There is no success quite so rueful as a negotiation that went too easily. When I got my first job in law, a paralegal position at a mid-sized firm in Boston, I was almost willing to accept a reduction in salary, until a friend convinced me that I should at least ask them to match what I had been earning as a library assistant. I was nervous about making the phone call to the firm administrator, but finally I did it, and in a rush explained that I needed to make at least $17,000 to work there. (No, not “per month” – this was the 1980s, when a college graduate could live on $17,000 a year.) There was the briefest of pauses, and then the administrator said, “Yes, we can do that.” And of course, I immediately suspected that I should have asked for more. If she was willing to accept $17,000 so readily, who’s to say she wouldn’t have given the nod, albeit more reluctantly, to $19,000 or more?
Of course, canny negotiators recognize that easy deals generate suspicion, so they inject artificial difficulty. If you go to any market where haggling is well accepted, you will see this. When my wife and I lived in Japan, we visited Hong Kong a couple of times, and enjoyed visiting Stanley Market there – a warren of stalls and shops selling all kinds of clothing and household goods. There were price tags, but everyone knew that you were expected to haggle – that was the allure, getting something with a $400 price tag for only $120. But after a while, you would notice: if you weren’t offering the advertised price, it almost didn’t matter what your bid was – the vendor would bicker with you just as vociferously. Even if you offered, say, 80% of the price on the tag – which obviously left plenty of profit to the seller – they would still persistently make counteroffers. Back then I assumed they were just capitalists working hard to squeeze every possible bit of profit out of a sale, but now I think that at least some of the time, they were only going through the motions so that we the buyers would feel we earned the bargain, and follow through with it. And that was probably right. If we had offered, say, $1400 for a $1600 Louis Vuitton handbag (remember, 8 Hong Kong dollars = 1 U.S. dollar), and the vendor had said, “Sure, I’ll ring that up,” we would probably have conferred with each other in the corner (“Hey, if we can get it for $1400 here, I bet we can find it somewhere else for $1000!”) and then left without purchasing.
If you are negotiating a salary package, you absolutely should feel like it was hard work if you want to walk away satisfied. But here’s the thing: the hard work shouldn’t be at the negotiating table. You should be doing all your hard work before you even get there. Most people know that this includes researching the market – that is, finding out what people working in similar positions locally have been receiving – and as a baseline, that is important. Especially for entry-level positions, where there is a lot less justification for fluctuation, knowing how your offer compares to offers being received by your peers will help to keep employers from taking advantage of you, and may tell you something about the resources or prestige of the employer considering you.
But you can’t stop there. You should also find out something about the qualifications of those people getting hired for similar positions. You can’t fairly compare their salaries to yours, after all, if you have much better (or lesser) qualifications than they do. And if you can, you should see how precisely you can quantify the value of your contribution to the new employer. This may be easier for, say, lawyers, who bill by the hour, than for elementary school teachers, who don’t ordinarily generate cash for their employers. But by examining your own skills and the needs of your employer, you should at least be able to get a sense of how the value of your contribution compares to a typical hiree. And if you can convincingly argue that you can do the work of two ordinary employees, your request for a higher salary is more easily justified. Finally, knowing something about the employer, and the culture it shares with similar employers, will give you a better sense of how much flexibility they might have with respect to salary – or perhaps other benefits that might be more manipulable for them. No matter what skills you have to offer, a non-profit organization with a shoestring budget may not be able to provide a higher salary – but they might be more willing to woo you for those skills with other perks.
If you do all that kind of research and careful consideration in advance, then you’ve done the hard work before the negotiation. And, while you may not be able to move the employer to the place you were hoping to get, at least – when it comes time to decide to accept the final offer or not – you can make that decision without suspecting later that you somehow negotiated a bad deal for yourself.