An illustration of four hands representing job negotiation, with black lines on a yellow background

Looking to Negotiate Your Next Job? An ILR Prof Has Some Top Tips

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Organizational behavior expert Alice Lee offers advice on how to bargain for a higher salary, remote work, and more

ILR’s Alice Lee focuses her research on how people influence each other, both in professional realms and in society at large. An assistant professor of organizational behavior, Lee has frequently studied the subjects of negotiation and bargaining—so Cornellians tapped her for advice on how to navigate the rapidly evolving job market.

A portrait of Prof. Alice Lee
Lee in ILR's Ives Hall. (Photo by Ryan Young / Cornell University)

How much does negotiation really matter?

The short answer is: a lot. The precise statistic varies by industry, but some data has shown that the average U.S. employee could be earning at least 13% or so more per year than their current annual salary. And that potential could be achieved by negotiating.

So why don’t people negotiate more?

There's an array of reasons, including psychological discomfort and anxiety around negotiation and a fear of backlash. People may wonder, “Is this a context in which I can even negotiate? Is it taboo?”

Many think negotiation is like being on a battlefield, throwing punches—but at the end of the day, you're two human beings whose interests sometimes align and sometimes diverge.

How has the pandemic impacted this area?

The first step to any negotiation is questioning the status quo, and that’s happening more often. People are reevaluating the meaning of work, life, and the balance between them. Whereas workers may have previously been willing to take what they’re given, more are questioning, “But why, or why not?”

People may wonder, ‘Is this a context in which I can even negotiate? Is it taboo?’

Who has the upper hand in the job market right now?

That's something everyone's wondering about, given the so-called “Great Resignation” and the continued worker shortage: 50% of U.S. employers indicate it’s a significant issue, and as of February about 1.4 million Americans still hadn't returned to the workforce. A consistent factor that shapes power across negotiations is having alternatives—so potential hires do have more power than before, but it's very context dependent.

Do certain groups typically feel less able to negotiate—particularly women, who may be deterred by gender stereotypes?

Research does show that women often feel greater discomfort and anxiety about negotiating, and fear backlash for doing so, even though men and women have equal competencies in negotiation. And oftentimes, women face a double bind: if you don't ask, you're less likely to get what you want—but given societal stereotypes, women who are deemed too assertive or aggressive can be seen as less likable or hirable. So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

What advice do you have?

Research shows that women are much more comfortable when negotiating on behalf of other people—so you could frame the negotiation as advocating for your team or family, or even future generations of women; you're setting a precedent so others can get the things they rightfully deserve.

If you’re feeling uneasy about an upcoming negotiation, one practical strategy is to reframe that anxiety as excitement. As you feel your heart beating faster, instead of telling yourself to calm down, you could say, “I'm so excited to enter this negotiation; it's an opportunity for me to ask for the things I want and to set my career on the right path!”

When an interviewer asks about salary expectations, do you have to be ready with a number?

We usually recommend deferring; you don't want to anchor your counterpart before having an idea of what salary they have in mind.

However, if they insist on you naming a number, continuing to avoid this question could make you look sneaky or difficult. You should know what you want and your value, and that should guide how much you ask for—and tell you at what point you're willing to walk away.

Can negotiation now have a big effect on earnings later in life?

Absolutely. It's not just your current salary; what you're negotiating today becomes the basis for future raises, bonuses, and benefits. So what you ask for—especially as you're entering a job, which is when you arguably have the most power to change things—has a huge impact down the line.

How important is salary transparency—knowing what colleagues in similar positions are making?

Information is power, and preparation is key. People often think negotiations mean improvising, seeing what you can get.

But you should never underestimate the importance of gathering information and of preparation in general—knowing not just what people around you are making, but the market average, the industry norm. More organizations and individuals are starting to share information voluntarily, because they recognize the power this has, not just for themselves but for future generations of workers.

What’s the best way to attack this?

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Looking to Negotiate Your Next Job? An ILR Prof Has Some Top Tips

There are online forums like glassdoor.com and payscale.com—websites where you can find salary information without directly asking your colleagues. But even that can be done in a way that’s less awkward, when you frame it as a developmental conversation or seeking advice. A lot of times, you'll find that people are supportive—but as in negotiations, you have to ask for it.

One major issue currently is returning to the office; if you want to stay remote, how do you negotiate that?

Show hard evidence that your work quality hasn't been sacrificed. But try to understand how your manager and organization see things; what are their goals in asking you to come back? Can you find aligned situations where both parties are happy?

You also have to be ready to make sacrifices on other issues, like salary, that you might care less about. But different organizations have different opinions; you hear a lot of CEOs saying, “No, the social capital you gain from being able to walk over to your colleague and ask a question and having exposure to higher management is invaluable.”

Information is power, and preparation is key.

If you're going to work remotely, can you expect your employer to provide resources, like office equipment?

This is very much part of the current conversation, and it can be a win-win situation; organizations are saving a lot by not providing office space, travel expenses, and perks for in-person workers. But you have to create dialogue around reciprocity—like, “A new computer will help me connect with more potential clients and do my job better.”

What advice do you have for workers who want to stay in their current job, but think they merit a higher salary? Do they need to be willing to leave?

I’d recommend against ultimatums; employers don't typically want to be threatened into giving a raise. A better strategy is to take a problem-solving approach: invite your employer into a conversation about your value and contribution to the workplace, and what you're seeing in the market as average salaries for comparable positions.

Overall, do potential hires fixate too much on salary to the exclusion of other benefits?

As we're soul-searching for what really matters to us, salary is taking less of a driver's seat, and people are starting to care more about other things that could be negotiable—like remote work, flexibility in hours, and opportunities for promotion.

As I advise my students: the first step to any important negotiation is defining what success means to you. Whether your goal is to get the highest salary or flexibility in job scope, answering this question honestly before you enter the negotiation is critical, so you know what you might be willing to give up—and where to push hardest.

Top image: Illustration by Cornell University

Published April 19, 2022


Comments

  1. geoffrey+hewitt, Class of 1979

    although retired now and after graduating with honors and a fellowship I believe the key to negotiations is knowing the financial contributions you have made to a prior company in terms of profitability and revenue unless you worked for a non-profit ; these factors are compared to industry standards in terms of performance ; if one beats the industry standard constantly that is enough to seek the correct salary and benefits

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