I stumbled upon this great piece by Emily Withrow: I’m One of Those Women Who Didn’t Negotiate Her Salary. It’s a good piece about how she reacted to an unexpected job offer and didn’t negotiate, including her analysis of what went wrong and what she learned.

Reading it, I felt empathy—it took me a few jobs before I realized I should negotiate my salary—and I kept thinking, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t go in there!”

Emily does a great job of articulating the lessons she learned, and I’ve written about several of the things she encountered. So I’m hoping to augment her article with some specific tactics from my own experience.

I’ll follow along with her own analysis of what went wrong, and add my own thoughts based on my own experience.

Lack of clarity about the purpose of the meeting

One thing that could make this sort of situation easier is clarifying the purpose of the meeting beforehand, just like Emily suggests. There are a few other things you can do as well:

Set your minimum acceptable salary ahead of time

For every company you talk to, you should set your minimum acceptable salary. What’s the minimum salary you’ll accept to do that job? Knowing this ahead of time can at least ensure that you have some baseline before you negotiate.

Plan on counter offering 10% to 20% above their offer

You should always counter offer at least 10%. Always. With your minimum acceptable salary and some quick math, you can counter offer on the spot if you must.

Take their offer, add 10%. If that’s more than your minimum acceptable salary, then that’s your counter offer. If it’s less than your minimum acceptable salary, then counter offer with your minimum.

You can practice with this counter offer calculator.

Always ask for time to consider the offer

As Emily points out, the best way to handle an unexpected job offer is to ask for time to consider it. Then you can take your time, determine the right counter offer for your situation, and build a case to accompany your counter.

But if asking for more time isn’t an option, you can always counter with the tactics above.

Look at how young you are

Just as Emily says, they’re hiring you for your skillset and experience, not for living a certain number of years. More specifically, they need your expertise in the same way you need a job! Jobs aren’t one-way arrangements—both you and the company are bringing something to the table. That’s why you negotiate.

The best way to mitigate this issue is to continue focusing on the value you can add to the company. You can do this by describing successful projects you’ve completed so far in your career, or by describing ways you’ll help this particular company reach its goals or address its pain points.

It’s easier to describe yourself in those terms if you spend a little time preparing before your interviews.

“How much do you make now?”

I winced when I read this heading because I knew what was coming.

Do not disclose your current or desired salary in an interview or salary negotiation. If you do, you will cost yourself money.

Here’s a quick reference you can use to handle the dreaded salary question:

I didn’t want to embarrass him/I wanted to be likable

I can’t speak for Emily, but I will say that I’ve experienced something very similar in multiple negotiations. In my case, I was simply nervous about the opportunity and my nerves made me jumpy so that I wasn’t thinking as clearly as I could’ve been.

And when I coach people through negotiations, much of my job is to help mitigate my students’ nervousness and help them stick to the plan.

“I sent my counter offer four hours ago and they haven’t responded. What if they’re going to retract the offer? Should I just tell them I’ll take the offer?”

I hear that a lot—it’s the nerves talking. My job in that moment is to encourage them to hang in there and ignore the nerves while they consider the counter.

Salary negotiations can feel a lot like learning to drive a car. You get kind of comfortable with the gas pedal and the brake. You learn how to turn properly and change lanes. But it takes some practice and planning before you can react well if someone suddenly jumps out in front of you with an unexpected job offer (sorry about the mixed metaphors).

The best way to avoid succumbing to nervousness is to have a clear plan going in:

  • I will ask for time to think it over.
  • Then I will counter offer 10% to 20% above the offer.
  • Then I will maximize my base salary and work on other benefits if there’s still room.

Reviewing this salary negotiation script can help with that.

With a clear plan, it’s a lot easier to identify when you’re off script. In Emily’s case, the plan would say “Any time I get a job offer, I will ask for time to think it over. Then counter offer.” So when the interviewer said, “It sounds like we have a deal.”, that wouldn’t even compute because the interviewer is trying to jump several steps ahead. To use another driving analogy, it would be as if you were standing outside the car with the keys in your hand and your passenger said, “Ok, now let’s just put this thing in drive and get out of here!”

That’s just not how driving works. But it’s hard to feel comfortable saying that unless you’ve planned and practiced driving for a while.

Emily’s takeaways are great. Ask for time to think it over. Then you can counter offer via email, just as she suggests. This salary negotiation email sample will get you started.

Make a plan. Practice the plan. Stick to the plan.

The best way I know to avoid mistakes in stressful situations is to have a clear plan for the most likely situations. In Emily’s case, she was expecting another interview, and what she got was an unexpected job offer. She was prepared for the interview, but the job offer caught her off guard.

When I coach people, we prepare for both of those things before the first interview. It’s important to be prepared for interviews because that’s how you get good job offers. But it’s equally as important to be prepared for those job offers.

Just in case you don’t have time to review all the suggestions I made above, here’s your plan if you get an unexpected job offer:

Ask for time to think it over.

Then you can go back and review the situation to make a plan for your negotiation.

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