The Art of Haggling

When fighting for a new salary, it’s all about the first number on the table.

By Claire Suddath

PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID BRANDON GEETING FOR BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK

I don’t like to haggle. The last time I tried to bargain I was 12 years old and trying to get my parents to let me watch an R-rated movie. (I still haven’t seen Speed.) So when I heard that Henrique de Castro used a job offer from Yahoo! to set off a bidding war with Google and ended up with a $61 million package, I thought, how did he do that? Wait — can I do that? If not $61 million, maybe six? I would be totally fine with $6 million.

To improve my chances I called salary negotiations expert Victoria Pynchon, founder of the She Negotiates consultancy. The biggest hurdle, Pynchon says, is that most of us have no idea what people in similar positions make. “When you buy a house, you get an appraiser and compare it to similar homes in the area. So why wouldn’t you do that with your job?”

If it’s a government job, salary info should be publicly available; the same is true for people in high-profile positions whose incomes are reported in the news. If those don’t apply to you, Pynchon advises calling people. “Don’t ask them their salaries directly, just ask them for advice — what they think the market is,” she says. “People like nothing better than to tell you what they’re making, so you’ll probably find out anyway.” Pynchon specializes in helping high-powered women who work in male-dominated fields, and she says it’s critical to know what men make to avoid unknowingly accepting a lowball offer. Once you know what you’re worth, practice asking for a lot more.

“You shouldn’t just pull a number out of a hat,” says Ofer Sharone, assistant professor of work and employment research at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “Tell them what you’ve researched and explain why you’re worth more than the average person.” Pynchon agrees: Don’t make the discussion about what you want, but what you can provide. “Tell them, ‘I walk on water, and I can walk on water at your company too.’” It helps if you request a salary before they offer you one; the first number on the table influences the rest of the negotiation.

Many people — women, especially — have difficulty even vocalizing a dollar amount. Pynchon worked with a lawyer who couldn’t bring herself to say “$150,000” to her boss even though she’d been offered more than that from another firm. A Carnegie Mellon University study found 57 percent of male MBAs took the step of negotiating the salary for their first job while only 7 percent of females did. The men ended up making $4,000 more per year on average. “That’s not just a one-time difference,” says Sharone, “It’s the benchmark for all future raises, and if you switch jobs your employer will ask what you made at the last company.”

Once the number is out there, the fun begins. But beware: America is not a bargaining culture, and many employers only tolerate three or four rounds of negotiations. It’s important to emphasize the points on which you do agree and to remain upbeat. And if the company refuses to meet even your basic demands or yells at you for being too brazen — yes, that does happen — don’t give in. Wait a day or two to give them a chance to change their minds. If they don’t, they clearly can’t afford you.

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