminating my . . . Interview process. What? It was so weird.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

@kthread Ugh, what assholes. Sounds like you dodged a bullet!

meatballsub (#5,401)

Negotiating has rarely worked for me. Usually the HR person is all, “This is it, we can’t go any higher, you should be thankful for ANY offer at all, you plebe!” I think companies are taking advantage in this economy and realize that if you say no, the next candidate will gladly take their peanuts. Or maybe I am just that terrible at negotiating.

kthread (#5,746)

@meatballsub Sometimes there are things you want as much as more cash – this has helped me in the past (when I wanted more flexibility with hours or to a lighter load at different parts of the year). Good luck!

EvanDeSimone (#2,101)

@meatballsub I think a lot of companies like to use intermediaries for this so they can say things like “this is all I’m authorized to offer.”

Human Centipaul (#3,559)

@meatballsub I think this article is great advice for contractors/freelancers, and good advice for full-timers, to a point. In part this is because of what you identified; in the realm of full-time jobs, there really isn’t “plenty of work in the world.” In fact, there’s a tremendous dearth of it! Negotiation is great, but most companies in most industries right now are the ones negotiating from the position of strength.

That isn’t to say full-timers shouldn’t negotiate, but that it’s a lot harder to say “I hope we can work together again in the future” when it isn’t a bluff.

milena (#3,288)

@meatballsub I hate it when they say “this is all we have”, like they offered you their max salary right off the bat. Nobody does that, and if they do, they suck at negotiating! I think appearing flexible can help, e.g. “I understand if you’re set on the base, but can you offer a signing bonus/relocation package/commit to yearly bonus/salary increase of x/extra benefits”– I feel like this signals to them, “listen, I know your game, don’t lowball me”. And my dad (who does this for a living) told me that sometimes the budget is the budget for the base, but there’s money to play around with for other things.

Sometimes if you get a sucky offer, bide your time (“I need time to go over the package/the offer is on the lower end of my range so I need to evaluate the full deal and get back to you”)…. Making them sweat a little and wait could be torture if they really want you and put pressure on the HR person to step it up with the offer. If they have fire under their ass from the team who wants you, they might cave a bit.

meatballsub (#5,401)

@milena This was really great advice, thank you! All I need now is a job offer haaa.

meatballsub (#5,401)

@Human Centipaul Yes, exactly! I had a few offers that I turned down b/c I was sold on “KNOW YOUR WORTH!” spiels but now I kind of regret it since I’ve been stuck on a contract work loop and I just don’t have that hustlin’ spirit in me to move from gig to gig.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

This was great–wish I’d had it a few weeks ago when I received a job offer (starting the new job next week yaaaaay), but my story turned out okay. The job is in an organization with like, 40,000 people working for it, so HR parameters are INTENSE as you can imagine. Fortunately the hiring person in my department was willing to advocate for me. I asked for more money and more vacation days–I got more money (not as much as I wanted but more than the initial offer) and even though they could not “officially” give me the vacation days the hiring person in my department said “we’ll work with you so you can get what you need,” so something tells me I’ll be able to get some extra days here or there unofficial-like.

Negotiating was STRESSFUL because they really wanted to get the hire letter signed that week and I got the job offer when I was out of town visiting my parents, and at the time had very minimal access to a computer. I had to make negotiation phone calls while running to a bazillion wedding meetings and actually had to commandeer my dad’s office at one point to pour over the company’s HR website. The positive of being at home is that both of my parents are really savvy business people and so I had their support and guidance through the process. Still, jumping out of a meeting with my wedding DJ and onto a phone call to talk benefits and salary was a really jarring experience.

Regardless, I negotiated, they said yes, it was great! I did not negotiate for the job I am about to leave (I was just so happy to get a job period), so I felt pretty positive about fighting for myself.


kthread (#5,746)

@TheDilettantista Congrats on your new gig! It should feel great to start a new role and not meh – then we go in with our eye on the door :) Good luck with the wedding planning too.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

When I took my new job they actually offered me the number I planned to negotiate down from right off the bat. I’m now the only woman at the firm, so I felt compelled to negotiate. Give it a shot, lean in, whatever. But then they offered me exactly what I wanted and more than the job had been listed for, so I felt like a jerk for asking for more money. But I “negotiated” (asked for and received) certain benefits. I also have a dream schedule. But the company is run so poorly I’m afraid I’ll show up one day and there won’t be a company anymore. The whole experience has been/continues to be really odd, but thank goodness they’re compensating me well.

kthread (#5,746)

@qwer1234 That sounds amazing, congrats and good for you. Sometimes I think we don’t realize our own worth or when we have leveled up work-wise (part of this dismal economy). Also, I think it’s good for a company to know that you are going to ask questions and actually dig as part of a team – makes you more valuable to them.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

@kthread thanks!

milena (#3,288)

@qwer1234 Agreed; I think that if you’ve done your research and all and come up with your range, and you get an offer that meets or exceeds your range and it feels good, part of negotiating is knowing when not to do it. I got an offer that was exactly what I wanted (granted, I had started the talks with a ballpark range of what I was looking for), and since they met it, I signed the offer without trying to squeeze them dry. I probably left $1-2k on the table, but I know my market and I know that I’m getting paid handsomely compared to a lot of my peers.

Also kudos on negotiating just for the principle of it! I like to show people (men) that women are not necessarily meek and we do bring the big guns when it comes to money.

sonora webster (#5,748)

This was great! My BF is starting to do some consulting work, and he told me he was going to have his negotiations convo this weekend. I told him, you should never be the first one to say a number, and you never accept the first number they offer. The number he was going to say was $50/hr. Their first number was $75/hr. He’s getting $90/hr. I was so proud! And I’m so glad you guys are here because I was so pleased with myself and him, but I can’t tell anyone because talking about money is awful. So thanks for letting me brag. :)

kthread (#5,746)

@sonora webster So great! Congrats to him (and also for listening to your good advice) :) It’s cool when we power up to ask for a better rate.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

I think also many people think if they ask for a higher number and the answer is “no,” that the job offer is automatically rescinded. Hiring managers expect people to negotiate, it’s part of the process, even if there’s no room for it at that specific company. As long as your request is within reason, the worst thing that will likely happen is they’ll say “no,” and move on to other points about the offer.

I know there are issues with the book, and it’s author, but I actually found reading Lean In to be very helpful in how I’ll now approach these situations. So was this article. After being undervalued for so long, every little bit helps.

qwer1234 (#4,140)

I also wish more women would say “fuck this” to the pickle juice.

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