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Negotiate Even The Worst Job Offers: Say Yes, IF

In the September 6, 2016 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader is frustrated with employers who are looking for top talent at discounted salaries to fill positions with fudged titles — but who won’t negotiate.

negotiateQuestion

I am a director-level, doctoral-level employee at a large healthcare company with over 15 years’ broad experience on the science side of medicine. I have been approached by several companies about potential positions. Some of the positions are extremely interesting and have broad organizational impact and a much larger sphere of influence than my current position.

However, when offers are made, they seem to all be at a “comparable” level — essentially lateral moves — with excuses of “We have eliminated the Senior Director level” or “We don’t implement the same titles at our company.” The compensation packages have been fairly anemic as well, with almost no increase in cash value and modest increases in stock or pension values.

What gives? Are these companies trying to get VP-level work for a Director level salary? When to push and when to walk? Thanks!

Nick’s Reply

Manipulation of salaries and titles is common — and I think your conclusion is correct. Even in a “talent shortage” employers think they can discount people and work, and some of the time they get a ridiculous bargain. The problem is LinkedIn and the job boards, which convince HR that the perfect candidate is available at a low price… now here’s the sales pitch… “if you just keep searching our database to find them!”

That’s how job boards make money: by selling silly ideas that suckers buy. That includes getting employers to keep paying to keep searching for that purple squirrel at bargain-store prices. The further problem, of course, is that many job seekers will fall for this manipulation.

We discussed negotiating recently in Negotiate a better job offer by saying YES. Now let’s go a bit deeper into this approach.

Lousy deals

Don’t tolerate lousy deals.

A top-level manager I know was downsized, and after a lengthy unemployment, he took a job for 20% less than he’d been making to do exactly the kind of work he’d been doing for five years. Two years later, he was downsized again, and took a 15% cut on the next job. Downsized yet again, he figured it out and got fed up after yet another employer tried to buy him at yet another ridiculous discount. He’s starting his own business while looking for a job suited to him that pays what he’s worth.

The explanations for reduced pay and titles that you’ve been given are self-serving excuses. Smug employers believe in Junk Profitability: “If we cut our costs when we fill a critical position, our profits will go up!” Then they act shocked – shocked – when the person they hire at such a discount bolts the first chance they get. “Disloyal, unreliable, over-qualified scoundrel!”

Force the other guy to negotiate.

Yes, IF: How to negotiate better deals

I showed the manager in the story above how to negotiate such job “opportunities.”

When an employer brings up a lower salary or lower title, don’t say no. Step back and ask yourself, Under what circumstances would you actually take this job? What salary? What authority? What responsibilities? What kind of work?

That’s called a term sheet. It’s the terms under which you’d take the deal.

Then say, “Yes, I’ll take the job IF…” and present your requirements to the employer as your counter-offer.

Include enough negotiable terms that you don’t come across as arrogant or unreasonable. But make sure you’re respecting what’s really important to you. Then let the employer consider what you’ve offered. If they want you and really need you, and they’re rational, smart business people, they’ll negotiate.

The aforementioned manager learned that many employers are not rational or smart — or they don’t really need to fill that job with a good candidate. Given the chance to negotiate, any savvy employer will do it, sometimes with a knowing smile. They’ll never agree to terms that are bad for them, but they’ll try to work out a compromise that’s good for you and for them.

The thing is, few candidates ever try this. They just skulk away or get angry. Don’t go away and don’t get angry. Open a negotiation. Know what you want. Ask for it.

If the employer won’t negotiate, then you will be glad you did more than hold your ground. You offered alternative terms that could lead to YES, but the employer walked away. (See The Bad-Business Job Offer: Negotiating not allowed!)

If they do negotiate, you’ve helped yourself and you’ve helped them fill a job under mutually good terms.

Negotiate even the worst job offers

I borrowed this advice from my own lawyer, who is also my best business advisor. He taught me long ago that, unless it’s a job or gig you really don’t want to do, never walk away over terms you don’t like. Offer terms you do like, and see where it goes. It’s a very empowering experience. (See “Am I unwise to accept their first job offer?” in Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9, Be The Master of Job Offers.)

You can control the terms of any job negotiation. Don’t be afraid or intimidated, especially if you’re going to walk away from the lousy offer they’ve already made you. You have little if anything to lose.

Whatever the outcome, you’ll feel like a million bucks because you managed the situation assertively and on your terms. If the employer balks, the rest is the employer’s problem, because they’re left with a vacant job that’s costing them every day.

Don’t say no. Say, “Yes, if…”

How do you turn job negotiations to your advantage? Do you negotiate just salary, or everything? Or do you just decide yes or no?

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30 Comments
  1. I just heard back from a place that pretty much pulled a bait and switch on the salary level from the job ad to what was mentioned by head of HR in an email to me. They are interested, but, my God, they want a vow of poverty.

    • As an addendum. They actually are refusing adamantly to state a salary offer as a starting point for negotiation. What’s hilariously bad is that they simply pulled a bait and switch on an international position in Africa where they posted the job as a USA /expat salary and then when they offered the job in an email just asked me if I would work for an African/local salary.

      I have no idea what to do with these people…other than walk away. They probably won’t even offer a salary range as the starting point. AAARGHHH

      • When they refuse to disclose a salary range for a job, just tell ’em your minimum is 1.5X what you think the job is worth, and add, “Shall we continue with that understanding?”

        If they say no, this is where the fun starts. “Ok. My minimum is [1.25X]. Am I closer?”

        Obviously, you’re playing 20 questions to establish the salary range. Are they smart enough to get that?

        • Great idea. I’ll try that.

          I have one current potential client that took 4 weeks to finally give in and suggest a rate (on which I immediately agreed), who won’t give me a contract… and yet tries to drop last second requests for work and meetings with me. (“can you meet now?” emals and pestering unscheduled skype calls while I am doing other client work). I have asked repeatedly for a terms of reference (TOR) and contract, but that goes unheeded. Until I am signed, I do not owe more than a couple introductory meetings. I don’t just informally join their team and be at their immediate beck and call without a contract!

          On the salary thing, I may just have to start negotiating like I do at street markets in Africa.

  2. To go a step further, it may show whether or not the employer is worth working for. If an employer is unwilling to work with candidates, then I would be hesitant to want to work there, especially if I had other, better offers and/or was already gainfully employed.

    I’d point out that it’s a forgotten fact that interviewing is a two way street – you’re interviewing them as much as they are interviewing you.

    The advice I would have for the OP – maybe they have slightly different titles, which is fine. But, I would still counter with something closer what you desire and use the advice that Nick has given in the past to justify your target – i.e. have 15 years of experience, this would be a step up from what you are doing now, etc.

  3. In all the years of reading this blog, I think I can summarize it thusly:

    Don’t be a supplicant. Show the employer what you are worth and why, and if they are not smart enough to see it, you have learned that you don’t want to work there.

    Everything else is the details of how to implement the above.

    • @Michael: Agreed! Additionally, when the employer shows you who they are, believe them.

      • Marilyn: Job seekers experience so much pain because they hear the truth about an employer but wish it were otherwise, then find out it’s so.

        • @Nick: Agreed. I certainly have had those experiences during my career. Found it hard to believe some could be so awful . . . but some just are :(

    • Michael: You’re going to put me out of business :-) Excellent summary.

  4. To quote Steve Gates from The Negotiation Book:

    “You can wipe their extreme openers off the table by attaching equally ludicrous conditions to their price.” (Substitute “job offer” for “price.”) Ex. “I can agree, subject to …” and attach your own conditions such as the job being part time, their paying a large up-front fee, etc. Using this technique implies you know what your terms are.

    Essentially, what Nick said.

  5. Unfortunately, you can’t change the culture of an unreasonable company by trying to negotiate with them. Even though it sometimes seems like all companies that contact you don’t have a clue, it’s still true that companies that are stupid about hiring will almost certainly be full of stupid and / or desperate people, because that’s who takes these kinds of offers – and the company probably won’t be around for long if they’re full of people who can’t get their assignments done. (So, it would be better to find a lot of desperate people than stupid people, but you won’t know the ratio until you’re stuck there!)

    If you’ve been laid off, you might have to take an offer like this, and you might be able to negotiate it higher, but you’ll still probably be working for a bad company. I’d take the longer view and realize that even if you have to take a bad job, and aren’t in a position to just sit tight until hiring conditions improve, things are bound to improve in the general market as we move further and further away from the recent recession. These dumb companies will go away, and hopefully be replaced by better ones. I’d focus my attention on finding the decent employers in my field and targeting them. And in industries where there don’t seem to be any good employers, I’d start considering what I might do to leverage my skills to change careers.

  6. This practice of downgrading positions and salary seems to be endemic in American corporations. I first noticed it during the great recession and thought it would end when the economy improved, but seems to have taken on a life of its own. The usual play is to get rid of a more senior employee through forced retirement or by incentives to retire. That position is then eliminated and replaced with another position slightly modified from it and given a rating one or two rungs down the ladder at a lower salary.
    It’s either filled by a much younger person to whom it is a step up or offered to a more experienced candidate who needs the job.
    I don’t think this is going to change until the economy improves sufficiently to absorb the excess of under used talent out there. This has nothing to do with the published unemployment rates, but rather the large pool of talent that was sidelined by the great recession. It will work itself our in another five years or so when the baby boomers start to retire in larger numbers.

  7. So if as we read every week in this great blog we are faced with so many bad companies with bad hiring practices, what can we do about it? That’s the question I put to everyone!

    • Bob Johnson: Just say no. There’s really nothing else worth doing. My goal in highlighting stupid companies is to help job seekers see that employers aren’t godlike owners of the jobs. They’re businesses, and some of them suck, so don’t blame yourself for getting rejected by them, and don’t get upset that avoiding them is lowering your chances of getting hired. There are few jobs right for you, and few companies worth working for. The more you hone your radar, the less time you’ll waste on turkeys and the more time you’ll devote to the good ones. It’s hard to tell the difference, but each time you learn one of the signals, the better choice you’ll make next time.

      Just say no. What happens next is that employer’s problem, not yours!

  8. I’m skeptical about negotiating bad offers.

    If you’ve been seriously lowballed, probably you feel disrespected, have lost interest, and don’t really want to work there anyway, but negotiating keeps you emotionally involved and somewhat in suspense – trying to win something that you don’t want. Seems like a waste of time and energy.

    Also, unless there has been some massive internal miscommunication that will be set right immediately once you start to negotiate, that’s probably just the way they operate. If you decide to work there you’ll likely find yourself in a stingy, penny-pinching environment that doesn’t give you professional or material satisfaction.

    • @JR_in_Mass: Completely agree! As @marilyn said, when the employer shows you who they are, believe them. In fact, that works really well in any area of one’s life.

      And as @John Zabrenski pointed out, there’s much more of this going on than we might expect after the recession has ended and companies are whining about not being able to get good people, and it’s probably mostly about weeding out older, more experienced workers in favor of younger, less experienced, cheaper workers. But again, do you really want to work at a company where nobody seems to know what they’re doing? I’ve worked at places like that, and they’re miserable to work for and usually disappear pretty quickly. Then you’re in an even worse situation.

      When I was starting my career in my 20s, I wanted to be at companies where there were some people around who knew things and could show them to me. And even when I was very young and didn’t know much about anything I was hired to do, I didn’t want to be surrounded by dummies and wussies at work, because that’s just boring and depressing! And as I got into my late 20s and 30s, I realized that the reputation of the companies I had on my resume would affect who I worked for and how much I was worth in the job market going forward.

      People tend to seek their own level, and as we move through our careers, that becomes clearer and clearer.

      • I’ve had a couple of interviews recently where the interviewer(s) let it slip that a much younger person was in the open position……and that the lack of experience was an issue because the person didn’t have the knowledge and “scars” to draw upon to get things done.

        So some companies are learning…..slowly……

    • JR: Good point, and important to keep it in mind as you think about negotiating.

      What I’ve learned is that — like good people who sometimes behave badly — employers play games with job offers because it’s what some “HR consultancy” taught them. Unless someone is a flaming jerk, I try to give them another shot at it, ON MY TERMS. Sometimes a manager will come back demonstrating higher standards. He or she will negotiate. You don’t win if they raise their number. You win if they raise their number AND reveal their thinking process. If they’re buying you off, you can still say no if the experience smells bad.

      Sometimes — sometimes — you learn there’s a good company hiding in there, behind stupid practices. My attitude is, if you’ve already invested all that time, go one more round to make sure you read it right.

      But I think you’re basically correct: A company that disses you with a lousy offer may not be worth negotiating with at all.

  9. Assuming for a moment an actual talent shortage, Nick smacks the nail right on the head: “He’s starting his own business …”

    It’s not easy, you might have to take a vow of poverty for a while, but it IS easier than round after round of interviews with dullards from HR, managers who want to guy who just left for entry-level dollars, and 35 years experience in a recent 20-something college grad (preferably who dresses “kawaii” for the office.)

    I’m sure I’ve said this before, but it seems every weekend the morning show has someone who has started this great niche business, and is introduced with “He was in the corporate world …” or something similar.

  10. I’m with Dave. The interview door swings two ways. You should be interviewing them, or if you prefer gathering business intel.

    In my experience the way a company/hiring manager presents themselves to the outside world (in your interview) gives you valuable insights as to what it’s like inside the company and most likely working for that hiring manager. If you’re fortunate enough to receive a sensible/acceptable offer, great. And/or if they’ll sensibly negotiate, again it’s likely a workable environment you can do something in, and with. If you experience the negative side, you’ve learned something. Negotiation is a tool you use to investigate and learn.

    As to why would you negotiate a bad offer? seemingly from unreasonable or stupid people? Because, most job hunters are oblivious to the fact that solid job hunting is doing 2 things. Selling…yourself Inc. AND Networking.

    When I recruited for a company I guided by a simple objective..you should do the job of recruiting so well that you left an applicant wanting the company (company not a job) even if you didn’t want the applicant. Why? because they have a network and if you hit a home run you’ll send the applicant home an advocate. As a job hunter, flip that. You should sell yourself so well that the company should want you even if you don’t want the company.Why? because if you do that really well you leave behind an advocate, who has a network.

    And for the 2nd objective….Networking. keep in mind, Good companies can have people who have a poor business sense, and bad companies can have stellar business people inside. If you reach a point where you gain an interview, no matter who with, you’ve won on one side of the equation, a networking opportunity to explore and possibly nurture. A chance to recruit an advocate. If you join the company you win twice. If you don’t get an offer, can’t negotiate, so what? There’s a 50/50 chance in the process you’ll make a mutually beneficial connection. Who will remember you. Who knows what you want, who will move into a better organization where that manager can negotiate with his management…or who changes companies where they are empowered to do some negotiating.

    Look, I was a manager. I’ve met people I would have loved to hire. I couldn’t sell them for a lot of reasons. I didn’t cop an attitude. I walked their paper to someone who had more juice than I had. I passed the word on them to other companies (not competitors). And mostly I waited until I could do business and come at them again. I was a recruiter as well. I’ve referred people to non-clients (wouldn’t or couldn’t do business with recruiters). Why. What goes round comes round in networking. It’s really a small world in business, especially if you make an effort to shrink it. You’ll find it won’t hurt to have advocates populating it.

  11. Defense contractor Company A knew I was between jobs and called to see if I was interested in a position. I interviewed with company A and a second person who already worked for the manager, his deputy. They both agreed I was a good fit for the position, but I requested to meet the manager. At the end of that second meeting I shook hands with the manager and we both thought it was a deal. Then company A made me a salary offer that was about 55% of what I had earned previously. I rejected it out of hand, stating that I would never be able to regain my previous salary if I agreed to work for that little. They bumped the offer up to about 70%, but I still refused, saying thank you, but I just can’t work for that. Two weeks passed by, then I received a phone call at home from the manager. I apologized for not taking the position and assured him that I really wanted to work for him, but the salary was a barrier. He then asked if I would consider working for company B, as they had a vacant position supporting his office that paid significantly better. Company B eventually offered me a salary of about 95% of what I had earned previously. My response was “Is that the best you can do? I was making $XXX at my last position.” After another day, I heard back that they could split the difference between the 95% offer and 100% of my prior salary. By politely walking away from the original 55% offer and waiting a couple of weeks, I ended up with close to 98% of my previous salary and a position I actually wanted. The most important thing I did was insist upon a meeting with the manager before negotiating the salary. If the manager had not met me, he would not have gone the extra mile to fix the salary problem. Then I pushed a little at company B’s initial offer, as there had not been any real salary negotiation. I was completely satisfied with the final result…knew when to stop pushing. Not sure if my experience will help others, but it is important to know what you are worth and stick to your guns. By the way, I took an excellent course, Negotiation Seminar, while getting my MBA from Rensselaer (RPI). Out of my three degrees, I think it is the single best/most useful course of my life.

    I recommend Nick’s column to everyone I know who is job-hunting. I purchased his materials in 2014 and have since retrained as an accountant. Have passed one of the four CPA exams and will return to work as soon as I pass the other three. It was his publication on changing careers that gave me the idea to go in a completely different direction for a “retirement” job. I can’t wait to return to work and am not concerned at all about starting a new career after a three-year education gap. I totally believe in Nick’s approach…so glad I found his column and bought his materials. (No, I was not paid to say this.)

    • This is an excellent comment.

    • Looks like if I tried to pay off Tango4eva to promote my book (How Can I Change Careers?) I’d probably lose the negotiation anyway… :-)

      Thanks for your kind words and for that glowing endorsement.

      You did a nice job, and I agree that pushing to meet the manager was crucial. You negotiated a big increase over the first offer from A.

      But let me play devil’s advocate, because the point here is to always get better at this. Even though you won, I can argue you lost. If I were really cynical, I’d suggest A and B played you. I doubt that’s true, but for purposes of this exercise, pretend it is true.

      What’s at work here is a very powerful phenomenon known in behavioral economics as the “anchor effect.” Social scientists have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that by putting a number out there — any number, even unrelated to salary — we can control how a person calculates value.

      Consider what happened here. They offered you much less: 45% less than you were making. (You called it 55% of what you were making.) That number is the anchor. It’s where our feeble minds are now forced to start when considering any other changes in numbers. (Yes, behavioral economists have also shown that we are very feeble about judging value. We suck at it.)

      Everything else that happened with the offers was a RAISE from the first number. Consider how this affected the way you described it: “They bumped the offer up to about 70%.” In reality, “They still offered me 30% LESS than I was previously making” is more accurate. Your own wording was manipulated by how they did this.

      Then, they offered you EVEN MORE! 95% — 25% more than the last offer! This psychological game is incredibly effective and we’re all suckers for it.

      You won the negotiation but lost money. It’s how the anchor effect works. It re-sets the basis for negotiations. You beat the psychology when you kept rejecting their “increasing” offers. But in the end, you got less anyway.

      Now please don’t misunderstand me — I’m taking advantage of how little I know about your experience (and your motivations) to make a general point: The anchor effect can make you feel you’re winning when you’re losing.

      In today’s economy, a job offer lower than your last salary is common. If employers can’t afford the older salary — we might argue it was inflated to begin with — then minimizing your losses is a win.

      My message here is to understand and be aware of the anchor effect. To learn more, read Wm Poundstone’s excellent and very readable book, “Priceless.”

      Here’s the real fun in the anchor effect: I said above that an anchor can be set by “putting a number out there — any number, even unrelated to salary.” This is where the psychology gets scary. In one experiment, subjects were asked to guess the prices of several bottles of wine. But before guessing, some of the subjects were asked to put the last two digits of their social security numbers at the upper right corner of the page. When the results were in, people whose last two digits were higher tended to guess prices higher than subjects whose SSNs were lower. The SSN digits were the anchor. Unconsciously, the SNNs influenced the prices people put on wine. Sounds kooky, eh? Well, our minds are kooky. We are very easily influenced. The message of Poundstone’s book is, be aware that you suck at judging value. That will help you make fewer errors of judgment.

      Thanks for sharing your experience, and thanks again for crediting How Can I Change Careers. If the book helped you in any way, I’m glad.

      • … Wow, thank you for that insight into the Anchor effect.

        Now, does this mean that if I start with a request at twice what I want (instead of their starting at half what I want), I can go down to a good value?

        That so reminds me of negotiating prices with street vendors in Mexico 40 years ago. Just not what I’d expect from high-end companies.

        • Keybounce: I wish it worked as smoothly as that! If you start high, you might get rejected off the bat. I explained the anchor effect simply. No such phenomenon exists in isolation. Many factors play into a salary negotiation. The point is to understand the mechanism. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to make it work for you. In most cases, I think employers have no idea how it really works, either. Most have probably never heard of the anchor effect. I encourage you to read about it.

      • Nick, I know that your comment on the psychology is probably very accurate, but I am a professional engineer, and the last salary I earned (my reference point) was at a fairly high level management/engineering position. The position I was considering was not an engineering position. (Even at that time I was exploring other work.) I negotiated an engineering salary for a non-engineer position. In this particular instance there was no collusion between companies. The manager was not an employee of either company A or B, but a government employee (civilian) who had support from several contractors. While money is important, working for a good manager doing work I like is of greater importance to me. It was a very good salary for that kind of work, and I enjoyed the work and the people.

        • @Tango: My guess is that for most people, the work they do and the people they work with count for more than their salaries when it comes to measuring satisfaction.

      • P.S. Salary information is not that hard to get. I have had access to competitive salary information by purchasing chamber of commerce salary surveys and when preparing proposals for new contracts. I have friends in other companies who I consult when I am negotiating for myself. That is an important piece in this. I never rely on just my own opinion or research, but use my close contacts to assist me in getting to appropriate salary numbers for a specific position and company. Over the years I have received several significant step-ups in salary. I once worked with a manager who blew his top and resigned (to his detriment) when he found out I was making several thousand dollars more than he was for doing similar work. When he first came to me with this information, I told him that the company’s first offer to me was the same salary he was making, but I turned down the offer. Then I found out that I was really the person they wanted, reopened the negotiation, and was able to add several thousand dollars more in salary and a third week of vacation. The guy was apoplectic over the difference and burned his bridges very badly when he resigned.

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