Shape an Unborn Offer Through Shadow Negotiating

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You've made it through five interviews, a personality test, a sample assignment, and weeks of nail-biting. At last, you get an offer. But it's 25 percent less than you'd hoped for. Now what?

In such situations, every candidate needs a game plan. Those who end up with their ideal package are the ones who took care to make the right moves long before a job offer arrived, says career coach Win Sheffield.

It's a mistake to wait until you have an offer before consciously trying to influence its contents, Sheffield says. Through proper foresight and advance action during the interview process, a candidate can begin molding an eventual offer long before the employer makes it. If you succeed at this, you won't need to negotiate nearly as much when the offer finally arrives.

"There are a lot of things to be done along the way," Sheffield told a recent gathering of the New York Society of Security Analysts.

The More Interviews, The Better

Actions and information that make you more desirable don't just raise your odds of being offered the job. They also raise the ante for the employer. "Most offers are adjusted for the level of the person going into the job," says Sheffield. So if you demonstrate your full value early on, and present yourself confidently, you'll have less negotiating to do once you reach the final stages. Sheffield calls this early-start approach "shadow negotiating."

Some specific tips:

Don't Speed the Process

"It's really tempting, when you're in the interview, to try to get the offer," Sheffield says. "But if you can stand it, hold off. Make your goal to get the next interview" rather than get the offer.

The more interviews you get about a position, the more you learn about the job and the work group you'll be in. That helps whittle down the risk you'll end up taking the job only to find out it isn't what you thought it would be.

Demonstrate Your Strengths

An extended process also gives you more opportunities to show how you outclass your competition, Sheffield explains. For example, you may get the opportunity to give the hiring manager samples of your best work.

Ask How You Stack Up

Once you're past the first interview, Sheffield believes there is much to gain from asking the hiring manager, "How do I compare to the ideal candidate? What are my shortcomings that you see for this job?"

Learning what the employer's concerns are gives you a chance to address them. That will give you a leg up on other candidates, whose perceived weaknesses will remain on the table unless they adopt the same tactic.

Don't 'Accept' Offers Before They're Made

If you haven't been offered the job but an interviewer says, "When you're here, you will do X....", don't copy his frame of reference by saying, "When I'm here...." According to Sheffield, such wording conveys that you will accept any offer they might make. In other words, it empowers the employer and disempowers you.

When You Get the Offer...

Once an offer is made, Sheffield advises:

Thanking Your Interviewer

Upon making an offer, the employer suddenly becomes the vulnerable party. "They have now put themselves on the line," Sheffield says. That makes it crucial for the applicant to avoid giving any hint of antagonism at this stage. Even if you know you can't accept an offer without major changes, when you first hear it, you should respond with appreciation.

Tell your interviewer how much you like the job, and why. If you make that person "feel great" about you as a person, Sheffield says they'll be more supportive of your position later in the negotiating process.

Don't Accept Immediately

Never accept an offer until essential details are in writing and you've had a chance to examine them.

"Most people will be more than happy to give you a few days, even a week, to consider their offer," says Sheffield. Use that time to write down any issues you need resolved before you can accept. It's acceptable to ask permission to speak with a prospective co-worker before responding to an offer.

Practice Full Disclosure

If you have another employer's offer in hand, tell the one you're meeting with now. Having another option makes you even more desirable, and it increases your negotiating power. Say, "I'll get back to you, but I want you to know I have another offer I'm considering."

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