When Negotiating, Look Beyond Base and Bonus

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Even in a ragged job market, candidates who get job offers can improve them. The key is being flexible about what you ask for - and having the confidence to ask in the first place.

A successful applicant has much to gain and nothing to lose by negotiating details of an offer, says New York career coach Bettina Seidman. Her main caveats: Never bring up salary or perks before an offer exists, and when you do negotiate, diplomacy and flexibility are vital to success.

Seidman provides career management coaching and outplacement consulting. Her clients work in financial services and a range of other industries.

"It's important that people understand the difference between winning and making a deal," she told us. Coming to terms with a prospective employer differs from selling a co-op, where you negotiate to "win" because you'll never see the buyer again. Instead, it's more like a marriage: "It's the beginning of a relationship," Seidman explains. A central goal, she says, is "to enable your partner to come up with ways to help you."

For instance, if you want more money first explain how glad you are to get the offer, and trumpet your enthusiasm for the job and the company. Then say, "But I'm a little disappointed with the salary. Let's talk about what we can do about it." This places the ball in the employer's court, and asks them to demonstrate they're willing to accommodate you.

Beyond Bread-and-Butter

Considering items beyond salary and bonus raises the odds of reaching a deal in which both sides feel like winners. Besides obvious pay alternatives - like equity, deferred compensation and a shorter initial salary review period - Seidman's negotiating tips range from asking for a signing bonus or a deferred start date, partial work-from-home option, and reimbursement of membership dues and course fees. (That's classes we're talking about, not golf courses - but they might be worth asking for too.)

"You need to know a fair amount about the organization you're talking to, so you'll know what to ask for," Seidman says. "You have to understand what people have in their pockets and what they don't have."

For instance, both small start-ups and not-for-profit organizations may have little flexibility to raise an initial salary offer. But they might grant a request for equity or a deferred bonus arrangement in the first case, or additional time off in the second case.

In negotiating with a large for-profit employer, Seidman suggests looking at benefits as well as compensation. Large companies might be willing to provide a better health or dental plan than what mid-level hires normally get and absorb the added cost, she says. That can add up to significant money for people with special needs, who often get short shrift in plain-vanilla plans.

Don't Let the Soft Job Market Intimidate You

Seidman believes everyone who gets a job offer should mention professional development costs. This includes membership dues for professional associations (which may be mandatory to maintain a credential), job-related courses, and industry luncheons and other educational or networking events. While some employers routinely cover these things as a matter of enlightened self-interest, others are only too happy to make new hires shoulder expenses that can add up to thousands of dollars. If you don't raise the issue early, you may end up hearing the old reliable excuse that your position wasn't budgeted for such reimbursement.

A few other tips:

- Don't abandon a job search, or lower your initial asking price, because the job market is soft. "Don't stop looking, if you're looking for a good reason. Companies are laying off and they're hiring at the same time."

- Requesting a 20 percent pay hike to switch employers remains a smart tactic.

- When discussing salary, "never use numbers...always use ranges."

- "You can't worry that you're going to lose the offer" if you ask for more in a courteous and diplomatic manner. "That just doesn't happen," according to Seidman.

- If an interviewer asks for your current compensation before you have an offer, give a straightforward answer. Don't be cagey or defensive.

- Always strive to stand out in your profession, accumulate visible achievements and projects, keep up your industry network and knowledge base. "Keeping your profile up is always important, but it's more important in this kind of market than in another kind of market."

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