can this salary negotiation be saved?

A reader writes:

I’ve got a weird negotiation issue. I was offered a job I’m very excited about and which, all told, was about an 8% raise from my current position. At this point in my career, I would ideally like to be making about a 15% jump for my next role, but for this organization and role, I am willing to take less. That said, when the offer was made, I asked for time to think about it and came back with a request to discuss the salary as “I was hoping to be closer to $XX” — which was $6,000 over what they offered. (I read through a lot of your archives for advice on approaching the conversation, particularly this.) The organization I’m dealing with is a nonprofit, but a big one, so I didn’t think that was an unreasonable number. In addition, I’d given a range during the interview process and this number was within this range, so I didn’t think they’d be surprised. I was hoping that for asking by $6k more they would scrape together another $2-$3 and meet me in the middle.

Instead, I got a call back saying they didn’t have room to move at all and that it didn’t seem like we were going to be able to come to an agreement because my number “was so far off.” The hiring manager also said she “understood” that they couldn’t expect me to take a job where I wasn’t adequately valued. I was floored, as I really didn’t expect that they would be so surprised at some effort at negotiation. It was like I invented the concept. At this point I asked if they were rescinding the offer and she said no, but they didn’t want someone to start on the “wrong foot” in a role that didn’t feel like they were being paid fairly.

My question is two-fold:

1. Their harsh reaction and seeming to take offense at my negotiating at all has left a bad taste in my mouth. After extensive interivews and a personal knowledge of the organization, I felt that the culture fit was a good one for me, but now I really am questioning if I’m wrong about that — given their inability to simply say: “We are’t able to offer more and hope you will still consider the offer” rather than making me feel like a money-grubbing ingrate for even asking. Is my gut reaction the right one? Should I run away screaming from such an environment?

2. I managed to get the conversation back to an ok place, and asked for the remainder of the day to consider it. As I mentioned before, I was assuming I would take the role even if they couldn’t move on the offer. But now I’m not only concerned about #1, but I can’t quite figure out how to get back to a happy place for both parties, since I’m a little appalled and they’re offended. Can I get this job offer back to a place where we’ll like and work with each other well and leave this uncomfortable conversation/situation behind? This conversation is happening with the person who would be my supervisor.

Tough day for job offers. I was so excited for the last 24 hours and now I’m just mortified and anxious. As Liz Lemon would say: Blergh. Any advice or thoughts would be much appreciated.

Hmmm. On one hand, penalizing a candidate for trying to negotiate — particularly when the number requested was in the range the candidate mentioned earlier in the process and not something shocking and out of left field — is ridiculous. On the other hand, it’s also true that — on the employer side of things — you don’t want to hire a candidate who’s going to be unhappy with their salary.

It’s possible that the hiring manager really didn’t mean this the way you took it. I could see a situation where a hiring manager might say and genuinely mean something like this: “We really can’t budge from our original offer. I realize we might not be able to work this out, and I understand if you can’t accept our offer. To be honest, our numbers are far enough apart that I worry if you’d be happy even if you did accept the salary we can offer.”

That wouldn’t be a harsh reaction; it would be a reasonable one in some contexts. Employers are allowed to worry that a candidate won’t be satisfied with the job or the salary, and it’s okay for them to share that worry with the candidate — in fact, by doing that, they’re making it possible for the candidate to say something that will address that worry.

However, $6,000 isn’t so much of a difference that I’d normally think that worry would be warranted. If you were $20,000 apart, yes. But not $6,000.

Moreover, so much of this depends on tone. Did she sound concerned and disappointed, or did she sound annoyed or frustrated? The first would be reasonable; the second wouldn’t be.

So I think that as you evaluate this situation, you need to factor in her tone and general demeanor during these conversations, as well as what you’d already gathered about her and the organization during the interview process. Does she seem honestly concerned about your satisfaction with the salary, or does she sound affronted that you want more money? Does she sound like she’s still hoping to resolve this, or does she sound like she sees an out from the offer and is trying to take it?

That’s the stuff that’s going to lead you to the right conclusion here, I think.

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