What’s negotiable? The many negotiable components of a job offer

Shortly after receiving a job offer, many people’s primary impulse is to negotiate the salary. And thus they despair if the effort fails.

But why the despair? Typically because they haven’t read anything like my last post, which assured you of the approximately 43593457938 negotiable components of a job offer.

But that just begs the question: which components? In other words, which aspects of a job offer can typically be negotiated?

Now, no list of negotiable components can ever be complete, especially since there are 43593457938 of them. Nor can any list apply to every particular job. Summer support? Makes sense to an academic (sort of) but virtually no one else. Finally, a long list of negotiable issues certainly does not imply that you should negotiate everything. As always, the best negotiators push for their critical interests but also know when to call it a day.

Still, in the everlasting and never-ending quest to make life negotiable, perhaps a list of the commonly negotiable components of a job offer can help. So here goes an imperfect but hopefully helpful list of the top 10 categories of negotiable topics:

  1. Other monetary issues. Believe it or not, a failure to negotiate salary does not imply an inability to negotiate all monetary issues. Other money-oriented issues like bonuses, moving expenses, and stock options sometimes remain surprisingly negotiable.
  2. Work location. In today’s virtual world, the amount of time you spend in the office, a satellite office, or your home office is often on the table. And unless you live next to the office, it probably should be.
  3. Travel. A closely related issue is travel—namely how much of it you will do and how glamorous the location. For some people, the more the better and any whistle stop will do. For others, even the thought of another security check elicits nausea. It’s important to at least go in knowing which type you are.
  4. Physical conditions. Assuming you’ll have to spend a bunch of time in the office, many organizations have at least a few degrees of freedom with respect to what it will look and feel like. Will you sit in a cavernous corner, thereby withering away in the absence of natural light? Will you work right next to the copier, mishearing your critical phone calls due to the beep of the buttons? Better to surface those issues beforehand.
  5. Job specifics. For lack of a better title, many specifics of the job itself might remain in play after the job offer—in particular, some especially onerous tasks you might not want to complete, especially onerous times you might not want to be on call, or especially onerous committees you might not want to chair. If you think these types of issues are in fact flexible, you could do yourself a favor by mentioning them.
  6. Career progress and evaluation. Any organization worth working for wants you to make progress in your career and attain increasingly challenging goals. And some might be willing to customize your career trajectory and/or evaluation schedule to promote as much. Accelerating your career or evaluating you more frequently, in turn, might well get you to the desired salary faster.
  7. Education, enrichment, and growth. Any organization worth working for also wants you to learn, enrich yourself, and grow. And many may be willing to put their money behind it, particularly by reimbursing your tuition, supporting your conference attendance, and sending you to professional development courses (for example).
  8. Benefits. Despite the glossy and final-looking pamphlet from HR, at least some of the stuff therein (vacation time, leave, health insurance, retirement plan, housing subsidies, etc.) often remains negotiable. If a particular benefit is especially near and dear, it might not hurt to ask.
  9. Supplies. Will this job come with a stapler and that’s about it? Or could you negotiate to throw in a laptop, your own personal printer, and a particularly shiny set of paperclips (for example)? If it saves you from dealing with an unhelpful IT department, walking a half-marathon to the community printer, or buying paperclips yourself, you might just ask.
  10. Start date. The start date is the date on the job posting, right? Well, it could be. But you might also negotiate to start early (thereby earning back some of the salary shortfall) or start late (thereby earning yourself an extended vacation).

In closing, let me reiterate what I said at the beginning: a plethora of negotiable issues is not a license to demand the world on a silver platter, and then some. Doing so could easily get you branded a prima donna, or even someone with a revoked offer. But I do hope that knowing the 43593457938 negotiable components of a job offer at least calms your despair, boosts your confidence, and earns you a shiny set of paperclips.

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Five responses to “equity concerns” in job negotiations

You’re lucky enough to receive a job offer. But it doesn’t meet your expectations, so you muster the courage to counter. And then you get the response that every applicant dreads—the one that immediately diffuses your counter with ‘equity concerns.’ In other words, a response indicating that the employer can’t meet your demands because they would create an inequity within the organization.

Sound familiar? We’ve all heard this phrase or something very much like it. Is there anything at all that you can do to make this nettlesome statement negotiable? It’s a nettlesome statement indeed, but the following five strategies might help:

  1. Mention your knowledge beforehand: Sometimes an employer really can’t meet your demands for equity reasons. But other times, you know full well that other employees in the organization are making exactly what you just requested. In that situation, I’d suggest mentioning your knowledge at the same time as your counteroffer (before their nettlesome response). A difficult admission perhaps, but better than trapping the employer in a lie (or making them feel that way).
  2. Negotiate something else: Salary is one of 14398349813274 things that can be negotiated in a job offer. And, believe it or not, the 14398349813274 things often do more for your satisfaction, at least in combination. And, luckily enough, many of the 14398349813274 things—especially the qualitative ones like access to natural light or virtual work—are somehow immune from ‘equity concerns.’ So even if the equity concerns surrounding salary are real, don’t give up.
  3. Restructure the monetary request: Ok, so they won’t pay $Y. They’ll only pay $X, which is $Z less. And it’s apparently because is $X is the going rate. But would they pay $X plus a performance-based bonus of $Z if you attain target ABC? Again, performance-based pay may somehow escape the grasp of ‘equity concerns.’
  4. Deconstruct the equity equation: Equity is defined as the ratio of inputs to outputs. Employers who cite ‘equity concerns’ don’t always acknowledge that. They focus only on outputs in the form of the standard salary, not on any notable skills, degrees, or certifications (for example) that make your inputs particularly high. Since the ratio between particularly high inputs and standard outputs immediately becomes inequitable, reminding yourself and the employer of the whole equation (uber-carefully and professionally) may help.
  5. Develop and allude to an alternative: The best defense against a meagre offer, albeit the hardest to execute, is to develop a viable plan B—an attractive alternative offer or option. Since you’ll have to exercise your alternatives anyway if the stingy employer demurs, you’d better at least know what they are. Better yet is to have an alternative that you’re actually eager to execute, and thus willing to mention if the ‘equity concerns’ persist despite your best efforts.

In sum, ‘equity concerns’ create a real challenge for any aspiring job negotiator. But a thoughtful strategy can make even this nettlesome tactic negotiable.

Curtailing the never-ending meeting: The deadline effect

Meetings: the great vortex that swallows most of our organizational lives. Is there anything – anything at all – we can do to make them negotiable?

Luckily there are several tactics available. But here let me focus on a particularly helpful nugget of wisdom from the negotiation literature: the deadline effect.

The deadline effect in negotiation essentially, and interestingly, shows that deadlines are not particularly detrimental to those who face them. But wait, don’t we all feel pressured when negotiating with our backs up against a hard stop? Yes, but so too does our counterpart. And that’s the essence of the deadline effect: deadlines focus everyone’s mind on business and can thus be quite beneficial to all negotiators concerned.

It’s not hard to see how the same principle might apply to meetings. We often have the latitude to schedule meetings at various points in the day. Should we schedule them in the middle of a big block of free time? Or should we schedule them right before another meeting? Should we schedule them for longer than needed, just in case, or even leave the timing open-ended? Or should we predetermine that they need to conclude by a specific time, and be quite specific with ourselves as well as the other parties involved about what the time is?

If you want to make meetings negotiable, leveraging the deadline effect is a good place to start: Consider scheduling your meetings right up against your other meetings, and be perfectly clear with yourself and your counterparts as to the existence of a firm deadline in the form of a subsequent meeting. Doing so might make you feel harried and could, potentially, make your long-winded colleagues feel rushed. But chances are it’ll make the bulk of your colleagues feel grateful, as they too will discover more minutes in the day.

In short, deadlines, in organizations, are your friend! Treat them that way, and even meetings can become negotiable.

Compromise: The bane of your next team presentation

I have often contended that—contrary to popular wisdom—compromise is bad. The fundamental problem? Compromise takes two people’s desires and cuts them in half, leaving nobody particularly happy. Sure, it’s better than an impasse (sometimes). But it’s often worse than a variety of more creative solutions.

Nowhere is the problem more apparent than in the creation of a team presentation. Indeed, if you’re tasked with creating such a presentation, avoiding a compromise is often the only way to make life negotiable.

Huh? A story to illustrate:

A colleague and I were recently asked to coteach a class that covers two related but distinct topics—let’s call them apples and oranges. Given that apples and oranges are two distinct fruits, and given that my colleague is naturally more familiar with the apples from his normal course while I’m more familiar with the oranges from mine, the easiest thing to do—and the thing most people do—is slap half the apples and half the oranges into a single presentation, in sequence. A compromise! It avoids disagreement, minimizes additional work, and appears to respect everyone’s thinking. Right?

Well, yes, but anyone who’s ever done that (or heard that presentation) knows the outcome: an incoherent mishmash of a presentation—a presentation where we learn all there is to know about apples from presenter 1 and all there is to know about oranges from presenter 2. But then we walk away scratching our heads about what in the world apples have to do with oranges, or even what the whole presentation was about. Compromise, in the context of a team presentation, fails us badly.

But luckily, there’s a better way. And luckily, my colleague and I knew enough about the pitfalls of compromise to adopt it. Instead of half a presentation about apples and a half a presentation about oranges, how about a whole presentation about a two-fruit salad? In other words, how about a presentation that takes the best parts of each person’s thinking, integrates them in a coherent way, and uses the resulting integration to extract new insights that would’ve occurred to neither alone.

Yes, of course, it takes more time. But, to smash the fruit metaphor into a pulp, I assure you that it almost always results in a tastier dish. And it usually takes less time than scrapping the incoherent two-fruit sequence, then mixing up an entirely new fruit salad, as you’ll probably have to do in response to the negative feedback generated by the initial presentation.

So the next time you’re tasked with compiling a team presentation—or tempted to compromise in general—consider the possibility that meeting in the middle is neither necessary nor necessarily desirable. Integrating the best of everyone’s thinking to produce a novel and intriguing whole often results in a far juicer final product.

Two is greater than one—especially in negotiation!

On the job, countless situations call for a proposal: A customer requests an estimate. A colleague calls for a counter-proposal about the subdivision of a project. A boss asks for a suggested reconfiguration of your time to accommodate a new responsibility.

In these situations, most people do exactly what was requested: make a proposal. And that’s logical! You’re just following directions. Still, there’s a better way to respond—a response that can make life more negotiable for you and the other person alike: making two proposals rather than one. Let me tell you what I’m talking about and explain why two, in negotiation, is substantially greater than one.

Imagine your boss asked you to assume a major new responsibility. Recognizing that this will totally upend your job and prevent you from accomplishing your current responsibilities, the boss further requested a proposal indicating how you’ll now allocate your time. The logical approach would be to think about it and simply provide a proposal.

But compare that to thinking about it and providing two proposals, each slightly different but both just about as attractive to you. One of the two indicates you can get the new thing done while accomplishing 25% of your previous job. The other indicates you can get the new thing done and manage to complete 40% of your previous job if only you were allowed to work from home twice a week and save a bunch of time super-commuting. Truth be told, you consider the two proposals equally attractive.

Now, compare the two-proposal approach to the single-proposal approach that just seemed logical. Which is better?

Surprisingly, negotiation research on “Multiple Equivalent Simultaneous Offers” or “MESOs”—which is exactly what your two proposals are—would suggest the former. But why? Why are two more complicated proposals better than one that just follows directions? For at least five reasons:

  1. Flexibility: True, your two proposals didn’t exactly follow your boss’s instructions to the T. But negotiation research would suggest that the boss will prefer them nevertheless because they seem more flexible. You are conveying the willingness to solve the boss’s problem in multiple ways, not just one.
  2. Anchoring: Ironically, at the same time you demonstrate flexibility, you also focus your boss’s attention on your own preferred solutions to the problem. And you actually do that twice, not just once.
  3. Information sharing: Through your two proposals, you’ve communicated something important about your own preferences, namely that you want to work from home more often and could be more productive if you did. It would be harder to convey that quite so clearly with just the one proposal, whichever it was.
  4. Information receiving: By hearing which of the two proposals your boss prefers, you learn something vitally important about your boss’s preferences, namely how he or she feels about virtual work. Over and above any potential benefits of the actual ability to work from home, it might be nice to how your boss feels about this critical issue.
  5. Efficiency and satisfaction: The two-proposal approach tends to bring the two parties to a quicker and more satisfying resolution. Had you stuck slavishly to the boss’s directions, you might’ve battled it out over one issue, probably the exact percentage reduction in your current responsibilities. At a minimum, you or they might’ve walked away unhappy, never a good outcome in a hierarchical relationship.

So, am I telling you to flaunt your boss’s specific requests? Of course not. I’m simply saying that, whenever there’s room to respond to a request with two proposals rather than one, you’ll usually find two to be much greater than one.

Influencing by volunteering

In organizations, tasks often arise that no one really needs or wants to do. An agenda needs to be developed; a Google doc needs to be compiled; a memo needs to be written. If it doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s job description or fall squarely onto anyone’s plate, getting it done obviously requires someone to take the initiative.

Sometimes, someone volunteers—presumably out of goodwill or a desire to take this task rather than the next one. At least as often, though, a whole lot of people play musical chairs in hopes of quickly finding a seat. Even setting aside the goodwill or desire to avoid the next task, though, these opportunities offer an often overlooked opportunity to make life negotiable.

To see how, let’s take a brief walk through the world of negotiation research.

Taking such a walk, you’ll quickly encounter the first offer effect: the finding that the person who makes the first offer tends to better achieve their objectives. Dig deeper into the effect, and you’ll find that it’s grounded in one of the most robust findings in all of psychology: anchoring, or our tendency to make ambiguous judgments by focusing on whatever information happens to be before us at judgment-time. First offers matter because the second offerer uses them as a point-of-reference.

What in the world does this have to do with organizational tasks? Well, taking the initiative often amounts to making the first offer. In other words, avoiding the inclination to play musical chairs often allows you to put your own stamp on the agenda, the Google doc, the memo. Since somebody has to develop the agenda (which will inevitably influence the topics and their order), somebody has to compile the Google Doc (which will inevitably influence the facts considered and how), and somebody has to write the memo (which will inevitably influence its tone), it might as well be you. That way, you’ll claim at least some of the organizational influence so many people claim to eagerly covet.

Now, like any advice based on any decision-making bias (e.g., anchoring), you’ll have to use this one with extreme ethical caution. While it’s true that somebody has to do the stuff above, if you do it with devious intentions, you’ll not only curtail your influence—you’ll eliminate any semblance of goodwill. So don’t omit a key item from the agenda, key fact from the Google Doc, or key finding from the memo (for example).

And you’ll obviously have to be selective, volunteering for the tasks where you care rather than everything that crosses the transom.

Act ethically and choose selectively, though, and you may find your influence starting to wax. Because the fact remains that somebody has to do it. If you care about it and can find the time, it might as well be you.

When to part with your Plan B

I’ve often alluded to the need to develop a BATNA: a next-best option or plan B if the current negotiation fails. Any negotiation instructor worth their salt will give the same advice. But the advice also raises a critical conundrum that often goes unanswered: when to let your BATNA go. When’s the right time to exercise plan A and let your fallback option go their merry way?

Since knowing when to part with your BATNA can dictate both your economic outcomes and your long-term reputation, thereby making life more or less negotiable, let’s consider five questions that can inform a decision about letting your BATNA go. If you’d like, consider these questions in the context of two job offers, one of which you prefer (plan A) to the other (plan B):

  1. Am I certain about plan A? Plan B effectively offers insurance against the collapse of plan A. So if plan A is far from certain—if someone from plan A has mentioned but not confirmed you’ll get a job offer, for example—then it’s probably better to retain plan B.

But…

  1. Is plan B starting to feel that way? No one likes to feel like a fallback. If you’ve been stringing plan B along, stalling sketchily while they eagerly await an answer, chances are they will. Since the associated damage to your reputation may start to outweigh the benefits of a fallback, you should consider parting ways.
  2. Would I ever say yes to plan B? Maybe it’s the reluctance to say no, or the fear of cold decisiveness. Either way, people frequently retain BATNAs that they would never in a million years exercise. If you would never say yes to your best alternative—if it’s a job you couldn’t possibly envision yourself doing, for example—it’s only right to say no, and quickly.
  3. Are you preventing your plan B from exercising theirs? Oftentimes, your BATNA’s offer to you is preventing them from exercising their own BATNA, e.g., an offer to somebody else. If you are standing in the way of their doing so for no clear reason, it’s probably better to part ways.
  4. How small of a world is it? If you and your BATNA will never again cross paths—not even on the interweb—then you might consider retaining them a big longer. Are you dealing with a used car dealer in the middle of nowhere? But in the considerably more common situation where you and your BATNA both inhabit a small world, I’d suggest treading much more carefully. Will your stringing-alonging follow you around till the end of time? Will every future employer in your industry / city / profession know how fallbackish your current BATNA felt? If so, then treat them with extreme caution and respect, if only for this fairly self-focused reason.

In sum, good negotiators know to cultivate a BATNA. Great and responsible negotiators know to never string a BATNA along unnecessarily. Here’s hoping that these five questions help you navigate these ethically fraught waters.