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November 08, 2009

On salary negotiations during a down economy

A few months ago I started a part time job. That's one reason I've been so absent here.

After the department head made the offer, I researched salaries in the field. I went into the negotiation prepared, calm, confident. I made rational and compelling arguments for why I was worth an extra 10 percent. And I still didn't get what I wanted. In fact, the employer didn't budge one dollar. With the current economy, recent layoffs and furloughs, there was no room in the budget, I was told. I did get some measly benefits, which are good in name only since as a part-timer I only qualify for the lowest rung (and, consequently, still pay for insurance out of pocket).

I still took the job.

Should I be ashamed?

Maybe, maybe not, but I certainly felt disappointed. In myself.

A few weeks later came the second blow. Once again, I requested a raise from a freelance employer, stating what I thought were some good reasons. The answer, again, was that there's no flexibility in the budget. We concluded that conversation on a positive note -- him saying sorry he can't, me saying I look forward to revisiting the topic in a few months, and both of us reiterating that it's great to work together.

All this has left me wondering why I'm not a skilled negotiator even after more than a year of practicing. Or is this solely due to the economy? For within the past few months, over emails and phone calls, readers of this blog have shared their own stories with me about trying to negotiate salaries and failing. They've all taken the job offers, even without meeting their target salaries.

I don't know what to make of this: are we selling ourselves short? Are we, as young and eager women, making mistakes by accepting these jobs? I'd love to ask Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever, authors of Women Don't Ask: How does the down economy change the negotiation game?

Or, are we simply lucky to find employment at all these days?

Only time, and a sustained drop in unemployment, will tell.

Right now I do know two things. They say that the only way to get a raise as a freelancer is to start working for a new employer. And sure enough, a few weeks after those negotiations bombed, I got a call from a new client, offering almost double what I made at the old job.

Second, the accumulation of unsuccessful negotiation attempts only makes me more determined to get it right. So far, for me at least, the jobs with salaries I've tried negotiating were sort of practice runs -- part time, short term, or freelance. I very much hope that when the time comes to determine a salary with significant impact -- for a full time, long term position -- I will have enough practice, and the economy will be strong enough to meet my entirely reasonable demand of just compensation.
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