“I’m flexible.” “It’s negotiable.” You’re doomed!

So there I was, standing in the crowd at a professional gathering, chatting with a few people I know casually. Knowing what I do for a living, one of them turned to me and said (I get this a lot, you can imagine), “Do you mind if I ask you for advice?”  

No, of course not. 

“I’ve had two interviews with a company, am pretty sure an offer is coming, and I’m going to need to negotiate my compensation. Any tips?” 

Any tips?!? Negotiation strategy is, at the very least, an hour’s conversation, for Pete’s sake. “Tips” on negotiation? There are entire 15-week courses given on the subject, not to mention hundreds of books. “Tips?” But OK, here goes. 

My first question was, “Has the salary been discussed yet?” And that’s where the whole thing fell apart. “Yes,” he said. “At the end of the last interview, the manager asked me what my salary expectations are and I said I’m flexible.” 

“You’re flexible?” I asked. “Yes, I let him know it’s negotiable.” 

“What’s the salary range you expect?” I asked that question even though I pretty much knew the answer I’d hear. “Not sure. Seventy-five, maybe?” Yup, that was indeed the answer I knew was coming: not the “75” part but the “maybe” part. And besides, 75 is not a range; it’s a specific point on the axis. 

“How do you know?” Not surprisingly, he didn’t know how he knew. 

How in the world do you go into an interview, let alone two, without that information? As easy as it is to determine salary ranges – by position, title, industry, region, seniority, and so on – and you have to go no farther than your keyboard – there is no excuse in the world good enough to cover that blunder. Start with the Bureau of Labor Statistics – www.bls.gov – and go to the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Type “salary” in the search field. There you’ll find the most reliable and unbiased data. Then you can check any of the hundreds of commercial salary survey web sites you want. 

So you don’t know what to expect, you’re ready to say yes to just about anything, and on top of it all, you’ve let the horse out of the barn. And now you think there’s some negotiating to do? Not a snowball’s chance. You’ve just done all the “negotiating” you’re going to do – in one simple sentence – and it’s not going to work out in your favor. You might, indeed, be flexible and negotiable, which sometimes helps with negotiating strategy, but the minute you say it, you’ve lost all chance of negotiating successfully. 

In a nutshell, if you’re flexible...and it’s negotiable...and you’ve said it up front...you’re doomed. 

Think about it. You’ve just told this guy that, whatever, the expectations were – on either his part or yours – you’re willing to take less. 

So if you’re flexible, go try out for the Olympic gymnastics team, but don’t think you’re going to get anywhere in your salary discussion. There won’t be one.

And as for negotiable, this is not a garage sale. This is your career you’re playing with here, your livelihood, your bank account, the basis on which this year’s bonus and next year’s raise will be made. If you say negotiable, I really hope you don’t think they’ll negotiate you upwards. You’ve just given them permission to pay you less – and you’ve signed it in blood: yours. 

You haven’t negotiated here, nor will you. You’ve simply found a way to shorten the conversation and lessen the tension. That’s understandable. Not acceptable but understandable. Most people are afraid of salary negotiations, and this is one way of avoiding them. 

Now, lest you think the remainder of this essay will be a complete guide to negotiating, it will not. (See above: too much involved.) The purpose is a very specific piece of advice, and that advice is to ditch the “I’m flexible, it’s negotiable” routine. That goes nowhere but down. Short of a full negotiation course, here’s what to avoid giving away the store.

1.      Know what you’re worth (not what you’ve recently earned, as you may have short-changed yourself there, too, now that you think of it).

2.      Prove what you’re worth. This should have happened already, but it’s never inappropriate to remind them.

3.      Negotiate for your value, not your basic needs. Many people make the mistake of simply trying to cover their living expenses rather than commanding a salary commensurate with the value they bring.

4.      Know the playing field. The more you know about the appropriate compensation packages, the better, as you’ll be able to negotiate objectively and factually.

5.      Be the second, not the first, to talk dollars – if at all possible.

6.      Prepare to defend your position. Remember, the first offer is almost never the best or the last. Remind them of your accomplishments, your suitability for the job, and then state you’d be happy to consider their best offer. There often will be a new one, and if there isn’t, you might just be interviewing for the wrong job or with the wrong company.

Bottom line: being flexible or negotiable is one thing. Saying it aloud is altogether another.

Career Coach Eli Amdur conducts workshops and one-on-one coaching in Job Search, Career Planning, Resumes, and Interviewing. Reach him at eli.amdur@amdurcoaching.com or 201-357-5844. Please visit www.amdurcoaching.com and "like" him at www.facebook.com/AmdurCoaching.