6 Negotiating Lessons From the Trenches

You've endured an intensive interview process, and you've just received an offer. Congratulations! Now it's time to negotiate your best deal and accept the job. But not so fast... You have an opportunity to learn as much about the job, company and your prospective boss during the negotiation phase as you've learned up to this point. During this final phase, there is a lot of excitement, and there can be a temptation to rush the process and ignore warning signs. My advice may not help you squeeze an additional $10K out of your new boss, but it may help you avoid a serious job or career mistake.

As an executive recruiter for the last sixteen years, I've been involved in a lot of negotiations. I've negotiated fees with my clients, and I've acted as intermediary in negotiations between candidates and hiring managers. Here are six lessons I've learned as a recruiter, some the hard way, that can help job seekers.

1. Be wary of those who pay over market. Those who pay over market usually do so for a reason, and it's not because they are just naturally generous. I had a client once who bragged about how well he paid recruiters. I submitted a contract with a fee above my standard fee. They didn't balk. As the search progressed, I learned why - most recruiters didn't want to work with them regardless of how much they paid. Does your job offer seem too good to be true? Maybe there's something you're missing. I suggest doing a few reverse reference checks. They're referencing you, why not reference them?

2. Be wary of those who pay under market. From time to time, I've agreed to do searches for clients who paid me under market. The reasons usually involved a variation of one of the following: a passionate CEO whose vision to change the world was compelling, a struggling company that just needed one or two more deals to turn the corner or a CEO who had been burned by a prior recruiter. None of my "under market" clients were good clients. They didn't value my time and experience, and they didn't accept my feedback. My best clients compensate me fairly for my efforts, and companies that view your position as a priority will do the same thing.

3. The negotiation process is a great proxy for what it's going to be like working for the company. This is one of my favorite lessons. I now pay closer attention to the negotiation process. Does my client delegate the negotiating? Is she responsive? Does she take the negotiation personally? Is she always too busy to have a substantive discussion? Is her style more objective or more emotional? Does she seem hurried and stressed or calm and in control? Does she always need to be right? Does she blame external factors (her boss, corporate policies, artificial salary bands, etc.) for not being able to consummate the deal? Whatever the behaviors are during the negotiation they will continue once you accept the job.

4. Don't negotiate with an intermediary. My clients are typically either CEOs or investors. From time to time, an intermediary, such as a CFO, attorney or HR VP, is inserted into the process to negotiate and finalize the contract. The insertion of an intermediary into the process is a strong indication that my client wants to work with me. If I hold my ground, eventually the CEO/investor will start pressuring the intermediary to get the deal done. It's usually just a matter of being patient. The same advice holds for job seekers. An offer is an indication they want to hire you. If an intermediary is inserted, reiterate your value and experience, and be patient.

5. Always clarify and ask why before negotiating. When one of my contracts to an organization seeking to retain my services comes back full of changes, the first thing I do is schedule a call to walk through the agreement. I ask the client to clarify the changes, and then I inquire as to the motivation behind the changes. Often, it's not what I would have guessed. By asking for clarification, as well as the motivators behind facets of a job offer, you can gain insights that allow for a more productive negotiation. Assuming intent without hearing the full story can send you off course.

6. Misaligned interests are showstoppers. My clients sometimes try to change the parameters of my standard agreement in a way that misaligns our incentives. For example, they may want to source their own candidates and have them compete against my candidates. This would incentivize me to promote my candidates and disparage their candidates, even if their candidates were better. If, after explaining to the client how their suggested changes are not in their own best interest, they insist on an agreement with misaligned incentives, I usually walk away. Make sure incentives are aligned with your boss' incentives, or the organization's incentives. For example, if your compensation is tied mostly to revenue, and your boss' compensation is tied more to profitability, your incentives are misaligned.

Savvy negotiators heed the lessons above while keeping the negotiations moving forward, and gathering all the information needed to make an informed and thoughtful decision.