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  •   Negotiating the Offer

    The interviews are over, the phone rings, and it's the hiring manager offering you the position. How should you respond?

    To begin, verbal offers are not binding and even written offers can be rescinded. High-tech companies whose stocks are being hammered in the market may not be able to meet cash commitments as easily at your start date as when the offer was tendered. So, before you start negotiating, get all offers in writing. Hiring Manager: "I'm delighted to tell you we'll be making you an offer." You: "Super. When can I expect to receive the written offer letter? Can you overnight it to me?"

    Second, stay calm. Keep on working from the adult side of your personality. Too many people say "yes" or "no" too early. A "Yes, I'll accept" reply may leave money on the table, and a firm "No" slams the door on opportunity. If you've done your research and know the package is exactly what you want, of course you can go ahead and accept it, but you should also consider these alternative responses:

  • "Thank you. I'd like some time to consider that offer."
  • The gracious turn down.

    The first approach: "Thank you. I'm really excited about your offer. I'd like a few days to think about it." In a competitive job market, savvy job seekers will not jump at the first offer on the table. This response conveys four elements: excitement, grace under pressure, a thoughtful approach, and sensitivity to the employer's timetable. Then say: "Will you be available to discuss this offer next week?" This response is also positive in that it doesn't leave the employer in limbo while giving you enough time to figure out your questions and strategies.

    Or consider the "gracious turndown." This approach lets you eliminate what doesn't interest you, harnessing your energy for situations that do. But even if you feel this is the last company on earth you'd ever work for, you always want to leave the door open and be gracious, so that if the employer ups the offer or grade level, you are the first candidate they call.

    Fine-tuning the Offer

    Employers learn a lot about candidates in the final phases of negotiation, and offers can be withdrawn just as easily as they are made. How you enter a company determines not just your starting compensation but also your future within that organization. So, behave yourself. Don't discourage the company by nit-picking the details. Korn/Ferry's Washington, D.C., office principal Bonnie Foster advises, "When an offer is made, don't start asking for so many things that it's a lot easier for an employer to keep on looking rather than to hire you."

    Showing that you are negotiating for the long term reflects your vision of where you will go and how long you expect to be with that organization. Companies are more apt to stretch the offer beyond its original limits if they believe you are there for the longer pull. Of course, the more the company wants you, the greater your negotiating room beyond the original offer. So, what's missing from your offer?

    Is it salary?
    If you have questions about salary or compensation, above all, keep your attitude positive. Convey excitement, why you want the job, and what you can do for the company. Give reasonable expectations and the rationale behind your numbers. Don't press for an answer too quickly.

    Is it bennies?
    If you have benefits questions and the company has a human resources (HR) department, ask the hiring manager: "I'd like to ask a few questions about the benefits package. Is there someone in HR I can call?" "Above all," says Jim Searing, "even if you need something that is non-standard, play these as housekeeping details, not deal breakers." If you are relocating and fear the company might eliminate your job by downsizing, then it is reasonable for you to ask about job security -- even if you are not a senior-level executive. Start with, "Because my family and I are moving for this position, I'd like to know what to expect if...." On the other hand, if you are a new graduate, asking for a severance package "just in case" a downsizing occurs may seem absurd.

    Is it the title and responsibilities?
    If the salary is short by only a few thousand dollars, the manager usually has some leeway to perhaps add a hiring bonus, an early review or additional stock options to meet your needs. But if the grade level or title is undesirable, you might need to renegotiate the responsibilities of the job or work toward a major upgrade of the whole position. An upgrade is much harder to achieve, especially if the job you want is two levels up in the organizational hierarchy.

    Compensation negotiation begins with your interviews and continues until you have a signed offer letter and start date. It is not for the faint of heart. But, if you have a clear sense of your ability to contribute to your new organization, dig up solid data on comparable salaries, factor in the benefits and have enough competing options, you and your new employer can establish a mutually rewarding relationship.


    Finally, here are some commonly asked questions See if you find yourself if in these situations.

    Q: What should I do if the company asks for my salary history?

    A: Try to avoid this question, the experts agree. It locks you into a framework that might hurt your negotiating power in the long run. If you must write down some number for "salary desired" for a professional position, write "negotiable" or "open." Sophisticated companies understand they lose good candidates with this type of application process.

    Q: What might it mean if the offer actually seems too high?

    A: Be careful. This can mean the company is in trouble or it's a sweatshop environment.

    Q: What should I do if I accept one offer but then receive a better offer elsewhere?

    A: If you've accepted something and made a mistake, it's too late. If you are prey to constant offers and counter-offers, eventually no one will trust you to show up for your new start date. From Russell Reynolds' Eric Vautour: "Make sure you know all the issues in your mind even before you go for the first interview. Make a checklist for yourself and walk through it."

    Q: How do I respond if my company makes me a counter offer?

    A: If you're any good, your company should make you a counter offer. Nobody wants to lose a good employee. But most people leave jobs for professional satisfaction and growth -- not for money. If you stay just because of a raise, you're likely to remain recruiter bait and leave your current company within the year.

    Q: What do I do if I can't get the salary up to where I want it?

    A: If you really want the job, and you feel your contribution will be sizeable and immediate, negotiate for an early performance review within three or six months of your start date. Arrange to have your compensation and perhaps your grade level reviewed and possibly upgraded at that point -- maybe even including a bonus.

    Q: What if I toss and turn at night and can't make a decision?

    A: "Walk away," advises Marilyn Staley. "If for some reason you can't make a decision, then the decision is really 'no' because something is not right: the commute, the boss, your timing, your spouse's timing. If you walk away, you'll feel better and so will everyone else."

    Q: How should I work with a recruiter?

    A: Carefully and honestly is the advice here. Don't hide information from the recruiter about other interviews and packages but work honestly with that middleman. If you have requirements, let the recruiter help you negotiate. If you burn your bridges with a recruiter, this will surely boomerang somewhere down the line.

    Q: What if I have an opportunity with a company right now, but I can't gauge how much room for growth there is?

    A: During the interview be sure you ask about the internal job posting process, whether you can move up in grade level, and what you need to do to "fast track" your career. Not every company provides possibilities to grow within the company. But sometimes this tactic can boomerang during the interview. If whoever is hiring you has no game plan himself, this approach can be threatening. On the other hand, do you really want to work for a company where there's no upward mobility?

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