The room was full of about 50 young, mid-career professionals. We had coloured slips of paper on which to write our big hairy audacious dreams. Under the cloak of anonymity, we all allowed ourselves to open up about the things we shirk from telling our friends and peers, for fear of the fact that they will think we are growing too big for our breeches.
When the slips of paper were read out, the findings were unsurprising. The usual suspects made the list - quitting our jobs to start businesses, nabbing the sought after promotions, standing up for ourselves more in the workplace. One item, however, was unexpected. Not because it wasn't something that professionals struggle with, but because of the multiple times it appeared. Almost 50 per cent of the professionals in the room disclosed that they knew they were worth more money but were afraid of how they would be perceived if they were pushy regarding this ask. Quite simply, they struggled with negotiating.
If I were to hazard a guess as to the dominant gender expressing discomfort around negotiating, I don't think I would be too far off if I said they were probably more women than men. Historically, women have, on average, been less forward about asking for what they are worth.
When I got my first promotion into middle management, I recall feeling accomplished, the culmination of a lot of years of hard work. I was also naïve. I had accepted the first offer that was made to me, under the assumption that the terms I had been offered were as fair as my predecessor, which I later came to discover was not the case. I have heard this narrative being recounted over and over again. Often, though, we are so grateful to be 'chosen' that we neglect everything that we have learnt through our careers.
There are some universal rules that guide negotiation for remuneration. Do your research within and out of the organisation (industry range) so that you can gauge the competitiveness of the offer you are receiving. Review other benefits, opportunities and upward mobility by looking at people who have been in the position you are vying for. Do they rise upwards in the organisation after reasonable periods of time? Professional-targeted resources such as LinkedIn and Glassdoor are a good place to start evaluating industry options.
Do not state your offer early on in the negotiation process, and by all means never bring up the question on how much you will be paid before the employer does. Give yourself time to prove to the potential employers that you are the right person for the role before they have an opportunity to deselect you on the basis of pay. Focus more on the value you bring to the organisation and the extent to which you would be a good fit with the firm. If you must, disclose a range that is in line with industry standards but do not by any means low-ball what you think the other candidates are offering.
Most employers offer the job and present you with a letter simultaneously, especially if you had gone through a series of interviews which were designed to narrow the pool of options. Whether you like the offer or not, do not accept the terms right away. Ask for at least 24 hours, a reasonable time frame, to revert. Ensure that during this time you go over the terms to make sure all the items you were negotiating for have been addressed - money, title, opportunities for growth, time off, share participation etc. Consult a mentor or someone senior whose opinion you trust.
If the employer, for whatever reason is unable to give you the money that you want, ask for other benefits such as education, ability to choose projects to work on that can boost certain skills that will improve your attractiveness in the future. However, remember that the point of negotiation is to ensure a win-win outcome so think hard before you take any hard line stance before you take up the position.
Backlash - real or imagined?
Research in recent years has unearthed some interesting findings. If women negotiate in exactly the same way that men do, they are perceived negatively and they also get different outcomes from men. But does this perception have a long term effect and if we want to succeed, is it something we should keep in mind?
According to Professor Margaret Neale of Stanford Business School who runs the highly acclaimed Negotiation Seminar, yes. Women should negotiate, but we need to do it the right way. Research suggests that women are penalised for negotiating in a way that male counterparts are not. For example, if we extol our competencies in the way that we have traditionally thought gains us mileage, it may lead to backlash. Therefore, women are advised to portray their abilities with a communal concern or the 'I-we' approach. Sheryl Sandberg of "Lean In' also speaks of using this technique.
What you can do for the organisation
In practice, frame how your experience and abilities put you in an ideal position to accomplish the role you are being appointed or promoted into. Remember, it's not about you as much as it's about what you can do for the organisation and the principals you're speaking with. One of the reasons for the 'I-we' approach is that women are often viewed as relational, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. We can therefore, either embrace it, or continue rallying against it with no clear chance of success.
Another tactic is to sell your ability to negotiate as a positive. It does not matter what position you are a potential hire for; you will need good negotiating skills for team dynamics, to close deals or get the best value for money for your employer. State this by reaffirming that this is the only time you will be negotiating against as opposed to for your employer and that you are actually on the same team.