How to mess up a salary negotiation

You’ve heard that you should always negotiate your salary and benefits, because the worst that will happen is that they’ll say no, right? Generally that’s true, but occasionally, you get a job offer pulled. This happened to a woman, identified as W, who had a job offer as a assistant professor at a small liberal arts college pulled. She responded to the offer with the following requests:

1. An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years. 2. An official semester of maternity leave. 3. A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock. 4. No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years. 5. A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

Now what’s wrong with that? A blog in Slate magazine says the only thing wrong with it is that she asked while female. I disagree. I believe the problem with her request is in the way she phrased it — that she asked while feeling entitled to a whole bunch of extras. I’ll break down what is right and wrong with her request. To keep reading, click here: How to mess up a salary negotiation

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23 thoughts on “How to mess up a salary negotiation

  1. “20 percent is way too much to ask for. In most companies that means you’re asking for a pay level outside the range allowed for the position.”

    I have a problem with this perspective. Maybe this makes sense if they’ve posted the range or communicated it to you. But the trend is to ask the candidate first for either their salary history or their requirements. And then they give an offer at the lowest range they think you’ll accept – regardless of their planned budget for the position. So basing it off a percent is a recipe for allowing the offer to be anchored on that low number, rather than a realistic expectation of what the salary should be according to the market.

    The tone of this particular request was off, sure. But market prices are determined by individuals. She did her homework and found they are really low-balling, based on what she said in the email. She should absolutely ask for more if they are chronically underpaying people. Why should she take $51k lying down if there really are other places offering $65k (assuming control for local COL)? If someone offered me 25% below what my research said was the market rate, I’d wonder what was wrong with them and counter with something reasonable, regardless of the % difference.

    1. But they weren’t low balling her. They offered her more than the average for professors at her level! And even if the Glassdoor numbers are wrong the people at Inside Higher Ed said her 65k was a ridiculous request.

      Keep in mind that location matters a lot in salaries. It may be that 65K is average for the whole nation, but for the town in which the college is located, it’s not.

      Still, 20% means you’re asking for a different job than they are offering.

      1. I don’t know much about Higher Ed and what people say is reasonable. This is mostly about the concept that you should base your counter-offer on their initial offer. I don’t think you should. It would make sense if orgs/companies actually based this off their internal budget range. And if they give a range, it makes sense.

        But many don’t – they base it off what you made before or give you the lowest number in your range requirement because they think they can. It allows the employer to have all the power to *anchor* the salary negotiation to a number that is low. And it tells you nothing about their real budget for the position.

        1. Oh, I totally agree that some companies handle salary so poorly! And I hate basing it off your previous job. So, there are definitely areas for improvement. But, this is essentially the “entry level” job for professors, so I doubt they based the offer off her TA salary.

          I do suspect, however, that if she’d just asked for the increase and not all the other stuff, they wouldn’t have withdrawn the offer.

          1. I got that impression as well. She wanted the higher salary and she wanted…… and she wanted….. and she wanted and so forth.

            Heck, I want a higher salary, more PTO, a 4 day work week, my enitre health benefits paid for, a computer to work from home if I don’t feel like coming in and I want……

            But back to reality I will settle for a good comprise for a salary and ask that the vacation I was planing on taking is approved and worked into my job offer.

            When I have worked for the company for a couple years, established a good reputation then maybe I can ask for more accomodations.

          2. I also think so. She made this into a used car negotiation where you demand the moon with the expectation of compromising. I was taught, at least, that you simply say what you think is fair for you. No overshooting.

  2. Thank you for writing this! I didn’t read the Slate article when I first saw it because it didn’t feel like the issue was “the offer got pulled because she was a woman”. Even I was like “wha? this seems a bit too much to ask”….

  3. The main problem is that none of these requests is uncommon for academia, and multiple other people from similar institutions have posted on other blogs that none of her requests would be unusual for their job applicants either. There are some other posts that said that their institution would never give someone any of those requests, but the offer wouldn’t have been rescinded. Due to the reported speed of the offer being rescinded (90 minutes) it really does seem like the offer was pulled because she was a woman.

    1. It also could have been a panicky search committee or they didn’t want to be bothered, or they decided that other person would be a better choice after all because they didn’t want to do any of that.

      Not everything is about gender…

      1. Oops, adding, the tone was little…..presumptuous…if that is exactly what was sent.

        Mishandled? Maybe, but I’m not sure it was just because of gender.

        1. You can’t even get a search committee together in 90 minutes, let alone agree to something. Yes, it could just be that university doesn’t have the resources to be able to give the candidate any of the things she asked for, but to decide that in 90 minutes?

          No maternity leave is the norm for faculty but sabbaticals are common, and many women do use sabbaticals for maternity leave, but what does that really say about academia as a whole?

    2. Wait, what? The speed with which the offer was pulled indicates it’s because she was a woman? Why?

      I see nothing about gender in this. I see a candidate who didn’t do her homework and came across really, really badly.

      1. Because rescinding the offer is much more expensive than just saying no. The search committee has already gone through probably hundreds of apps, had 2-5 people visit for 1-2 days, and spent hours discussing each candidate. Negotiation almost always occurs for faculty offers, for often much higher stakes than this (for example 2-body offers end up just slightly less costly than hiring 2 people separtely) and often the search committee already has decided what it will and will not agree to. It certainly is possible that the search committee decided before this that the offer was fair or what they could afford, but why wasn’t that said either with the job offer or in the email back?

    3. None of the requests might be unusual, but they’re all sensitive points of negotiation to say the least. Dropping them all into a single brief email did not make her look good–it signaled to the hiring committee that she was going to be difficult to work with.

      I might or might not have budged on one or two of the points if something like this had happened to me, but qualified candidates in my line of work are very hard to find. What on earth made her think that she had that kind of negotiating power as a new tenure-track professor? There were almost certainly several equally strong applicants who interviewed for this position (and countless good ones that didn’t even get a foot in the door).

    4. I’m in academia, and the prep question and sabbatical pre-tenure would be *highly* unusual here, and the academic reporting I’ve seen finds the course prep query in particular naive. (I think if she’d still been a doc student she probably would have had guidance to prevent her from making this huge error.) And I’m at a research university, so we have fewer teaching constraints than the college here.

  4. The biggest problem with her negotiation is the tone with which it was phrased. This may have been a problem, as some have suggested elsewhere, in large part because it was done in list form (evidently) over email, which conveys a sense of candidate entitlement, brusqueness, and–given what she was asking for–a lack of understanding of the local conditions at the college. If she had had a phone conversation (which admittedly is an uncomfortable situation for many people–perhaps academics more than others?), she might have been able to mitigate the perception that she was demanding, high-maintenance and out-of-touch with campus norms.

    That said, you never have more bargaining power than when you’re coming on board. Once you’ve started work (at least in higher ed), you’re generally not going to get release time, a different research budget, more equipment, etc. even if you’ve been a stellar performer.

    In my opinion, the candidate could have handled it better (I conduct my negotiations for salary and other accommodations over the phone and have had some success there, where I think I may not have with email), AND the college was premature to summarily rescind the offer entirely. It costs them next to nothing to say “I’m sorry, we can’t do XYZ, are you still interested?”

  5. Suzanne, I think you hit the nail on the head when you said the Dean probably said:

    “Oh my word, what a mistake we’ve made! I do not want to bring her on board!”

    That would be part of my guess as to what happened. After all, if she is such a “troublemaker” with something as simple as this is the financial compensation and these are the benefits and she responds with BUT I WANT! can you imagine how “bossy” she will be to work with?

    Seriously, she said that she was excited about teaching at their college PROVIDED they do X. She should realize that you should express interest in teaching there regardless of what the compensation is. If she is only interested because of the salary and benefits then she really isn’t interested. period. (And if she is genuinely interested she should have worded that better – Ha! so much for her “higher education.”)

    Lastly, the other part of what I guess is happening is this: I smell a rat with this whole thing.

    This wasn’t the school that made this exchange public; it was HER. My guess is that she set this whole thing up to make a point. She tried to show that a woman being “demanding” is interpreted as being “bossy.” Well, in my opinion her email was bossy and rude. You do NOT make all those demands in such a “to-the-point” email if you are a job candidate. You simply don’t have that kind of influence. And that has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with gender.

    Good luck with your job search was the right response in my opinion.

  6. I would have pulled the offer. In fact, I’ve done the same thing with respect to a male candidate who had the same mindset. Our job announcement included the salary range and the offer we made was within the range and appropriate for his skill level. In my experience, people who make demands initially also make demands into perpetuity. With these folks, it’s about “me” and not about the “team”. Steer clear.

    1. Of course it’s about me! I am not working as a hobby. I am working because I need the money. If I can get a higher salary, I will. I don’t care about the team unless the team’s interests and mine align. It is your job as the manager to align the interests of the organization and the employee, not mine.

  7. I was offered a position a couple of years ago.

    It would have been a big step up in responsibility, involved travel and should have given me a 25-30% increase.

    In the end they didn’t offer me any more than I was already on, did not want to negotiate and were rude when I asked if there was any room for negotiation.

    If anything I was happy that I found out what they were like before working there.

    I won’t be making the same mistake again.

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