Building your case for a better paycheck

Negotiating your salary is probably one of the most important feats of verbal wrangling you will likely never perform.

The majority of us get so excited about landing an offer (or a raise) that we leave it at that.

Yet research shows that most workers end up leaving a lot of money on the table.

Consider: Ninety percent of recruiters say their initial offer is less than they are willing to pay a candidate, according to Robin Pinkley, co-author of the new book "Get Paid What You're Worth: The Expert Negotiators' Guide to Salary and Compensation" (St. Martin's Press).

Ms. Pinkley, and co-author Gregory Northcraft, have spent a combined 30 years advising companies and employees on salary negotiations. And they firmly believe that a little back-and-forth can mean more cash in your pocket.

"Salary history becomes a marker and provides information to future opportunities about your worth," says Pinkley, a professor of organizational behavior at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "If you start a new job 'behind market,' you have not only hurt yourself in that job, but in all future jobs."

According to the authors' research, less than half of workers negotiate. Why? Most are afraid they'll come across as greedy or unprofessional. Or that the recruiter will revoke the offer.

Yet Pinkley points out that candidates who negotiate (properly) actually make a better impression than those who don't.

So how exactly do you negotiate? For starters, you need to know the going rate for people with your skills and expertise in the job you either have or are seeking to get. (See box, below.)

Next, "you have to make a case for what you ask for," Pinkley contends. "You need to be educated about what that case should be. And you need to be ready to educate the person sitting across from the desk."

One of the problems people run into: Companies want to know right up front how much money a job candidate wants.

"It's extremely costly to talk about salary and compensation before receiving an offer," Pinkley warns. At the same time, don't dodge the question.

Rather, she advises candidates to give a figure (based on research) that they "hope to achieve." Then explain why it makes sense. "Talk about the current market. Talk about how that number is minimal compared to what you are going to contribute," she contends. "We call that providing an anchor."

The goal, she says, is to make the person on the other side of the table your champion.

So you've had two rounds of interviews and suddenly you're staring at an offer. Now what?

First: "Thank [the recruiter] for the offer and be very appreciative," Pinkley says, "regardless of how poor the offer is."

Don't respond immediately with a counteroffer. A well-informed counteroffer takes time.

Instead, she says, look it over and ask questions (less confrontational than making demands). For example: How did the company arrive at a certain figure, or why are some pieces of the package missing (relocation expenses, signing bonuses)?

Remember that compensation is more than annual salary. And with the tight labor market, companies are getting creative.

Once you have enough information, thank the interviewer again, explain that you need some time, and say when you'll be able to respond to the offer.

Then go home and try to figure out how you can address the employer's questions so you can get what you want. And then prepare to go back to the negotiating table.

Remember, "you want to be soft on the people and hard on the problem," Pinkley says. "You can be very assertive about the issues, as long as you are very respectful and kind toward the person."

This is also a good time to bring up other offers. "Additional offers are the best source of power in any negotiation," Pinkley says. "It keeps you from being desperate and accepting any offer."

Also, remember that this is not the time to bring up the fact that you're about to have a baby or take on an enormous mortgage. That stuff is "basically irrelevant," she says, unless you plan to walk. "So you'd better be prepared to."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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