You're Negotiating Your Salary with People, Not a Company

You're Negotiating Your Salary with People, Not a Company

Have you ever said or heard someone else say the following?

I have to negotiate my job offer with [insert company name here].

There's something wrong with that seemingly simple statement at a very basic level. But many of the people I come across or work with don't even realize it. If they did, they'd probably say something like: "I have to negotiate my job offer with Scott in HR." Or, "I have to negotiate my job offer with Erika, the manager I'll be working for."

It might seem nit-picky, but there's a big difference between negotiating with a monolithic company and negotiating with actual people. And being aware of that difference might help you achieve a better result in your next salary negotiation.


Corporations are People, My Friend

Obscure political reference aside (Mitt Romney anyone?), there's something to be said for remembering that corporations, or companies, are managed and staffed by people.

Too often, I sense that the people I coach tend to forget that when they're negotiating a job offer. The HR professional or hiring manager they've spent weeks or even months getting to know suddenly ceases to be a person in their eyes. Instead, they suddenly transform into the living embodiment of their company, whose one goal is to maximize company profit by minimizing the salary of the person I'm coaching.

Now that the HR rep or hiring manager (or executive recruiter) is no longer a person but a company, the (mistaken) assumption seems to be that they're incapable of being put off or offended.

With that image in mind, the person I coach, or you, might be inclined to assume an especially hard or aggressive negotiating stance. Don't get me wrong — you often need to be your own advocate. But a sudden change in attitude and manner can quickly derail what might have been an amicable, productive and advantageous conversation between two or more people, all hoping for a positive outcome.


People Want to Be Treated Like, Well, People

The person you're negotiating with may be guided or constrained by the objectives and guidelines of their company. But in the end, they're still people. They have lives, they breathe, and they have emotions. And they can get frustrated at the end of what's probably been a long recruiting process when, suddenly, the person they've come to respect and even like treats them as if they were an obstacle, or worse, an enemy to be conquered.



In most situations, it's possible to advocate for yourself effectively and keep your sharpest knives in the kitchen drawer where they belong, preserving your future work relationships in the process.



As a former executive recruiter, I remember times when candidates that I had come to know, like and respect in the recruiting process transformed into almost entirely different people when it came time to negotiate their offers. At best, it was disorienting. At worst, it was demotivating or even troubling.

I recognize that some industries and companies have especially aggressive cultures. And if you're in or trying to get into one of those industries or companies, then taking on just a bit of an edge in a salary negotiation might be appropriate. In those situations, the person or people you're negotiating with are steeped in that aggressive culture and might even question your suitability for the industry or job if you didn't negotiate just a little hard. Use your best judgment, of course.

In most situations, however, it's possible to advocate for yourself effectively and keep your sharpest knives in the kitchen drawer where they belong, preserving your future work relationships in the process.


The Sacrifice People Make on Your Behalf

When you're negotiating compensation for a job, you're often asking someone, whether it's the hiring manager, an HR professional, or an executive recruiter like I was, to spend some of the political capital they've stored up in their company, or with their client, on you.

Let's assume that this intermediary in the recruiting process is Scott. Here's what might be happening behind the scenes:

Your contact Scott typically has spent many (often thankless) hours planning, organizing and managing the recruiting process that you've been a part of. Throughout this process, Scott likely expressed support for your candidacy several times. Scott may have even done that in the face of differing opinions and resistance at specific points in the process. In doing so, Scott expended a little of his political capital in the company on your behalf.

Once you become the finalist for whatever role we're talking about, Scott then pulls together a compensation package and an official offer specifically for you. Having been in Scott's position myself and having worked closely with many people serving in Scott's role, I'm pretty confident that, at this point, Scott is highly invested in closing the deal with you. He wants to make you an offer that you'll be inclined to accept, or at a minimum, that you won't be so insulted by that you just walk away. So Scott may, once again, advocate on your behalf as your compensation package is being assembled and approved. And in doing so, he gives up even more of his political capital for you.

Now that you have your offer in hand and want to negotiate, you'll potentially be asking Scott to stick his neck out again and give up just a little more of his political capital on your behalf. In doing so, his reputation and judgment will be on the line.

He'd better think it's worth it.

I'm not saying this is happening behind the scenes for every job offer. But in my experience as a hiring manager in Fortune 500 companies and an executive recruiter in a top 20 firm, it's pretty typical. Especially when a mid-level or senior-level role is being filled. At more junior levels, compensation tends to be more uniform, but there still can be some advocacy going on behind the scenes. The numbers are just smaller and the stakes less consequential.


How to Be Worthy of That Sacrifice

I think we've established at this point that you need Scott's help and support. So it would probably be good if Scott still likes you. Like most people, he wants to feel good about his work and who it benefits. He's a person, after all, not a company.

So how are you going to make sure that he does feel good about it? Being a strong candidate with all the skills and experience required to meet or exceed the expectations of the role helps. A lot.

But there's something else you can and should do.

It's easy. Just show a little appreciation for the sacrifice of political capital that Scott has and may still be making on your behalf. He is the key to your outcome, and he needs to feel that the sacrifice is worth it.

Consider starting with: "Thanks very much for the time it took to pull this offer together, Scott. I know it can be a lot of work." Or something like that. It's not complicated.

Then focus on your clarifying questions related to the offer, requests you may have, or your reasonably presented counteroffer. (We can talk about that in another post.)

And end with: "Thanks again for the work you've put into this, Scott. I really appreciate it."

It only takes a few well-timed statements of appreciation, ideally before and after your compensation-related questions and requests, to help Scott feel good about the sacrifices he is making on your behalf.

Everyone loves to be loved. And if you show just a little appreciation, you might get a little love back, and maybe some extra cash, too.




Don't let the fact that you're being hired by a company — however big or small it might be — blind you to the fact that if you have a job offer and there's going to be a negotiation, that you're actually negotiating with a person or a small group of people, and not a company.

And if you're negotiating with people, you should probably treat them like, well, people. After all, if you want to improve the compensation related to your job offer, then the people you're working with are probably going to have to expend just a little of their political capital in their company to get it for you.

If you keep that in mind and are intentional about showing your appreciation for the role that people involved in the recruiting process play, things will likely go more smoothly for you. Express your gratitude out loud. Do it whenever it seems appropriate. It doesn't mean that you're a pushover. It just means that you recognize that you're working with people.


Are you ready to throw your hat in the ring for a job or negotiate a consequential job offer? Then consider signing up for coaching. We can work out the kinks together.


Doug Lester is a career strategist and executive coach who has helped over a thousand people craft their work-life narratives and advance meaningful careers. A former Fortune 100 marketing executive and recruiter at a top 20 executive search firm, he is the founder of Career Narratives and has been on the coaching staff at the Harvard Business School for over 10 years. He also leads an executive coaching program for the corporate strategy group of a Fortune 100 company in Boston.

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