If you’re looking for ways to advance your career, you’ll find lots of well-informed people telling you to change, grow, and learn new things. That isn’t bad advice. It’s been argued that the job skills you need, the types of people in your network, and even the ways you use social media all have to evolve depending on the stage of your career and the one you’re trying to reach.
But there’s one skill that remains pretty constant: negotiation. From the very first job offer you’re made until the last one you accept before retiring, much of your career hinges on how well you can bargain with employers. But a lot depends, too, on what you’re bargaining for. And that may need to change over time. Here’s how.
"Always ask for more money, at every level, in every job," career coach Karen James Chopra urges, "more gently or more aggressively, depending—but you should always push to get more on the table." Because it "sets the baseline," though Chopra says that it’s especially important in your early years.
This is something that’s drilled into new grads from the start, which may help explain why we tend to stay so laser-focused on negotiating compensation throughout our careers. But according to Chopra, there are other things worth paying attention to—and they’re things you can get even at entry level.
Many newcomers to the job market are glad just to have a decent gig, even if duties include a lot of grunt work. But you may have more flexibility here than you think, says Chopra. "Instead of taking the job and hoping it gives you the experiences you want, be proactive about the things you’re hoping to get." Even entry- and associate-level job descriptions aren’t set in stone.
Before accepting an offer, Chopra suggests asking the hiring manager if there’s any possibility of you taking on responsibilities that may not have been advertised. Usually you’ll find that there is.
Around mid-career, you may have more leverage as a result of your experience. But you may also have a different personal life than you did in your 20s, and work-life issues might matter more, especially if you’ve got a family.
So negotiating a flexible schedule may rise to the top of your list. More experienced professionals often "don’t need to be in a specific place at a specific time to do what they’re being assigned," Chopra adds. More and more employers understand that these days. While most in the U.S. remain dismally behind the rest of the developed world on leave policies, Chopra points out that those can be negotiated, too.
Many people, she says, don’t realize they can actually negotiate more than what’s outlined in their offer letters. "They build up leave at one job and go to the next job and lose it," she says. "You can negotiate to hang onto whatever leave you’ve accumulated at your last job or negotiate to get more." Despite less-than-generous policies, says Chopra, "companies actually have a lot of flexibility to match past leave."
You’d probably think pretty hard before accepting a pay cut, wouldn’t you? The same goes for your paid time off: "Do not go backwards on that if you can at all help it," she suggests.
For higher-level positions, you should focus on negotiating things that will impact your authority and influence. As Chopra explains, "Board exposure and board involvement becomes an important credential for senior-level positions." You can negotiate to make sure your role is included on the senior leadership team, even if it wasn’t originally conceived that way.
"If you have staff working with you," Chopra adds, "negotiate for full authority to hire and fire. Because you’re responsible for this unit, you should be able to build this team. Believe it or not, a lot of organizations don’t like giving people that." But it can be decisive for how effectively you can manage your direct reports and deliver the results you were hired to deliver.
Finally, while Chopra says negotiating your title is important at every level, they can be more decisive for senior positions. Make sure it reflects the job you want, she suggests, not just the job that was advertised. "They’re a way to book money for later," Chopra adds. "Headhunters at that level start looking for titles you’ve held."
Still, there are some constants when it comes to negotiating. For instance, it’s a myth, says Chopra, that you’ll eventually "get so good at negotiating that it doesn’t bother you." In her experience, that’s true for only a small handful. So the bad news is that you can probably expect negotiations to make you feel at least a little anxious your entire career.
"Our task then," Chopra says, "is to negotiate while feeling anxious." And the good news is that you can become a more skilled negotiator even if it always makes you uncomfortable. The basic approach, she says, likewise stays the same for your entire career: "You know what you’re looking for; you frame that in a collaborative way; you have an appropriate fallback, so you always get something; and then—and this is the hardest part of any negotiation—you actually ask."
"That’s something my twentysomething clients and my senior-executive clients all struggle with," says Chopra. It helps to know what you want—and that might change over time—but only if you ask for it.