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When a job offer is non-negotiable

Kevin P. Mohan
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Negotiating aggressively in the face of a standard package could cause an employer to sour on you and retract the offer. If you are nonetheless hired,here are a few tips to help you get a better offer.

Give and take:Relatively minor concessions could inspire employers to reciprocate with flexibility on issues that matter more to you.Photo: The New York Times
Give and take:Relatively minor concessions could inspire employers to reciprocate with flexibility on issues that matter more to you.Photo: The New York Times

A student who, in his final year of business school, is starting to prepare for job interviews has heard that many of the organisations that recruit on campus are not open to negotiating specific terms of employment.

Rather, they offer everyone roughly the same deal terms.

The business-school student wants to know to what extent he should respect such conventions and to what extent he should try to negotiate better terms.

Firms that hire a large number of college or professional-school graduates for entry-level positions tend to offer standard packages and avoid negotiating with new recruits.

If a firm hires more than four or five people each cycle and has hired “classes” of new employees with similar qualifications for years, the business-school student may have little room to negotiate his offer. In fact, negotiating aggressively in the face of a standard package could cause the employer to sour on you and retract the offer.

If you are nevertheless hired, any gains that you negotiate could come at the expense of future pay increases, bonuses or other perks.

Although negotiation isn’t encouraged in such situations, it isn’t forbidden. Here are a few tips to help you get a better offer.

Probe for signs of flexibility

Often, by doing some research, you can uncover areas in which potential employers may be flexible. For example, if a company wants to stagger the start dates of a group of new hires, management might be willing to accommodate your preference for a certain start date.

If you have special expertise or experience, you could ask your interviewers if you might qualify for a more senior position.

You might also find that volunteering for a particular role or agreeing to move to a less-popular location could qualify you for a customised package.

Take a long-term perspective

Ideally you will face the task of comparing job offers from multiple organisations. When doing so, most candidates focus on salary, bonus potential and other “year one” items such as a signing bonus.

What happens after year one, though? With a little research – such as calling alums from your school who have worked for the firm for several years – or by asking your interviewers directly, you can get more information on trend lines.

For example, Company A’s $80,000 salary might sound better than Company B’s offer of $70,000. If you learn that Company A provides only cost-of-living raises, however, while Company B offers much more generous pay increases, the salary issue may level out or even reverse.

Create a scoring system

The number of factors at stake in a job decision can be overwhelming: role, location, department, pay package, amount of travel required and so on.

Job candidates often find that they can effectively determine which issues matter most to them by creating a scoring system by which they can compare the various issues at stake.

After weighing all the known elements of a job and likely trend lines, you might decide to negotiate the one or two issues that are most important to you.

Demonstrate flexibility

Because organisations often are hamstrung by policies and procedures, your interviewers are likely to appreciate some flexibility from you regarding how they meet your interests.

You might explain that it matters little to you how the total dollars that you earn your first year on the job are divided up – among base salary, signing bonus, year-end bonus and educational-loan repayment, for example. In addition, think about how you might deliver more value to your employer. If you had hoped for a break between school and work, but they need someone to start right away, you might agree to start immediately in return for an extra two weeks off after the busy season. Such relatively minor concessions could inspire employers to reciprocate with flexibility on issues that matter more to you.

Kevin P. Mohan is a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass.

© The New York Times 2013

© 2013 Harvard University

From Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School

Negotiating aggressively in the face of a standard package could cause the employer to sour on you and retract the offer.

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