If the thought of tough job offer negotiations makes you feel a little queasy, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most stressful phases of landing a new job. It isn’t easy to push back and ask for what you want in just the right way. It can often feel like some complex chess game where you don’t know all of the moves and consequences.
After all, the interview process itself is already pretty painful. Then, you’re supposed to argue back and forth with a recruiter and hiring manager about the offer? No wonder most people tap out and settle for less.
Yes, when you don’t negotiate hard enough, you are settling for less. That’s unfortunate because every new job is your most significant opportunity to boost your lifetime earning potential. Your biggest bumps in compensation — and often title — will happen when you have the best bargaining power.
When are you in the best position to bargain? Before you take the job.
But, for many of us, negotiation feels like conflict. It seems risky. If the other party gets upset and walks away, we lose the job. Or, we end up getting the job, and now we fear that our new boss is irritated with us.
However, there is hope. There is a way to reap the benefits of negotiation, even if you feel like it isn’t your strength. There’s a much easier way to let other negotiation experts work on your behalf.
How? By harnessing the power of competing offers.
Why Competing Offers Change the Game
It’s not uncommon for people to see their initial job offers increase the total comp by more than 50% when multiple companies compete for you. During one of my negotiations, a company moved the role up a level to sweeten the offer. A competing company increased the stock and doubled the signing bonus.
I was surprised by how easily this all happened when they began competing with each other and not just negotiating with me. When I had decided and told the other company that I wouldn’t accept their offer, they bumped it higher. I said “No” again, and they increased the offer even more! They couldn’t accept that I had decided to take the offer from another company.
Receiving competing offers increases your confidence too. You know that you’re in demand. You know that you have options. This usually lights up your negotiation skills, which you may have thought were lying dormant.
Some people only want to interview with one company at a time. Even after being warned that this weakens their bargaining position, they are uncomfortable setting up a competitive situation. They also find it stressful to be interviewing with multiple companies at once.
You may be able to succeed in getting the best job offer possible if you are a world-class negotiator, in the top 0.01% of your profession, and in such high demand that any company would pay anything to get you. But, most of us benefit greatly from a competitive process where companies are pitted against each other vs. directly negotiating with you alone.
Before Your Interview
Sometimes opportunity does come knocking. That happened to me while I was working at Apple. I was happy about working there, and I wasn’t looking around. But, on the other hand, it wasn’t perfect either. Times were tight, raises were meager, and promotions had slowed. So, when opportunity did knock in the form of an exciting startup, I listened. In the end, the offer ended up being so good that I decided to take it.
I was new to Silicon Valley and the wonderful world of careers, so I made the big mistake of not considering additional job interviews. However, I was lucky enough to have a smart hiring manager at the startup who did the right thing and made me a fantastic no-hassle offer. Looking back at that and getting to know him better, I know that was a rare occurrence.
But, perhaps you’ve reached a point where you know that you want to leave your current company, for one reason or another. Some of the most common reasons that people want to quit include:
The lack of a clear career path, often coupled with no upward movement for years.
A bad or incompetent boss, with no hope for change in sight.
Feeling like your true potential isn’t being recognized, and your strengths aren’t utilized.
Feeling like your work has no meaning or purpose.
Being unhappy with the corporate culture and relationships with coworkers.
You begin to look around for new opportunities. I know that the process is time-consuming and quickly becomes chaotic when multiple companies are involved, so it’s tempting to follow these steps in order:
Find a company of interest.
Secure an interview.
Get the offer.
Negotiate the offer and propose a counteroffer.
Receive the new offer.
Make a decision.
If you accept their counteroffer, you’re done!
If you don’t get an offer or decide not to take it, move on to the next company.
Start the next round of interviews.
However, this puts the full burden of successful negotiation and counteroffer on your shoulders. Instead, if you turn this into a parallel process with multiple companies, you will have more than one offer to consider. Instead of the companies merely negotiating with you, they are now competing with each other.
So, before you start interviewing, line up multiple companies and interviews. It will be impossible to align their timelines perfectly, but put it all in motion. You want to receive an offer and be able to delay your decision-making long enough to receive additional offers for consideration.
I’ve already written about how to be successful during the interview process and critical missteps to avoid. So, I won’t go into details about interviewing here.
Negotiation after a successful interview
Here is where I will radically depart from several other useful negotiation articles and books that already exist. I’ve learned to be much better at negotiation than I used to be many years ago. I had to up my game as an exec, founder, and business owner. I also gained more of the confidence required. But, I don’t feel like I’m some master negotiator who can give you better advice than those articles and books already do.
However, I felt like I was so mediocre at negotiation many years ago that I had to find a way to sidestep the whole process and get a great offer regardless. You know that I’m a fan of bypassing traditional methods that are only for the company’s benefit. Let me tell you, the corporate job offer negotiation process isn’t structured to help you.
But, you know who is talented at negotiating because they do it almost every day? Recruiters and hiring managers. They make dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of job offers every year. They know the game. They know the rules. Hell, they make the rules, and they know precisely when they can be bent and broken.
So, my strategy was to get multiple job offers in writing and let them battle each other. Get more than one company fighting to win your acceptance. Do this well, and they are no longer negotiating directly with you, and you are no longer held hostage to your negotiation skills, confidence, and risk tolerance.
You don’t need to hide that you are interviewing with other companies and need to compare offers. Of course, you are in demand. You also take career moves seriously and want to explore your options. The best candidates always have multiple companies courting them.
So, let the recruiter and hiring manager know that you are interviewing with multiple companies and have other job offers that you’d like to consider before you make a decision. However, do not say that you have competing offers when you do not. I’ve experienced this with a few candidates when I was a hiring manager. It always backfires when someone isn’t honest.
Inevitably, the recruiter will ask you what your current compensation is and what your salary expectations are. They always do. The general advice is to avoid being the first to state a number during the negotiation since it can trigger an anchoring bias.
That’s great, but some recruiters refuse to budge. You probably have a number in mind, but you should do your research on the current competitive salaries for the role and level. Levels is an excellent resource for this for Tech jobs. Glassdoor is ok, but the data isn’t quite as fresh. PayScale and Salary.com are also useful resources.
Come up with a range acceptable to you and anchor yourself to the higher end of that scale. In the end, if one company’s offer falls within your range, but another company’s offer exceeds the range, they still need to compete with that offer and negotiate to stay in the game.
One other crucial thing to keep in mind is that everything is flexible. One company may move your role up a level (e.g., from Director to Sr. Director). Another company might double your signing bonus. Almost all of the companies can increase stock grants.
The conversation with the recruiter could go as follow.
Recruiter: “What are you currently making? What are your salary expectations?”
You: “If we both decide that this is a great fit, I’m sure we can be flexible. What is the salary band for this position?”
Recruiter: “I’m sorry, but I need a number from you first that I can take back to the hiring manager so that we know if we can meet your expectations.”
You: “Well, I’m certain that you’ll make me a competitive offer for this position.”
Recruiter: “But, what are your expectations? At least give me a range!”
You: “Ok, I can provide a range. I’ve done some research, and I think somewhere between $x and $y would be in the right ballpark. But, of course, I’ll need to consider the offers that I’ll be receiving from the other companies before I can make a decision.”
Now, they can’t just safely play within your range and call it a day. You will have other offers, and they will need to be competitive with those companies.
“Honest communication is built on truth and integrity and upon respect of the one for the other.” — Benjamin E. Mays
But, you should always be professional and respectful. Don’t use competing offers to threaten. Don’t say something like, “I’d prefer to work for company ABC, so I’m going to wait for their offer.” Waiting for all of the other offers to come through is the right thing to do for your career, and it’s ok to be honest about that. You want to make the best possible career move.
The competing companies will indeed up their game with their offers once they know that you have other offers in hand. That’s one of the reasons you want to take this approach. They are now going to do their best to compete for you and no longer try to edge slightly above your current job and compensation. They have invested a lot of time getting you to this point. So, they don’t want to risk losing you simply because they came in a few thousand dollars lower or didn’t sweeten the deal with a nice signing bonus.
Wait until you have the offers in writing before you start making counteroffers. A great verbal offer can sound promising, but it might fall through. It is vital to have all of the numbers to make an apples-to-apples comparison (e.g., base salary, annual/quarterly bonus, stock, signing bonus).
A complete offer also allows you to counter with a full proposal for how their offer can be improved to exceed your competitive offers. You can also suggest other changes to the offer that would make it better for you. As I mentioned earlier, one company making me an offer bumped the role up a level. Additionally, it gave them more flexibility in the base salary since the position was now in a higher band.
One of the most awkward negotiation phases is when you have made a counteroffer, the company accepts, and now you are wondering if you could have negotiated for even more. It feels greedy to counter yet again. However, competing offers will often solve this problem. Yes, that counteroffer was acceptable yesterday. But, company ABC just came back with an even better offer! So, can company XYZ beat that?
Be True to Yourself
What you want in your next job isn’t entirely about the compensation. So, the best title and highest total comp won’t fully determine your final decision. You care about the work you’ll be doing. You want to work for a leader you respect, and someone who can mentor you. You want colleagues you’ll enjoy working with, and you hope they won’t drive you crazy. You want a career path at the company.
It is easy to be dazzled by a fantastic comp package and forget about some of the negative issues that would come with that job vs. a job at a more desirable company. That’s another reason that I like to use the spreadsheet that I describe next. It helps you stay focused on all of the factors that matter the most to you, even when the money temporarily distracts you.
Making Your Decision
As you start listing the important factors in your decision, it becomes too much to hold in your head. The last time I did this, I finally decided to create a spreadsheet to make it easier to rate and compare the offers. Of course, there is an emotional component to the decision. You will have a gut feeling. But, I found that it helps to assess several factors as a gut check too.
If you want to try a spreadsheet I created to help people compare multiple job opportunities, you can download it here.
The spreadsheet includes 38 factors to consider in addition to base salary, bonuses, stock, job title, etc. I certainly didn’t think about all of these factors when I was starting my career. I learned about them the hard way.
It’s one thing to get the job. It’s quite another to be happy about that decision years later and experience incredible career growth there. Some companies, leadership teams, and environments will accelerate your professional success. Some toxic situations and dysfunctional teams will set you back.
Here are a few examples of factors that I’ve learned are essential. I know that some of these are hard to assess from the outside. But, some clues can be discovered about companies and leadership teams, if you know where to look.
How much of an impact can this role have at the company?
I’ve witnessed people get a job with a great title and compensation, but then they were sidelined because they ended up reporting to a manager who had no juice at the company. Their manager’s poor reputation affected the team.
Or, they ended up working on a dead-end product with poor visibility to senior management. It’s hard to get noticed and have your hard work be appreciated when you’re assigned to something that the execs don’t think is important.
How talented is the broader team?
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” ― Jim Rohn
We end up spending a lot of our waking hours at work. You will end up spending most of your time with coworkers. If you are an “A player” on a C-player team, you will not learn much from them. You wouldn’t grow as much as you could if surrounded by smart and talented people who will challenge you and help you become even better at what you do.
What is the corporate culture, and how are the politics at the company?
Some people thrive in competitive environments where employees argue in meetings, fight over resources, and climb over others to get to the top. Other people shut down and shrink when exposed to such cutthroat behavior.
You know who you are, how you expect people to behave and treat each other, and what environment helps you do your best work and thrive. Make sure the companies you are considering are set up for that.
How do you feel about your potential manager, your manager’s manager, the C-level executives, and the Board?
If you’ve been in the working world for some time, you already know that your boss can either make your working life pleasant or a living hell. A supportive boss who mentors you and actively guides you in your career growth can make all the difference in your future path. But, don’t forget to look up the leadership chain too.
Are they good leaders? Do they make smart decisions? Do they have a track record of success at past companies? Do you respect them, or are they the kind of people who may damage your professional brand?
What is my potential career path at the company and — more importantly — what is the career path for someone like ME?
One of the main reasons people quit jobs is the lack of a clear career path. A surprising number of companies haven’t formally invested in creating one for their employees! Why wait until you have accepted an offer and you’re inside the company to find this out? You can ask this question either in the interview process or during negotiations.
When I was considering a big career move many years ago, I interviewed multiple companies and received offers from each. One company had a higher total comp over four years vs. another one. However, the more I explored and learned how someone like me in that role would be treated within that company, it was clear that my career path would be limited there, or it would be an arduous struggle to move up. There was no track record of success for people like me there.
But, my career path at the second company was much clearer. There were examples of individuals just like me succeeding and moving up into higher roles at the executive level. Career mobility was important to me, and it made all of the difference in my next moves. I knew where I eventually wanted to take my career and the path at the second company enabled that, even though the comp wasn’t as good. It was such a hard decision, but it was the right decision. I’m glad that I made it.
Remember, never decline another offer until you’ve signed the written offer for the job that you want. I’ve seen verbal job offers disappear at the last minute due to org changes, leadership moves, frozen reqs, etc. You can celebrate once you have formally accepted, signed, and returned the offer. Then you can respectfully inform the other companies that you are declining their offers because you decided to take a different job.
I wish you the best of luck with your next career move! I hope that you take advantage of the power of multiple job offers to make your life a little easier during the negotiation process. I also hope that the spreadsheet can help you make a decision that you will be happy with later.
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This week’s professional development challenge
⭐ Make Your Final Push - Issue #228
Don't look now, but the end of 2020 is coming up fast. You have one more month to achieve the goals that you set for yourself this year…
Larry Cornett is a leadership coach and business advisor. He lives in Northern California near Lake Tahoe with his wife and children, and a Great Dane. He does his best to share advice that can help others take full control of their work and life. He’s also on Twitter @cornett.