10 salary negotiation myths women & millennials should beware of

Why women? Because the data show that they negotiate less and therefore get less. According to payscale.com, “Compared with men, women are more uncomfortable with negotiations. Women say that their uneasiness with this process is the reason they didn’t negotiate 31 percent of the time, whereas men only reference the same reasoning 23 percent of the time.”

Millennials, incidentally, have a similar problem: “Sixty percent of millennials don’t negotiate salary when receiving their first job offers. This is a costly career decision. That starting salary is such an important key to financial success, as it impacts compensation rates for years to come.”

I have a lot of friends who’ve run the gauntlet of salary negotiations. From talking to them and from my own experiences on all sides of the table, I’ve identified 10 Salary Negotiation Myths that are stopping you from negotiating or giving you a bad result even if you try. These Myths are everywhere and it’s time to explode them once and for all. (Of course, this article is for anyone who wants to negotiate a higher salary, but it’s especially timely and relevant for women and millennials.) Let’s get started.

Myth #1: If you’ve negotiated a lot, you’re a great negotiator (and if you’ve negotiated very little, you’re a bad negotiator)

Let me introduce you to Bill Bergen. Right after the turn of the century, Bergen was a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He played Major League Baseball for 11 years. He was quite a good defensive catcher. On the other hand, he had 3,228 at-bats in his career. In these at-bats, he had a total of two home runs (over 11 years) and the lowest batting average of anyone in MLB history with over 2,500 at-bats: .170. Bergen had plenty of experience batting, but he was a terrible hitter. When it comes to negotiating, you can have all the experience in the world, but that doesn’t guarantee you a home run deal. Conversely, don’t let your lack of experience intimidate you, either.

Myth #2: You should never disclose your salary or your requirements first

If the position has a known salary range and you’d be happy with that, this may be OK. But I personally know of many cases where people went on multiple interviews, spanning multiple weeks, only to receive a completely unacceptable offer far out of their range. If this has ever happened to you, remember how incredibly frustrating this made you feel?

Trial lawyers know a cardinal rule: never ask a witness a question that you don’t already know the answer to. If you are looking for a job, the rule is: never waste time pursuing a job when you don’t already know what you’ll be paid, at least at a minimum.

So how do you handle this practically? If you are invited to an interview, it’s absolutely fair to ask, “Can you give me the general salary and bonus range for this job?” If they answer your question, you face three possible scenarios:

  • If the range is too low, you tell them you really appreciate their consideration, but that you require a range of (and here’s where you include your range). Some of them will come back to you and indicate flexibility. Now you are the one with leverage.
  • If it’s within your range, you simply say, “Thank you. And, of course, depending on the candidate, I assume you have some flexibility.” That’s a statement, not a question. If you ask it as a question, it doesn’t work. Rather, you are putting them on notice that your value is higher. That will help you later.
  • If it’s higher than your expectations, there’s a good chance that they know it. If you come off as a hard-ass, then you’re telling them that you don’t know when to quit. You’re best off saying, “Thanks for that information. Yes, I’m interested in exploring this opportunity further.”

If they don’t give you an answer, they may ask you what you’re looking for. Never give a single number. Give them a range with a flexible span. For example, if you want $140K, something like $150K-$170K works well. Notice that your lowest salary is higher than what you want, but not so far above it that you can’t “save face” if you really want the job — or, better, trade off that salary for a better bonus or benefits. Make no mistake: they will take your lowest number as your real demand. But if they want you badly enough, they may not want to “insult” you by offering you that and so they may “split the difference,” offering you $160K. If they say that your range isn’t “fair or reasonable,” but you know it is, thank them for their time and wish them well.

Myth #3: When your offer is too low, negotiate up

You should only negotiate up depending on how low the offer is. If it’s close — and the benefits and perks and career opportunities are great — sure. If it’s not, you absolutely have to walk away: “Thank you. I think very highly of your company, but I’m afraid we’re not close on compensation. So unfortunately, I have to decline.”

It’s very important not to use “weasel words” like “maybe,” “I hope,” “could you possibly?” and the like. Put the onus on them — if they want and can afford you — to come back to you, whether in that communication or later. If and when they do, you will have gained significant leverage.

You also have an “anchor” in such negotiations. If you’ve actually discussed a range initially, you can say, “As I explained initially, my range for this position is $150K-$170K. I’m disappointed that your offer is not in that range, so it’s not possible for me to accept.”

Myth #4: Splitting the difference always works in your favor

You should split the difference only when you’re the mouse, not the lion. So if you would be happy with $140K, but you’ve told them $160K and they’ve offered $140K, go ahead and ask, “Why don’t we split the difference?” You would be amazed how often this works.

In order to use “splitting the difference” to your advantage, you should always ask for more than you would be happy with from the get-go. Now suppose you have told them $170K and they have offered $140K. Is that a difference you want to split? Absolutely not. That’s when you reject the $140K flat out and force them, unilaterally, to raise it. (And, of course, if you’re a principal engineer or executive, these numbers are more likely to be in the $300K- $500K range, so adjust for your market value.) Once they have raised it, then you can split the difference.

Myth #5: Without competing offers, you have no leverage

While you shouldn’t lie about having competing offers, your interviewers have no idea whom else you are talking to. If their imagination wants to run wild, let it. Certainly, you are having “a number of ongoing discussions, including this one.” That’s true, even if you have only one offer. Or you may be expecting an offer in two more weeks. Expecting an offer isn’t the same as having an offer. Not all expectations are met. So if they absolutely want you, what are they going to do to lock you down now?

Also remember that if they’ve first offered you the job, they want you for some reason. Maybe it’s because they think they can get you cheaply. We’ve already discussed how to counter that — and if they don’t come back, do you really want to work for someone that cheap unless there’s a separate benefit such as being able to work with a world-leading CTO? If they don’t think you’re cheap, they think you’re valuable. That is leverage.

Myth #6: Always negotiate hard: if you get the offer of your dreams, you can still get more

You may actually end up with nothing if you negotiate too hard with the wrong person. Know about the party you’re negotiating with so you can capitalize on your strengths and the party’s weaknesses. If possible, talk to business associates who have dealt with this person before. Many negotiators develop patterns and certain styles that you may be able to use to your advantage.

You should negotiate harder with people who tend to play mind games at the negotiating table.

When Donald Trump (pre-Presidency, at least) decided he wants to make a deal with you, he apparently stuffs a few tricks up his sleeve before negotiation time. First, he had his staffers warn you that he’s very busy, probably won’t be able to stay long (5 minutes max) and won’t shake your hand (he just didn’t do that). Then when Trump entered the room — you know, the one from The Apprentice — you’re instantly charmed over by his warm handshake and extensive 40-minute chat. You walk out feeling quite good about yourself. In reality, you were duped into thinking that his standard negotiation courtesies were really flattering, giving Trump the clear upper hand and making you feel good about ultimately accepting less than you wanted.

For others, negotiating too hard will be the kiss of death. Other people negotiate by giving one — and only one — offer. This was Steve Jobs’ go-to negotiation style at Apple. These negotiators offer you the job and compensation of your dreams because they recognize your talent and ability, so they want to reward you. However, if you turn their offer down, these negotiators walk away and never come back. There are absolutely no second chances.

You simply cannot negotiate the same way with different people. If you are talking to a Trump-style “mind-game” negotiator, then you have to be confident and ask for a lot more than you want. If you are talking to someone who is going to make one great offer, take-it-or-leave-it, you will lose the job of your dreams. The lesson is: know whom you’re dealing with and adjust your style.

Myth #7: If there’s an HR department and they’re handling the negotiations, you’ll have to deal with them

HR is an intermediate position. They are unchosen interlocutors between you and the person who really wants you.

If you know the person you’ll be working for is really committed to hiring you, but you can’t work it out with HR, just tell HR you’ll get back to them. Then, contact your manager-to-be directly. Will this always work? No. But do you want to work for someone who isn’t willing to intercede on your behalf? Probably not.

What about telling HR that you don’t see that agreement is possible, but that you’d like to set up a time to talk to your manager-to-be? Definitely that’s the “right” way to do it, but you may be told “no,” your request may be buried, or it may never be conveyed at all.

In my view — and not everyone will agree with me — it’s worth taking the risk. There is a risk, make no mistake about it, but the rewards are great. Note: If you absolutely, truly need the job and you have no other options whatsoever, this may be a risk you don’t want to take.

Myth #8: Your value is “fixed,” meaning it’s about the same at every similar company

Your value to employers is relative. Your market value is a mean (or median) of other engineers’ or marketers’ values in your domain expertise. But your value to a given company may be much higher. Companies also vary: it’s well known that Google and Facebook pay more than Microsoft and Amazon.

Let’s suppose that you are an information security specialist who helped to figure out how Stuxnet worked; or that you have “star power.”

You must want the job, but they must want you. You need to know  why they want you. Perhaps their leading INFSEC person just left. Now they are in trouble and they need “star power” to show that they hired someone even better. Or they simply don’t have anyone with your experience. All of these factors are leverage for you. Use them.

Myth #9: Policies are never negotiable

“Our practice never allows …” “I’ve done agreements with hundreds of people and no one has ever asked for that before.” That’s happened to me at least 100 times, even with Fortune 500 companies, and in all but two cases, I got what I wanted because it was reasonable and they knew it. That’s a 98% success rate.

So don’t be intimidated by these statements. Just like this sign, they may be bold statements of nothing. If your request is inherently reasonable, and if you remain professional and calm, you may very well be able to get what you want. Ask them: “Can you help me understand why your company doesn’t allow “X”? Sometimes, you’ll hear a good answer. Many times you’ll hear “because we’ve always done that” or “because that’s simply our policy.” You can prevail in the last two cases. But don’t make the colossal mistake of getting into these discussions until you have solid compensation in hand.

You don’t want to trade compensation for policy changes: rather, you want to secure compensation, after which you can work out the small details.

Myth #10: Employment agreements are only negotiable if you’re a superstar

Everything is negotiable. As discussed in #9, employment agreements are negotiable if you negotiate them.

Most people assume that, because they aren’t a superstar, they don’t have the “right” to ask. You won’t always get what you want, but you’d be surprised how often you do. Many employers will try to put a damper on your drive to negotiate by saying, “We have a lot of candidates, but we like you. It’s important to be reasonable though.” Usually this means they really want to hire you and they’ve been tasked to get the best deal possible.

Whatever you do, don’t apologize. Use the techniques I’ve explained here to let them know that you like them and that you feel you’ve been extremely reasonable. Or say: “I like you, too. But I don’t quite understand what you mean.” Then let them talk. Put them on the spot. When you know how they are defining “unreasonable,” you can respond appropriately. Don’t be intimidated by this last-minute negotiation technique; instead, be prepared for it.

Everyone, but especially women and millennials, can become not just a fearless but also an effective negotiator. Now it’s your turn. I welcome your comments, questions and challenges!