Negotiating Salary: Too Risky Right Now?

Yes, you can ask for a higher salary, even in a recession.

Sept. 24, 2009 — -- Last fall I wrote about the great negotiations debate between applicants and employers: whose job it is to name a dollar amount first.

This fall I'm hearing recession-weary job applicants express a new concern: whether it's appropriate to negotiate at all given the country's recent financial contortions, or whether you should simply accept any salary you're offered.

Diana, a communications professional with four years of experience in the field, struggled with this decision when she received a job offer from a telecommunications firm in March.

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"I wasn't happy with the salary they offered," Diana said. "At first I thought I could just accept it and try to find a new job in nine months when the economy improved. But then I realized that I wasn't going to be satisfied if I didn't at least try to get them to pay me more."

So she told the HR rep that she hoped to be happy with the company for years to come but didn't want to feel pressured to look for a better-paying position once the job market rebounded.

"I felt like if they made me the offer I must be the best candidate," Diana said. "They're going to want me to stay even after the recession ends."

Fortunately, Diana's would-be employer agreed: they increased their offer by 7 percent.

A Risk Worth Taking

Taking a page from Diana and being anything other than humbly acquiescent when offered a position may seem counterintuitive right now, even reckless. But many job hunting experts say that nothing could be further from the truth.

"People think that because the job market is so poor it strips their right to negotiate for a higher salary. That's simply not true. The rules for hiring did not change when the recession began," said Rita Ashley, owner of Job Search Debugged, a Seattle-based job search consultancy.

"People want strong participatory employees, even more so when companies are so fragile," Ashley explained. "And your ability to negotiate is indicative of self-confidence."

Nick Corcodilos, a headhunter in Lebanon, N.J., agrees.

"To me, negotiating is a smaller risk than not doing anything at all," said Corcodilos, who's author of "How to Work with Headhunters." "Being passive is the biggest risk of all."

Asking the employer to up the ante doesn't make you a blowhard, said Corcodilos. There is such a thing as being congenial while talking money.

To those worried the company will retract the offer if you ask them to sweeten the pot, your fears are unfounded, said Mikelann Valterra, director of the Women's Earning Institute, a Seattle-based organization that teaches women to negotiate the income they're worth.

"The hiring process is long and exhausting," Valterra said. "The company wants you to be the right person."

But if that doesn't convince you, maybe this will:

"All your future raises are based on where you start," Valterra said. "Two years from now when there's no recession, your raise is still going to be based on where you started."

Forget the Past -- Live in the Now

All this talk of asking for a little extra assumes that you did your best to dazzle the employer during the interview process. Many candidates think this entails little more than trotting out their past achievements and pointing to their research about what other professionals with the same experience level are making in that geographic region.

But that isn't enough to convince a company you're worth the extra bucks, said Corcodilos.

"Forget about your past," he explained. "What a manager wants to know is 'what you're going to do for me now.' Unless you think you can demonstrate what more you're going to bring to the company's coffers, you have no business asking for more money."

So how do you prove your worth?

You study the company in advance and ask probing questions about its operations during the interview, Corcodilos said. Then, "You go up to the whiteboard and show them how you'd do the job."

Spend ten minutes suggesting several ways to improve profitability, efficiency, customer satisfaction or anything else that affects the company's revenue -- even if you're applying for a rank-and-file position, he said.

"That makes the manager realize that here you have a candidate who's not just looking for a paycheck," Corcodilos explained. "You have a candidate who's really thinking about how to improve your business."

Think Outside the Cash Box

Okay, let's say you've sung for your supper, the company dished up an offer, you've asked for a little extra gravy and the company said, "We're sorry. We love you, but we can't come up in price. Times are tough, yadda yadda yadda…"

That doesn't mean you're done negotiating.

"People almost entirely focus on negotiating the salary, but there are so many other things they should think about negotiating," said Camille Preston of AIM Leadership, an executive coaching firm based in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.

For example, Preston said, there's often room to negotiate your work schedule and on-the-job learning opportunities -- benefits that sometimes cost the company very little cash.

Among the popular scheduling perks candidates negotiate: Flex time, telecommuting privileges, compressed workweeks and additional vacation time.

As for educational opportunities that can boost your career, Preston offers a number of suggestions.

"At the lower level, it might be an Excel course. At the upper level, it might be a public speaking course," she said. You might also make requests like "I want to be a part of this global team," or, "I want to present at this conference," she added.

One caveat: You don't want to demand a dozen addendums to the company's employment offer. You have to pick your battles.

"It's especially dangerous to try to negotiate too much," Preston said. "You don't want to create ill will."

In other words, dazzle them and then ask for what you want. But know when to shut up, take the money and run.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books — "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" and "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog,