If you’re like me — and who isn’t? — then what you hate is that moment, in the middle of a perfectly nice job interview or discussion about a new freelance gig, when the other party pops the question: “And what do you need in terms of payment?”
The problem is that ambiguous word “need.” They’re graciously inquiring, “What can we offer that will be commensurate with your opinion of your true worth?” delivered with a wink, and the question, “What’s the least you’ll take?”
Which is to say, this question summons me to present both my highest and lowest estimation of my abilities and value. I hear it coming. In fact, I hope it comes. Still, it always triggers a jolt of anxiety. And how could it not? The job itself hinges on my answer to an unanswerable question.
Do I ignore the invitation to low-ball and come on strong?
[spoken in a forceful baritone]
ME: I can’t do it for less than five thousand a day.
THEY: Really? Wow! You must be fantastic! And you speak so well, too, with great authority and “presence.” (etc.)
It’s tempting. Then I remember that this is both a negotiation (with the interviewer) and a competition (with invisible, unspecified rivals). I don’t want to price myself out of the running. After all, editors, producers, and other people-hirers can’t wait to say no. Give them the slightest excuse and they’ll pounce: “Okay, well, thanks for your time.”
With this in what is left of my mind, I counter-wonder: “Should I simmer down and be nice? And reply with a modest figure? I’ll get ‘points’ for a display of moderation, flaunting my reasonableness and revealing a desire to accommodate the organization’s financial realities. Right?”
ME: I’m thinking, a thousand a week.
THEY: Very fair! Very reasonable! You’re the kind of person we want to work with, unlike all those other jerks (who have been demanding the moon) we’ve been talking to all week.
This sort of damned-if-you-damned-if-you-don’t, double-bind-ish dilemma has a long history and is known by a famous name. (Contact me at this site if you find out what it is.) Meanwhile, the question of how to answer the question remains.
Personally, I have had the greatest success — financial and emotional — by being slightly audacious. More than once I’ve been asked what payment I required and, tense with anxiety, I’ve replied with a number a little (but noticeably!) higher than the one I was prepared to accept. “We can do that,” has been the general response.
Perhaps you have had this experience as well. Perhaps, like me, one nanosecond after you got what you asked for, you thought, “Fuck. I should have asked for more.” If so, console yourself, both now and in the future, with the certain knowledge that, if they accept your first offer, no matter what it is, you will always react this way.
The simple fact is, they aren’t going to pay more than they’ve planned, but they’ll be happy to pay less. And they only ask what you “need” in the hopes that it will be less than they’ve budgeted.
So don’t say what you’ll take. Think of what you’ll be perfectly happy accepting (within reason, whatever that means), and then add 25 percent. They expect you to do it. They’ll assume you’re doing it whether you are or not. Pad your offer enough so that when they strip it down, you’ll still feel comfortable.
Besides, they might not strip it down at all. You don’t know the budget they’re working with. What to you seems a risky, daring demand might, to them, reside well within their Zone of Adequacy.
Someone will object, “Then why not ask for the moon? All they can say is ‘no.’” I’m going on the assumption that the organism you’re negotiating with is a human with recognizable emotions — which may include both a punitive sense of annoyance at your hubris, and baffled dismay at your apparent inability to understand the scope and value of the job itself.
YOU: I need six thousand a day, plus free bagels.
THEY: Oh. (irritated pause) Our C.E.O. makes less than that. Actually we were thinking more along the lines of ten dollars a month, plus you bring us bagels.
So, yeah, be confident! But don’t be a jerk.
Ellis Weiner is a humorist based in Los Angeles and a former writer and editor of National Lampoon.