The First and Most Important Rule of Salary Negotiation

By Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter


Salary negotiationWhen I started doing recruiting, my manager was a man named Tom who is about 6 foot four and sported a Prince Valiant haircut, mustache and, glasses. Not only was he to be my manager but a mentor to me and to others who started the same day as I did. Along with another experienced hand, Al, they were a very powerful duo in the office. I knew less than nothing when I started and really believed that my job was to help find jobs for people.

As I came to realize with time, I wasn’t “placing people.” I was filling jobs. I was called an employment agent but the truth was I was an agent for employers who are the people who were paying me, not for the job hunter. A recruiter who tells you something else is either naïve or lying to you. Some have argued with me before about this and I always ask them, “Who writes the check?” That is who the client is. That is who they work for. That is why recruiters manipulate job hunters into positions. The job hunter doesn’t pay them. The employer does.

I would sit at Tom’s desk each morning letting him regaled me with stories from his past. I learned a lot of things by listening to him and modernizing some of the things he said for those times.

One important thing he taught me was about negotiating. He asked, “When does negotiating begin?”

Like most amateurs, I told him something to the effect of “When you get the offer, I imagine you start to try to persuade your client to increase the money so that you don’t lose the deal.”

“That isn’t it,” he said. “Try again.”

“How about when the client tells me that their interest in the person and they want to bring them back. Is that it?”

“That isn’t it. “

We went back-and-forth for a few minutes over coffee and a bad roll before he put me out of my misery.Man

“Employers negotiating with every question they ask about money both of us and during the interview. When they talk about money with us, they start by confirming what a person’s earning and what they’re looking for. That’s a negotiation. If they ask whether the person will be flexible, that’s a negotiation, too, especially if we answer,’ they are looking for a good opportunity with a quality firm and will be flexible for the right opportunity.’ That’s a negotiation.”

“When the job hunter gets to the interview (this is the early 1970s in New York when you could still ask about current salary) and the interviewer asks,’ How much you are earning? What are you looking for? Are you want to be a little flexible for a good opportunity?’ That was a negotiation.

“Job hunters go to interviews and are asked to commit to things before they know anything with certainty. They’re talking to an HR recruiter and having conversations about money before ever getting to the hiring manager in talking with them about what the job is. All they know is what they’ve read or what they’ve been told an employer is already negotiating.”

“Our job as recruiters is to get them hired so we earn a fee.” He then went on to say a few things I wouldn’t repeat in mixed company.

recruiterAl was there and started to laugh. “Recruiting is a very tough business. Everyone makes fun of used car salesman and we all know not to trust them. They have it easy by comparison to us. They just have to persuade a customer to buy the car. They don’t have to persuade the dealership to sell it to them. We have to sell two sides to do the deal.”

He continued, “What Tom said is right. Employers are posturing for advantage. Job hunters are too but employers are more powerful. Yes, a job hunter can walkout but they are afraid to do so most of the time. As a result, they talk themselves into things that they really shouldn’t take.”

“So, every seemingly innocuous question about money that employer asks them and us is part of the negotiation. It isn’t after the offers made but every step along the way when they’re asking about money, right?”

“Yes,” Al said. “By the time they make the offer, employers have tested and retested what a person’s earning and what they will accept. They’ve talked down the person from what they have asked for to something less by claiming that they have better-qualified people within the firm making less than what they are asking for. Job hunters believe that and recruiters who make sales go along with that because it helps to earn the fee.”

Many years later, I can look back at that conversation as an important one in my understanding business and how it conducts itself. The seduction of job hunters on interviews is subtle. Everyone is polite, usually has a smile on their face and is friendly . . . Like a cobra ready to pounce.

The cobra is sitting and waiting for the moment to attack and looks very innocuous before it leaps out and bites.

Negotiating begins with a casual conversation about money. As things become more serious, employers treat those casual conversations as facts from which they will act.

It is the first and most important rule of negotiating that job hunters need to learn going into any conversation. Every question has a purpose and the purpose of money conversations is to learn your thinking so they can turn it against you later on.


Ⓒ The Big Game Hunter, Inc., Asheville, NC 2021 



Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter

Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, all as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 2000 episodes and is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council.

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