Negotiating — how to ask for what you want: An excerpt from Erica Alini’s new book, ‘Money Like You Mean It’

In this excerpt from her new book ‘Money Like You Mean It,’ Global News money reporter Erica Alini discusses how to ask for what you want at work. 

You won’t get your work’s worth unless you ask for it. But asking in itself is a complicated and nuanced art, one that requires training, practice, and refinement.

When I got my first real job offer, I had a vague notion that I should haggle a bit. I had just heard from a colleague my age who had bumped up her salary by several thousand dollars per year by negotiating with our mutual employer. So I requested a time to sit down with the managing editor and asked him if he could go a little higher. He looked at me, smiled, and said it was November; I’d be getting a cost-of-living increase in a couple of months. And with that, the conversation was over.

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I knew I had to ask, but did not have a clue how to do it. In fact, I didn’t even know what I wanted. Almost every negotiation requires some prep, and the place to start is figuring out what you want. What’s the target you’re aiming at?

This should not be conflated with your financial requirements. Calculating what you need to earn to make a living is important for your own consideration. But your target should be based on a clear idea of what’s fair compensation for the work you’re being asked to do and for the credentials, skills, and expertise you bring to the job. What’s your market value?

This is a nebulous concept. It typically won’t boil down to a specific figure but to a range, like mid-$60,000s to low $70,000s. To arrive at that range, you look at what other people with similar qualifications and job duties are making. Trying to look up that information on the web often isn’t very helpful. The ranges you find online are often so wide they’re useless, and many employers simply will not care about that kind of generic data, says career coach and human resources expert Allison Venditti, who runs Moms at Work and Ready to Return, organizations dedicated to creating equitable workplaces and supporting working women and parents.

Gathering your own on-the-ground intelligence yields far better results, according to Venditti. Talk to people in your industry. Ask your colleagues out for coffee (as long as we’re not in a pandemic, of course). But discussing money is often awkward and delicate, especially in the workplace. How do you ask someone how much they make?

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Venditti suggests playing what she calls the “over-under game.” People won’t tell you what they earn, but they will tell you whether they make more or less than a certain amount, she says. If you’re a woman or have other reasons to suspect you’re being underpaid, Venditti suggests adding 15 per cent to the target pay you have in mind when playing the over-under game. Her clients — especially female ones — are constantly shocked to discover colleagues or others similarly qualified are making much more than they are, she says. “I had someone play the over-under game and find out she was being paid $40,000 less than her co-worker,” Venditti says.

If you don’t know anyone in the field you want to work in — because you’re looking at your very first job or you’re switching careers — it’s worth checking out your school’s alumni network. In my experience, LinkedIn is also a useful place to spot people in your area who have or have had the job you want. You may very well find someone you know or are somehow connected with.

The evidence you’ve gathered on your market value is what you should use to support your argument for higher pay — or a raise — in the negotiation. Your employer is not interested in your monthly budget and how expensive your rent is.

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But don’t wait for a company to come to you with an offer before you bring up pay, Venditti says. “The first thing you should do when applying for a job is ask them: Can you give me the pay range for this?” she says. If they say no or equivocate, ask to know at least the bottom of the range, Venditti continues. “Women are continuously blown away that even the bottom of the range is significantly more than what they were thinking.”

Once you know a company’s range or have your own target range in mind, it’s time to focus on what negotiation experts call your reservation value and your anchor. Your reservation value is the absolute lowest offer you’d be willing to accept. Your anchor is your initial request, which should be higher than your actual target, which is what you are truly hoping for.

Anchoring in negotiations and other fields refers to our brain’s tendency to get stuck focusing on the first number we hear about. That value often anchors the whole discussion, with negotiators unable to move very far from it. If your employer kicks off the conversation with a lowball offer, they’ve anchored the conversation at the bottom end of the range.

In that situation, you can say something like, “What I had in mind for the job was more along the lines of X amount.” The X is your anchor, and it should be quite a bit higher than your target value so you have plenty of room to make concessions and still get what you want. Ideally, though, you want to go first so you can set a high anchor to begin with.

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And don’t let a prospective employer paint you into a corner by asking you to provide a range for your desired compensation on the job application. The temptation for every applicant is to write some lowball values because they’re afraid they’ll be weeded out from the start if they ask for too much, Venditti says. Those answers could very well limit your ability to negotiate something considerably higher if you do get the offer. Instead, Venditti suggests keeping your cards close to your chest by giving a wide range, with $15,000 to $30,000 between your low number and your higher one. And your bottom value should be 15 per cent higher than your reservation value, she adds.

You also need to think about something negotiation pros call a BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. In other words, what are you going to do if you don’t get what you want? Can you comfortably continue on in your current job? Do you have a competing offer to turn to?

Generally, the stronger your BATNA, the more bargaining power you have. In my first salary negotiation, for example, I didn’t have much of a BATNA. At the time, the economy had just begun to crawl out of the financial crisis of 2007–08 and the job market was nothing short of awful. I also happened to be an intern hire, the first in several years. I did not have another job to fall back on or a competing offer to turn to. Of course I was going to accept whatever they gave me.

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Keep in mind, as well, that during salary or raise negotiations there’s much more than pay to discuss.

Here are some other requests to think about:

  • Cash bonuses and stock options
  • Changing your professional title
  • Working arrangements (such as working from home, flexible hours, or an earlier or later start of the workday)
  • Waiving waiting periods for health and retirement benefits
  • A retirement payout; if your old job had a pension and your new one does not (or has a plan that isn’t nearly as generous), you can ask for some compensation in the form of a one-time payment

Similarly, when you’re negotiating a contract, there’s usually much more to talk about than a rate or project price. A few examples of what to consider:

  • Delivery timeline
  • When you’ll get paid and how, including any down payments or deposit
  • What happens if you don’t get paid in a timely manner (this may include ceasing work or charging interest)
  • Reimbursement of certain expenses (and whether that will happen upfront)
  • Contingency clauses (for example, what happens if you’re delayed delivering the work because of circumstances outside your control? And what if the project requires more time or equipment than originally estimated?)

Going back, once again, to my first, stumbling foray into salary negotiations, even if there truly had been zero wiggle room on pay, I could have at least attempted to ask for other things. For example, I could have inquired about working remotely a couple of weeks a year so I could stretch out my annual stay in Italy visiting my parents. I’ve successfully asked for this in later negotiations.

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You should also make sure that whatever you eventually settle on is recorded in writing. Not just your pay — everything. Don’t go for off-the-books arrangements, Venditti says.

Still, keep in mind that, even with all the prep in the world and the most pragmatic, problem-solving, can-do attitude, those who ask the right way shall not always receive. Sometimes the outcome depends on factors entirely outside of your control. Research from PayScale, for example, indicates white men are more likely to get a raise when they ask compared to people of colour and women.

If you don’t get what you want, ask what you can do to get there and request that your boss sit down to revisit the issue in a few months. After, you might want to send your manager an email summation of the discussion, which will be a written record of your informal agreement. And if you keep asking and not getting, it’s time to take the leap to a better job.

“This is like dating someone,” Venditti says. “If you were with someone who stopped returning your calls, would you still be in a relationship?”

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