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Advice / Job Search / Job Offer

Negotiation Q&A: Is it Possible to Ask for Too Much?

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Dear Negotiators, 

I know how important negotiating is to my career and that I need to do it (especially as a woman!), but every time I find myself in the position to ask for more, I worry that I'll end up asking for too much. 

Here's the latest example: I recently received an offer for an exciting new marketing job at a small company. The position has more power and responsibility than my previous one did—but the company is offering me almost the same salary I have now. I think I deserve more (about 25% more then they're offering), and my web searches for similar salaries back me up, but I'm afraid if I tell them what I want to earn, they'll revoke the job offer. I want to get paid what I'm worth, but I also really want this job!

Is it possible to ask for too much? What's the worst thing that could happen if I do? 

-Afraid to Ask


I love this question because it really hits home. In 2001, I interviewed for a management position in a nonprofit in Santa Barbara. I was offered a salary that was 20% less than my former job for the same title and function. I knew it would be a battle to bring my salary up to researched standards because every professional in our gorgeous destination city has to do battle with what I call the “paradise penalty.”

In other words, if I take what’s offered, I still get to go to the beach.

Right. But just how many quesadillas can paradise put on my table? Well, 20% less, for starters. I had to ask for more. And you know what? It worked.

So “Afraid to Ask”—I’m going to give you the acronym AA and give you a 12-step program.

Steps 1-11: Kill the Fraud Monster

As a woman, you are a product of our culture and the collective mythology about what’s expected of and “acceptable” for our gender. On any given day, this is the conflicting advice women are given:

  • Ask for more, but don’t be greedy.
  • Be strong, but speak softly.
  • Sing your own praises, but don’t be arrogant.
  • Speak up, but don’t be harsh or shrill.
  • Get what you want, but do good for others.
  • The cumulative effect of ingesting all these directives is the sense that you are not enough; if you ask for more than is offered, it will soon be discovered that you’re not all that deserving of it anyway. You're a fraud.

    The Fraud Monster may take a few rounds to kill, but know this—for this job, or for any: You are not missing a piece, you don’t need another credential, you don’t lack skills or experience, you don’t need to prove yourself one more time to get what you deserve.

    There is nothing wrong with you. Got it? So let’s flip your closing question around and ask, “What’s the worst thing that can happen if I don’t negotiate a lowball offer?"

    First and most obvious, if you don’t negotiate, you’re leaving money on the table. Multiply that by a career of 30 years or so, and research tells us you’ll lose up to $1 million.

    Second, negotiating is a demonstration of your leadership and signals to your potential employer that you’ll have the company’s back. When you’re working with vendors, clients, and other partners, the company will want you to get the best deal possible for your team, right?

    Plus, if you know how to approach the conversation, there’s no real downside. If you ask for too much (highly unlikely) and your potential employer winces, an open-ended question or two will keep the conversation moving:

    "Seems like that took you by surprise. Tell me more…”

    "What is the budget for this position based on?”

    "How can I help you move more in my direction?”

    Step 12: Learn to Wiggle

    Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about the actual negotiation.

    Negotiation conversations are made up of anchors (putting a number on the table), counteroffers, and concessions. Simplifying wildly, you need to know two things—your target (what you really want) and your reservation point (your walkaway or resentment number).

    For example, if your potential employer offers $75K for your dream job, and your research and preparation sets you up with a target of $90K and a reservation point of $80K, here are two possible scenarios for how the wiggle might go:

    1. Counter With Your Target

    You counter offer with $90K, and your partner counters with $82K, basically splitting the difference. You then concede $4K and counter with $86K, and your partner agrees to split the difference again by offering you $84K, to which you agree.

    You're below your target, but $4K better than your walk away number and $9K better than the original offer.

    2. Counter Above Your Target

    You counter offer for $95K, and your partner counters with $80K—a bump up of $5K. You match that by conceding $5K and counter with $90K. Your partner splits the difference and offers you $85K. You split that difference again and offer $88K, to which your partner responds with an offer of $86K. You say yes.

    You're $6K above your reservation point, $4K from your target, and $12K better than your original offer.

    Of course, each counter offer you make needs to be backed up with credible reasons—stock phrases you develop in advance that are designed to express the value you bring to your potential employer. It sounds like you’ve you're your research already, so try things like:

    "My research shows the market value of this position is between $85K and $95K. With my experience in X, and my training in Y, I think $95K is a more appropriate place to start the conversation.”

    "Your offer is exactly what I’m currently making, yet this position has more responsibility and requires the specialized experience I have to help you accomplish your strategic plan.”

    If all this back and forth makes your head swim, consider that research shows the more concessions you make, and the more give and take that happens in a negotiation, the happier both parties are with the outcome.

    So AA, the upshot (besides, of course, a significant amount of money)? Negotiating will look good on you. And once you have the experience of asking for more, it will be in your bones and at your service forever.

    This article is part of our Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our experts are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask an Expert in the subject line.

    Your letter may be published in an article on The Muse. All letters to Ask an Expert become the property of Daily Muse, Inc and will be edited for length, clarity, and grammatical correctness.