A coaching client of mine was negotiating a contract with a new employer, a large pension fund. It was a big job and she really wanted it. But there were long periods of silence from the company as they went back and forth on terms. Every time they’d go silent, she worried she might’ve pressed too far and that they were rethinking the whole thing.
They weren’t. They just had other things going on. The process of hammering out an agreement between the business and HR is often drawn out and cumbersome, and that often throws job candidates into a quiet panic. They worry they’ve been too aggressive in negotiations and fear an offer might slip through their fingers at the eleventh hour.
More often than not, those agonizing silences are just about process. And in fact, they may even be your biggest point of leverage. Here’s why, and how to use it.
The point at which you have greatest leverage is the moment when you’ve been offered the job. That’s the moment when the employer thinks they’re done, that they’ve finally come to a conclusion. But they aren’t, and that represents a powerful opportunity for candidates who are savvy enough to pounce on it.
Those agonizing silences are just about process. And in fact, they may even be your biggest point of leverage. Think about the whole hiring process from an employer’s point of view. They realized they had a vacancy, the business may be growing, and they’re struggling to keep up. They need someone yesterday. Maybe they lost someone really valuable or had somebody move within the business. Or perhaps a leader has finally gotten the green light for a hire they’ve wanted to make for a long time, and they want to fill the vacancy before someone above them changes their mind.
Regardless, there’s generally a sense of urgency somewhere in the organization for the position to be filled. Someone is in pain because you’re not there yet.
Then there’s the process. In many companies, it’s a tortuous road that begins with drafting the job description, then posting the ad, reading resumes, and screening applicants. Next they move on to interviewing and the endless rounds, compounded by the many people who all need to be involved in that process. Most companies try to ensure each new hire is a good one, of course, because the cost and hassle of figuring out someone is a dud and replacing them is so high. But all this effort is time consuming and resource-intensive.
Usually, it means that as many people as possible meet the potential candidate. Firms that pride themselves on being highly collaborative like to make sure everyone who’ll be interacting with the new hire gets to meet them first.
So if you’re the applicant–unless you spent hours poring over your cover letter–you actually joined this process about two-thirds of the way through when you got invited in for an interview. You’re feeling relatively fresh, while they’re already getting worn out.
After you’ve made it through the interviews, the waiting game begins–for you. Now it’s time for your prospective employer to hold those after-interview meetings to compare you with the other finalists. That’s more work on their end that you don’t have to participate in. Finally, after filling out a bunch of evaluation forms and endless discussions, they reach consensus: It’s you.
You actually joined this process about two-thirds of the way through when you got invited in for an interview. This is why your point of greatest leverage in salary negotiations is this moment, immediately after they offer you the job. They’re exhausted and anxious to set a start date. But you’re only getting started. Make no mistake: By this point, you should be ready to negotiate. Most job seekers know never to take the offer at face value and accept on the spot, even if everything sounds great at first. (And on some level, it’s even a little insulting to the person making the offer; they’re expecting you to ask questions and push back a little.) That doesn’t mean you should haggle endlessly, though. Your prospective employer knows what they think constitutes a fair offer. But before getting an offer, you need to have given some thought to what’s important to you.
And not just privately. Ideally, you shouldn’t get to the offer stage without having discussed salary expectations to determine whether they’re potentially willing to offer something in the ballpark of what you’re looking for. That’s usually done with the recruiter or someone from human resources in the first few rounds of discussions.
With that squared away early, you can get much more specific when an offer finally lands in your lap. During the waiting period, draw up a list of what you’ll need to know in order to assess the package as a whole, should you be offered one. That should include the details of salary plus a whole slate of other things many people overlook–vacation, pension (is it vested or not?), bonus, parental leave, paid travel, title, reporting line, support for further study, and so on.
Write up your list and note the minimum and maximum of what you’d like to see for each of those items. This is your negotiating plan. It’s the ideal baseline that every subsequent compromise will follow from, and you’ll have it on standby at the moment of your greatest possible leverage. Then listen to the offer. Get the details. Ask questions.
Even if the offer is good and you’re planning to accept it, it’s always worth asking for more. Check if there’s flexibility on a benefit like vacation, for instance. Or try to get any financial increase in the offer–first and foremost onto your salary, not as a signing bonus.
The starting salary matters most because that’s the base upon which all future earnings in the company will be compounded. For example, your pension (if you’re offered one) will be calculated off that base, and so will bonuses calculated as a percentage of salary, plus any fixed-rate cost-of-living increases. You want all of those items to be pegged to the highest possible base.
The toughest lesson? My coaching client at the pension fund said the hardest part was hanging tight and letting the process play out. At this point, they want you. So as long as you’re professional and courteous, it’s the best time to test out just how badly.
Corrie Shanahan is an executive coach whose global clients include senior executives at Discovery Communications, Mars Inc., and the World Bank.