Question

Last week you taught us how to negotiate. But, how do you do it for your candidates? How do you make sure they get the best offers possible? I realize it’s probably different because you’re “the middle man,” but I just want to see what I can learn from how you do it.

Nick’s Reply

good job offerA headhunter is paid by an employer (the client) to find and deliver the best candidates for a job. That creates a fiduciary duty. However, I still have a duty to my job candidates. Lots of headhunters fall prey to the misconception that they’re in the full employ of their clients; that they owe the client all information about the candidates; and that given a choice whether to serve the client’s or candidate’s interests, the client always comes first. I think that’s a mistake. The headhunter’s job is to balance the two and do right by both: get a good candidate for the employer and a good job offer for the candidate.

Where a good job offer comes from

I’ve placed candidates with my clients for enormous salary increases by not disclosing the candidate’s current salary. All that matters is that I know both parties are in the same salary ballpark. Why would I want the candidate’s old salary to be the anchor point for negotiations? While I want my client to get a great employee for a fair price so the client will be happy and give me more assignments, I also want the person I place to be happy — and a good source of more candidate referrals! The key, of course, is that the candidate must be worth it.

Therefore, as a sort of mediator, I do my best to juggle information judiciously for everyone’s benefit. I never lie, but I may withhold information that I believe could unreasonably jeopardize the chances of a good match. In the end, the employer and the candidate always make the choice about a job offer. My job is to help them do it.

My favorite negotiating experience was some time ago, when high five-figure compensation packages were not common. A very talented man — let’s call him Alan — was working for a big financial publisher. Alan was bored and, though he didn’t fully realize it, quite underpaid. I asked how much it would take for him to make a move if he liked a job I presented. He gave me a salary range. I’ll tell you what it was shortly.

Make a great match before the interview

My client, a financial services company, needed someone to manage content for their nascent (at the time) website. The salary range on the job was between $65,000-$70,000 — a lot of money at the time.

I discussed Alan with them and mapped his skills, experience and credentials to the objectives of the job. When they asked his current salary, I said, “Well, you need A, B and C done in this job, right? So, when you interview him, satisfy yourselves that he can do A, B and C. But then, also ask him about D, E and F which, though I know is not part of this job, could be very valuable to you, too.”

Then I set the anchor — the point from which we would negotiate: “I’m not going to disclose what he’s making now. What really matters is that he can do all we’ve discussed. That’s why his desired salary range is between $70,000-$75,000.”

I made certain they would consider going higher than their budget for an exceptional match.

Control the information

Only I knew what both sides wanted. I never play games with the question about the ballpark. I don’t like wasting anyone’s time — especially mine! We were in the ballpark.

It’s not just about the salary
“It’s imprudent to take a job without knowing ‘the rest of the story.’ Politely insist on meeting your future boss and the team, as well as others that you will interface with on the job. This includes people who will work directly with you, people who work upstream and downstream from your job, and people in other departments who will influence your ability to succeed at your job.”
From Fearless Job Hunting, Book 9: Be The Master of Job Offers, pp. 31-33

They interviewed Alan and he wowed everyone. I let him know their reaction.

“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to discuss an offer with them. Now I need your permission to negotiate for you. If I can get at least as much as you said you want, can I tell them you’ll take the job? This gives me huge negotiating leverage because it eliminates uncertainty. Okay if I do that?”

Alan enthusiastically said that if they made an offer like that, I could tell them he would accept.

My client asked what I thought it would take to get Alan on board. What they were really asking was, how much will get us all to YES without further ado? I suggested $77,000.

“For a bit more than we originally discussed, you’re showing him how impressed you really are, and that you really want him. If you offer $77,000, I can assure you he’ll accept and be very highly motivated to start the job. No need for further discussion.”

Cause for joy

They made the offer at $77,000. When I conveyed it to Alan, he was shocked and overjoyed. He accepted on the spot. A year later he and his wife thanked me for getting them the down payment for a new house. (One of the most satisfying aspects of my job is changing people’s lives for the better.)

The company’s joy was more practical. They were accustomed to protracted salary negotiations that didn’t always go well. They often had to move on to their second-best candidate. They were happy to get their first choice and relieved there were no surprises. They knew from the start, within a few dollars, what it would cost to fill a key job with the right person. And the day Alan reported for work, the hiring manager could plainly see this guy was pleased and highly motivated to start the job.

A good match makes a good job offer

When I first asked Alan what it would take to entice him to move, he said very firmly, “I’d like to get between $50,000-$55,000.” All I told him was that we were in the right ballpark. If I had told him the actual range for the job, it was possible he’d panic and question his abilities and the demands of the position as reflected in the high salary. I don’t think he would have interviewed as confidently.

My client to this day doesn’t know Alan’s prior salary: $44,000. He started the new job enthusiastically with a 75% increase over what he had been making. He immediately demonstrated he was a stellar performer. My client felt they had scored big. And the truth is, they had, because I could have placed him with their competitor for about as much. He was worth it.

I knew I had a good match from the start. I knew what the client needed. I found a candidate who could deliver it and more. I made the match for a salary the employer felt was fair. And I got Alan a very good job offer that reflected his actual value.

What headhunters get paid for

The lesson here is not that yours truly is a brilliant negotiator. What I did was very simple, and it started with the most important factor in any negotiation for a job: You must know what the employer needs and will pay for, and you must know that your candidate can do it.

This is what the headhunter earns a big fee for: arranging a good match before the two parties meet. This is why the best headhunters have a much higher success rate than job hunters and employers do on their own. We get paid to avoid the huge failure rates of job ads, resumes, job boards, applicant tracking systems and HR departments. We make sure all candidates we submit for a position are very likely to be hired.

The next factor is, Control the information.

This doesn’t mean manipulate everyone. It means my goal is to help both parties avoid crashing the deal because they’re distracted by the wrong issues. I want them to focus on whether there’s a good match first — not on money. This is why I settle the question about money in advance. Roughly how much will each side be happy with?

Then I cut money out of the process until we confirm the match. As long as I know everyone’s in the same ballpark, and exactly what it would take for each party to make a deal, they don’t need to know everything. This lets them focus on the match.

The final factor is joy. Yup — joy. I want my candidate and my client to feel joy at making a good match at a price that we already know they’ll be very happy with. If everyone is happy and feels they got a good deal, I get more search assignments from my client and more candidate referrals from the candidate I just placed. That gives me joy!

You’re not a headhunter, but…

What does this mean to you when you negotiate? You’re not a headhunter or intermediary, but you can negotiate a good job offer like a headhunter if you consider these three rules that keep everyone focused on making a good deal:

Interview only for jobs that you know are a great match. This is absolutely key. It means investing the time to understand exactly what an employer needs and being ready to show you can do the job, right there in the interview. Don’t waste your time on lots of jobs just because there are millions on the Internet. More is not better! Interview only for the right jobs and your offer rate will go way up.

Control the information. Don’t disclose your salary history. Do find out what the salary range for the job is before you apply or interview. If it isn’t in your ballpark, walk away. Know what you want and stick to it. Don’t talk yourself into interviews where you think you “might be able to get them to go higher.”

Deliver joy. Yah, I know that sounds like mushy marketing talk. Do you think the object of your affections would agree to marry you if you didn’t create joy between you? You’ll negotiate the best offer if you can show the employer that you’re who they’ve been waiting for. Do what the headhunter does: Make sure there’s a good match before the interview happens. Surprise the employer by being the candidate who’s worth the money!

You can’t really negotiate like a headhunter because, as you point out, you’re not an intermediary. But you’ll be able to negotiate the best offers possible if you can demonstrate you’re the best possible job candidate. This means you cannot apply for loads of jobs just because some high-failure-rate job board lets you. More is not better!

What parts of my method of negotiating a good job offer could you put to good use? Do you have any techniques you’ve used to optimize job offers? Or, how have you blundered during a job offer negotiation? What else would you like to know about making a good match and a good offer?

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13 Comments
  1. Years ago I was working with an accounting job search agency. I had a successful interview and a job offer. I was offered a certain salary , health insurance. 5 sick days and 2 weeks vacation. Before I could agree the agency agent called me to say that the person I interviewed with had gotten the salary wring and it was $5000 less. I said okay though disappointed. Then a day later another called telling me that person had no authority to offer me 2 weeks vacation and then the next day I got another telling me their was another miscommunication. It told the agent that I no longer had faith in this company and their job offer. I turned down the job because I didnt trust that if I put in my notice at my current company that the whole job wouldnt fall apart. Also I evetually lost faith in the job search agency because the agent got really mad when I turned down the position. I ended up finding a new job on my own I believe handled the situation pretty well and made the right choice. What do you think?

    • @Camille,
      “What do you think”?
      The headhunter got mad because you turned down an obvious “sketchy” job offer? I’ve had prospective employers actually get mad and attempt to bully me into taking jobs before. Ironically, most of these employers went bankrupt and closed their doors soon after.
      It’s your life, and your call, not checking off a box, and earning a commission, for an obvious dubious search firm.
      Lots of miscommunications and back peddling. A major red flag. Such dishonesty or disorganization shows a toxic culture.
      I say you handled the situation well. You dodged a bullet by trusting your gut. Something I’ve learned the hard way in life.
      Good for you for finding a job on your own. I’ve always found jobs (good and not so good) on my own volition as well. I’ve never had a lick of success with recruiters or headhunters. They talked a good game, but ended up being flatulence in a whirlwind.
      Your story resonates my personal policy, “NO HEADHUNTERS, EVER”!

      • “NO HEADHUNTERS, EVER”!

        Although there are many that have been burned by
        headhunters there is a way to get rid of them
        before they waste your time or do any damage.

        Screen them immediately upon the first contact (email, voice, etc.)
        with blunt, factual questions that require an instant
        believable answer. In other words, make THEM sweat…turn
        the tables on them.

        Search Nick’s blog for the “how to” article on this very subject.

        In summary, if they can’t answer simple questions relevant
        to the supposed “job”, then dismiss them.

        • How about just not wasting your time with the likes of headhunters to begin with. As my late father used to say “if you lie down with a flea ridden animal, you wake up with fleas”. No need to engage them, grill them, or turn the tables on them, unless that’s your bag. Not mine. Avoidance, and refusal to deal with them in the first place, is how I’d handle them. Corcodilos claims that 95% of headhunters are duds. That’s far too generous in my estimation. More like 98%.

    • @Camille: You trusted your judgment and you did the right thing. This story reminds me of the car dealer that spent over an hour with me discussing, test driving, and pricing a vehicle. The price really surprised me — thousands less than I expected, except I’d have to buy it in white. The salesman had put it in writing. While he went to confer with his boss, I called my wife for a reality check. “Well, if you don’t want white, how does a great price make it a good deal?” Went back to the salesman’s desk, where he had the purchase contract all ready. I looked at the price: Thousands more then he’d quoted. “What’s this?” I asked. “My boss wouldn’t go for the price I quoted you. But this price is solid.”

      I walked out. I think the lesson in both our stories, Camille, is that as people who expect others to behave with integrity, we have a hard time believing we’re being lied to. So we keep trying to work through the process, hoping it’ll get better. Then they lie to us again. We still can’t believe something could be so wrong, so we rationalize. Finally, we get the message. Our expectation that others tend to do the right thing dissolves and we face reality. Some people are just out to screw us.

      What I’ve learned from this is, the first time in a negotiation that the other person tries to manipulate you, end the discussion and walk away because odds are very high it’s a bad deal. Trust your judgment. If it turns out you misread it, the other guy will come back to you. If it turns out you were right, make sure all your friends know who not to trust.

      There are good headhunters out there. I tell people that 95% of HR people aren’t worth spit. Then I point out that 95% of headhunters aren’t worth spit, either. Look for the good ones.

      • “…the first time in a negotiation that the other person tries to manipulate you, end the discussion and walk away…”

        Yes “walk away power” is a good thing to have. Follow the lyrics of that old Kenny Rogers song “…know when to walk away, know when to run…”

        “’My boss wouldn’t go for the price I quoted you. But this price is solid.’ I walked out.”

        Nick, you’re too polite.

        Prior to walking out I would’ve said “Well then, that makes either you, your boss, or both of you lying cheaters…or worse. Good bye!”

        • @Chris S: I didn’t say I walked out quietly. :-)

      • About the price he first quoted you, when I left a very major 500 company some years ago the HR guy confided to me that they listed top of the pay range is about two-thirds of the actual salary that is authorized!

        • @Wes: How many good candidates do you think that cost them? Candidates who weren’t interested at that “stated but inaccurate” salary? Employers that play games like this suffer silently.

  2. Nick, another home run.

    All good advice but the thing that sticks out for me is in the next to last paragraph: “More is not better!”

    Too often people confuse being busy with being effective. Some unfortunately put in huge effort with little or no results (and I’m not just talking about job search, I’m also referring to day-to-day work).

    It’s like the old fable, if you only have an hour to cut down a tree, spend the first 10 minutes sharpening the axe. Make a plan, work the plan, and don’t worry about all the noise that comes at you from all directions.

    • @Albert: There is a job-board and ATS industry out there that invests billions to keep employers and job seekers believing that MORE IS BETTER!

      It’s not.

      But job boards and ATS companies can’t sell “less and better.” It’s time this industry was regulated.

  3. Nick, this example suggests that you propose the single best prospect at a time to the company. I have had experiences where it appears (at the end when they cease follow-up) that I was meant as an also-ran from the start. They requested scads of writing samples and other information with tight turn-around but what started strong faded into nothingness. Looks to me that the headhunter needed to submit multiple applicants as a formality.

    • @Diana: It’s a rare assignment in which it takes just one candidate to fill a job. But it does happen. Normally there will be 3-4 candidates, all selected because any of them could do the job. My job is to present information to the client that establishes this for each of them.

      Once all have interviewed, it’s usually pretty clear who the #1 candidate is. At that point, my focus shifts to negotiating. If I’ve done it right from the start, I’ve laid the groundwork to negotiate the best deal for any of them.

      So, what distinguishes 3-4 candidates from one another if they can all do the job? In the example, Alan could do A, B, and C — the critical requirements. He could also do C, D, and E. That makes him stand out. But the other candidates may be able to address F, G, and H or X, Y, and Z. It’s up to the client to decide which amalgam of qualities are most desirable.

      Your last sentence is troubling but it is sometimes true. Headhunters play that game when the employer demands multiple candidates so it can make a choice. But even so, the headhunter is wise to present multiple candidates that all meet the critical criteria — or risk not placing anyone and earning no fee. If you believe a headhunter is submitting you as placeholder rather than as a viable, serious candidate, you need to talk to the headhunter.

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