The Reluctant Negotiator

the reluctant negotiatorOne of the ways that Kyle and I have different personalities is that I am more assertive than he is. After reading personal finance blogs and preparing for my first real job for many years, the necessity of negotiating has been deeply ingrained in me. Particularly as a woman, I think that negotiation is my obligation, not an option. Kyle has not had similar exposure to this concept except largely through me, and that paired with his naturally lower level of assertiveness made him very reluctant to negotiate his two job offers. In fact, he told me plainly as part of the process that he would not be negotiating his salary offers. Thank goodness that wasn’t true!


One of Kyle’s jobs was a real job, which means there was certainly room for negotiation in his offer. The other job was a postdoc, which often means there is not room for negotiation of salary or benefits, but it might be worth at least asking.


The Real Job


Kyle’s real job offer was from a start-up, so his offer included a base salary, insurance coverage, a certain number of shares of equity (should the company go public or be bought out) on a set vestment schedule, and paid time off.


His first step, which he did not consider negotiation at all, was to clarify some aspects of the offer. We didn’t know anything about being given equity, so we had to do some quick research to even understand the terms of the offer, which the CEO also helped Kyle parse.


The initial conversation was basically going line-by-line through the offer to make sure Kyle understood all the components, such as how much Kyle would pay in health insurance premiums. I had pointed out to Kyle that there was no relocation reimbursement/bonus included in the offer, thinking that they had just overlooked sending that info at that time. In their phone conversation, Kyle simply inquired whether the offer included relocation expenses. The CEO responded that it didn’t but he would look into it, and emailed later that they would reimburse relocation expenses up to a certain dollar figure.


That was when we learned that negotiation did not necessarily have to be intimidating or pushy. It could be as simple as asking a question!


After that early, unintended success, Kyle was a bit more willing to ask for what he wanted. He did some research on best practices in negotiation and found a lot of polar-opposite advice from different sources. Eventually he kind of threw up his hands and decided to do what was most comfortable for him.


We tried to research local salaries in the biotech industry, but we didn’t find much data and what we found was contradictory. Since Kyle didn’t have a competing offer from another company at that point, he didn’t feel he was in a strong place to negotiate his base salary and he nearly didn’t. But in the end, he decided to go with the salary data from the source that was most generous to the employee. Kyle was very nervous about negotiating for salary because he didn’t want to mess up and lose the initial offer, which he did find acceptable.


Kyle’s next negotiation phase included more gentle inquiries, this time through email. Of course, he negotiated the base salary, but he also negotiated for what was actually important to him. We decided not to negotiate for equity or vacation since those aspects were already satisfactory.


1) Kyle pointed out the salary data he had found, expressed that he knew that it was customary for start-ups to pay less than average (trade-off with potential equity), but asked if they could raise his base salary to be closer to the average he had found. This was successful, and his base salary was increased by a fraction of the difference he pointed out.


2) Kyle explained that there was a training aspect of his postdoc offer (they knew about this offer previously) that was very attractive to him, and asked if he could receive similar training at the start-up, even though it wasn’t part of his initial job description. This was successful – the CEO fully agreed that the training would be a good idea and suggested a percentage of Kyle’s time that would be devoted to it on an ongoing basis.


The negotiation for training was my idea. Kyle was very excited about this aspect of training that the postdoc offered and was considering turning down the real job over this one difference alone. I insisted that if that was going to be a deal-breaker for him for the real job, he should at least ask them if they were willing to ‘match’ the training, because there was nothing to lose. Kyle didn’t think they would, but they did!


3) Another difference between the postdoc and real job is the interaction with the scientific community. Kyle already knew he wouldn’t be able to publish primary research articles at the real job, but he asked about whether he would be able to attend seminars and conferences. This was successful in the sense that the CEO clarified the policy in a way that was satisfactory to Kyle, but I don’t think any policies were changed because Kyle asked about them.


I was very, very proud of Kyle for overcoming his aversion to negotiating to ask for what was really important to him! Truly, my bar for ‘success’ was just asking, even if no changes were made to the offer, and it was a great bonus that the offer was improved, especially with regard to the training.


The Postdoc


Kyle did not try to negotiate any aspect of his postdoc offer beyond a discussion with the advisor of what research project he would be on. The advisor explained to him when she gave him an offer that postdocs in her department are paid on a set schedule based on years of post-PhD experience. (The salary was essentially tied to the NIH minimum.)


Originally, the postdoc advisor wanted an answer about her offer by the end of May. Kyle told her he had an interview at the end of May that he wanted to see through, but that he should know whether or not an offer would be made within a day of the interview. When he in fact did receive the real job offer at the end of May, he asked the postdoc advisor for another week to make the decision, which she granted. They were still in communication throughout the week, and at some point Kyle mentioned that his other offer was in the private sector.


In that case, Kyle wasn’t even asking a question, but it turned out he was still negotiating! The postdoc advisor said she could increase his salary by $1,000 per year as a nod to the competition.


I am sharing these experience here to encourage others who, like Kyle, are very intimidated by negotiating and nervous about seeming unappreciative of the initial offer. Kyle’s experience shows that negotiating really can be as easy as just asking a question or sharing information! I’m sure if he were more confident and experienced in this area and had a stronger foothold (like a competing private sector offer) he could have asked for and received even more, but we are very happy with this outcome for his first post-PhD job.


Did you negotiate your first real job offer? Is your personality suited for negotiation? Did you ever negotiate without even realizing you were doing it?


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6 Responses to "The Reluctant Negotiator"

  1. Mrs. PoP says:

    Congrats to Kyle on the offers! Kyle sounds like the type of negotiator I was at the beginning of my career – more accidental than anything else. I just asked questions to try and clarify and make my comparisons as apples-to-apples as possible and ended up “negotiating” while doing that. I’m a bit better at negotiating now, but honestly it’s not my strong suit. My last go-around I was pretty straight forward “The $ difference in year 1 due to benefits A and B is $XX thousand. That’s a lot of money. How can you make the offers equal?” Then they either could or couldn’t…

    1. Emily says:

      I hope Kyle (and I) will improve with time as well! I think it would have been easier to figure out how to do it if he did have competitive offers, as your example points out. That is a nice way of phrasing it, too – sort of leaving it up to them to show you where they have wiggle room.

  2. […] of May 31, Kyle had two very attractive job offers in front of him, both of which he had negotiated. While he had submitted a few more applications earlier in the month, as he hadn’t heard back […]

  3. Maybe you could teach Kyle how to negotiate. And, I think it’s really worth it if we negotiate at almost everything because we lose nothing but gain something if successful in negotiating.

    1. Emily says:

      I think Kyle was honestly nervous about angering his employer by negotiating, but I think that’s pretty rare. I have less experience negotiating now than Kyle does so I can’t really teach him, but I can encourage him!

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