The Guardian

London

Negotiation can be a bruising business. After being interviewed for his current position, Marc de Costa was convinced he’d blown it. The interview itself went well. But when it came to talking salaries, he had a figure in his head and he stuck to it, even when he was told him that the money wasn’t there. They agreed to talk again on the phone the next day, although he thought his stubbornness had already lost him the job.

But it turned out to be well worth the sleepless night. He got the job and the salary, and thinks that holding out for the higher salary was part of what helped to sell him. Recent research from the US suggests that men are up to four times more likely to negotiate their starting salaries than women. The research, published in a book called ‘Women Don’t Ask’ by Linda Babcock and Sarah Laschever, suggests that women have lower expectations, are grateful when they are offered a job and tend to lack knowledge of their worth. And when it came to talking about how they felt about negotiating, men compared it to a ball game while women compared it to a visit to the dentist.

One manager in London’s financial centre says that when a candidate starts negotiating over the starting salary he knows he’s got someone serious. But although some employers may take it as a sign of assertiveness, playing hardball can also price you out of a job.

Dean Michael was sounded out by a friend about the possibility of coming to work for a company that his friend had just joined. Because they had approached him, he says, he felt he could safely use it as an opportunity to push his price up.

“I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I thought I was worth,” he says. “What I was earning at the time, plus a little for the move and the extra responsibility, and a little bit extra because they had come to me. So I told them the figure and said that that was my bottom line. We talked some more, they said they’d get back to me, and at that point, the communication dried up. They didn’t call and I didn’t want to appear too eager, so I didn’t call either. I found out later that they were quite shocked by what I was asking for.”

For anyone whose last experience of negotiating a starting salary was during the dotcom bubble of the late 90s, the current trend towards tighter budget controls can be disorientating. London banking and finance recruitment specialists Badenoch & Clark say there isn’t the same flexibility for negotiation that there was two years ago. But skilful negotiation can pay big dividends and it’s rare not to be able to walk away from the table with a little more than was initially on offer.

Career coach Trevor Cousins says one of the main things to remember is always to keep the door open. “Never,” he says, “make it all or nothing.”

He also recommends doing your homework. “Most companies will publish a salary range with the job description. If they don’t, it’s fine to phone them and ask what the salary band for the job would normally be. It also pays to do some wider research, look around at what other companies are offering for similar positions. It’s important to know what you’re worth. And that doesn’t just mean what you were paid in your last job. If you haven’t done your research, you look like an amateur. That can really put an employer off. Plus, don’t get emotional about it. Be logical. If you’re inhibited, and you go low just to make sure you get the job, you can look as if you lack confidence. If you make ridiculous demands, you’ll just annoy them. You want a salary that you’re happy with, but be realistic.”

Cousins says get the offer first, don’t be too quick to accept it, and don’t be afraid to ask for time to think about it. “If someone wants you, they’ll pay,” he says. “And when you know they want you, that’s the best time to negotiate.”

Even when the final offer is tabled, the haggling needn’t be over, according to Cousins. He says companies tend to take a positive view of people who are intent on proving themselves and suggests pushing for a guaranteed six-month review to be written into your contract, stating that if you’re working at a certain grade within that time, your salary will rise to a pre-defined level. “Get it written down, though,” he says. “Promises like that have a habit of getting hazier with time.”

For Anji Marychurch, also a career coach, it’s not just salary that’s open to negotiation. She says the terms and conditions of a job and the role itself are often more important and suggests that the hours you work, whether you have to be in at a certain time in the morning, whether you might work at home some of the time and even development opportunities, are all potentially up for grabs.

Whether it’s time or money, a little bit planning and a touch of chutzpah at the negotiating table can make all the difference. For many of us, it might not come naturally. But it’s a talent that might be well worth picking up.