Winning At Salary Poker: How to Negotiate Like A Pro

How do you handle that when you're heading into the big salary meeting? There's not much you can do to change your potential employer's conscious or unconscious prejudices, but here are four things you can do to help keep your eye away from your fears and on your goals while you're at the table.
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By: Chaia Milstein

Like many women, I used to have a lot of trouble negotiating: The whole concept was a box locked tightly, and I had no idea where to even begin looking for the keys. After a year in corporate collections, it became easy to ask for money on behalf of someone else; I had no emotional attachment to it (not my debt, not my problem), and that was the first step in my learning how to depersonalize the dollar. I'm no pro, though, so when it came to assembling this how-to article, I turned to someone who is.

Introducing Kris Franklin, Professor of Law at New York Law School

Among other courses, Kris Franklin teaches Negotiation, Counseling, and Interviewing; she also runs the school's co-curricular competitive dispute resolution team, which engages in hypothetical scenarios of arbitration, negotiation, and mediation. (Like Model UN but with law students.)

Franklin earned her stripes as a housing court lawyer, where most cases revolve around settling for money owed by one side or the other -- "You can't be in housing court without negotiating every day" -- and switched over to teaching about 20 years ago. ("We're old, so that happened," she jokes.)

Franklin confirms that when you are a woman headed into a negotiation session, beyond your own socialization, you are up against real bias; that is not in your head.

She comments that you can be dealing with "the double-edged fear of not doing well for yourself vs. doing too well for yourself. Offers are lower to women, people of color, African-American men, Asian men; the perceptions of aggression are subtler and stronger. [It is a] legit fear to be thought of as being too pushy. And yet not valuing yourself enough not only creates underpaid jobs and bitterness, it can affect perceptions of your competence." As in, do you undervalue your work, and by extension, should everyone else, too?

She cites a classic study from the 1980s that gets redone every few years, in which different prospective car buyers visit a dealership and work off the same script, buying the same item from different dealerships on different days. "Women are given lower offers, and people of color -- particularly African-American women -- are given the worst offers, even when negotiating off the same script . . . most of this is unconscious bias, [in which individuals are assessing], 'What do I think about what this person is worth?' Everyone is different enough that it looks like you're comparing apples and oranges, so people aren't even aware of their own biases when they do this. No two people, even with similar experience and educational background, are exactly the same."

So how do you handle that when you're heading into the big salary meeting? There's not much you can do to change your potential employer's conscious or unconscious prejudices, but here are four things you can do to help keep your eye away from your fears and on your goals while you're at the table.

1) Do your homework, have a plan

"The point of planning is to limit yourself from being taken over by emotions that come up during negotiation, i.e. fear," Franklin says.

"Ninety percent of negotiation is done before you get in the room," she continues, calling the other 10 percent pride and gravy. She emphasizes knowing the difference between negotiating (getting your best possible fallback position) and bargaining (dickering over the last couple of dollars). "This requires self-confidence, but also information," Franklin states. Know your work's worth. Have hard numbers that you can point to. Four salary websites indicate that a database analyst with 5 years of experience makes $80,000/year in your city? There you are.

Have a range in mind. Separate "this is what I need in order to have a comfortable enough standard of living" from "this is what I need in order to have a gold-plated pool house." Aim for somewhere between the two, what you can be happy with. Franklin advises against getting hung up on a number: Something that can make a negotiation fall apart is "the specter of the perfect deal," she says. Good enough is good enough. "The goal should be to get somewhere in that optimal but doable range; be willing to take what's the lowest, but never go any lower than that," she says, and that it's "important not to reach beyond [the highest end of your range], and alienate the other side."

Remember that money, title, equity, review period length, ability to freelance, vacation time, etc. are all things for which you can negotiate when assembling your ideal (or ideal enough) compensation package. Are you already on your spouse/partner's health care plan and don't need the company to pay for yours? Worth discussing.

2) Know your style

"Negotiation is like writing . . . there has to be a personal voice," Franklin says. In other words, you have to negotiate as yourself, in your own way. In court, she says, "I was always thought of as a tough negotiator, which is interesting because I'm kind of a pushover. But because I have a no-nonsense manner and wasn't afraid of it, and [my] butchness helps, I never had to push it to the limit because people would deal with me." Maybe your manner is different; if you don't have a sense of your own style yet, don't panic. Keep reading, and keep thinking about various ways you might ask for something you want.

3) Know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk, and when to run

Some other Franklin points to consider:

* "Both sides have something on the table. The employer can pick someone for whatever reason. Once they pick, the power evens out, even in competitive industries; both sides want each other. If both sides are thinking long-term, each side wants the other to be happy."

* "Power and perceptions of power are not the same thing. Employee/employer conversations always feel like employers have the power. Employment is at will, more people are in the applicant pool, in a flooded field. [But] the company has sunk costs into their job search. They have some commitment to this being over and not having to do it again. You hope they also have some commitment to wanting you personally. It's important to remember that even when they don't, they have some commitment to wanting this done."

* "You are going to be screwed no matter what if companies want cheapest vs. best. You can't change that."

* "We're all worried about our negotiation skills, that we failed if we didn't get the last dollar. But if you're happy with the deal, you're happy with the deal. If you want the deal, it's a good deal."

4) It's going to be ok

Heading into the room prepared is really all you can do. "It's worth remembering . . . that nobody negotiates without emotion -- not even companies," comments Franklin.

"Everyone is unique; every negotiation is unique. Some of it we're doing on gut; you just help it's a well-informed gut, [with] situational awareness, and reading where you are."

Chaia Milstein is SVP of Content at Savvy. She has 10+ years of experience in journalism, copywriting, and screenwriting; she's worked as a writer/editor on Showtime and NBCUniversal properties, as well as for Viacom and various small owner-operated businesses.

This article originally appeared on Savvy.

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