It’s your negotiation counterpart’s favorite phrase: “I can’t do that.” And it’s a discouraging phrase that most of us take at face-value, deeming our dreams as good as dashed. And sometimes we should, as it signifies the actual impossibility of our request.
But many times, we shouldn’t. Because, many times, it means something subtly but critically different. And here’s where we usually go wrong: We don’t recognize the many subtle meanings of the very same phrase, thereby rendering life less negotiable. So, the next time your negotiation counterpart says, “I can’t do that,” know that they might mean:
- I don’t want to do that. “Can’t” implies utter impossibility, total infeasibility, absolutely no way that could happen. Unfortunately, many of our negotiation counterparts actually mean “don’t.” As in, they don’t really feel like it. Since not really feeling like it is far less final than not being able, you’ve just discovered a golden opportunity to pry back the reasons for their reluctance. Are they concerned about the work required, precedents broken, approvals needed? Whatever it is, it’s possible you can address it (once you understand it).
- I can do that but don’t want you to know. It’s a sad fact of negotiation, and life more broadly. Sometimes people lie, or at least bluff. So saying they can’t is an exercise in flexible ethics meant to crush your dreams before they ever take flight. Luckily, a simple “Why?” is often enough to catch the underprepared bluffer red-handed and unable to answer convincingly.
- I won’t do that unless you do this. Sometimes, “I can’t” is less a lie than a gambit—an attempt to get something out of you before they comply. Luckily, a “What if I did X?” on your end can often turn the most non-negotiable issues negotiable.
- I can’t do that, but I can do this. Relatedly, negotiators sometimes say they can’t because they really can’t grant your super-specific request. But that particular can’t says nothing about their willingness to grant other, as-yet unmade requests. To see so for yourself, try an experiment the next time a wily HR negotiator tells you they “can’t” negotiate salary: Say ok, but ask whether they would give you something else you value for the given salary. Often, they will, which means they actually can negotiate salary—and have, by accepting your proposed tradeoff.
- I haven’t really thought about it. Sadly, some of our negotiation counterparts aren’t as astute or motivated as we are. We surface an idea, and it doesn’t sound much like the clunking of their mental machinery, so they reject us without really thinking it over. Here, your job as negotiator becomes to educate—to show them just how simple it would be for them to comply. Shown a simple way to say yes, many will, if only to be rid of you.
The point is embarrassingly simple: “I can’t do that” is a popular phrase that you shouldn’t automatically accept at face-value. Maybe they really can’t—and so be it. But if it’s just that they “can’t,” then chances are you can find a way to eliminate the ‘t.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.’
- 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.
- 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.
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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.