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What If I'm Afraid to Negotiate Because of Tough Times and a Slow Economy?

A lot of people wonder whether they should negotiate at all when the economy is slow and companies are feeling the pinch. Particularly, the unemployed, having been out of work for too many months, they are relieved to have an offer — any offer. They fear that if they negotiate, they can upset the trust that has been built up over the interviewing process. They cringe at the thought of being told, “There’s a long line of people who’d love to have this job. If you don’t like my offer, we can always hire another.”

It feels like groveling is the order of the day. But fear not. You’re not negotiating with the economy; you’re dealing with a hiring decision maker who needs you. This is my Eighth Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Worry about Economic Strength.

Of course, the amount of “needs you” has changed has changed dramatically over recent years. For example in the heyday of the dot-com 90’s, completely inexperienced new college grads were negotiating hefty comp packages. Companies were so desperate to get “techies” on board that they would agree to practically anything. Negotiations sounded like this: “You want a masseuse to give you a rubdown twice a week? No problem. You want to bring your parrot to work? Sure, how does the bird like his steak cooked?”

Today, even people with years of experience and sterling track records are having a tough time getting any offer. Still, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t negotiate. Just because the playing field has changed, doesn’t mean that you should just meekly accept whatever they offer. Negotiations are part of the hiring game. If you meekly say “OK” to whatever they offer, it will hurt your paycheck (obviously), and may also make the employer value you less.

Think of what happens in another setting where negotiations are expected: the garage sale. Suppose you’re selling an item that isn’t hard to find, say a clock. It works. It’s not a bad-looking clock, but it’s a common item. That’s like the low-demand job market. You put a low price tag on it; you don’t negotiate, and maybe even offer to throw it in for free with another purchase. Your communication affects the potential buyer’s feelings about the clock, and the buyer may even refuse to take it if you offer it for free.

On the other hand, if you’re selling that great-looking expensive leather jacket that’s in mint condition but doesn’t fit you any more, you will be a tough negotiator. You’ll paid the price a bit to give you a little wiggle room because you know people like to bargain at garage sales. By tough negotiating, you communicate that the item has high value. If you set your price too low or come down in price too easily, the buyer may wonder if there’s something wrong with the jacket.

Likewise, by tough negotiating, you communicate your own worth. Good companies expect you to negotiate for your value. Far from hindering your job search efforts, the ability to negotiate helps you get the respect you need to get hired for good positions or to get better raises.

Now, in flush times, you’re more likely to get what you ask for than lean times. It’s probably true that in a tight economy you won’t get everything you ask for. But you can count on one thing being the same in both good times and in bad: if you don’t ask, you won’t receive. It’s never improper to ask. The employer may cry “poor,” and decline but that doesn’t mean don’t ask.

Sometimes asking now will pay off later. I coached a particularly energetic entry-level bank branch manager named Victor to ask for $5,000 more than the average salary for that position. The president said he couldn’t go that high, but said that he pays for performance. Three months later he was impressed with Victor’s results and added five grand to his salary. Would that have happened if Victor had just said, “OK” to the first offer?

So you’re not negotiating with an economy, you are talking to a human being who’s trying to get ahead in his/her career. If you can do the job, you deserve to be compensated. Ask for what you deserve.

Jack Chapman, a veteran career coach is also known as “The Salary Coach.” Jack is author of the bible of salary negotiations, “Negotiating Your Salary: How to Make $1000 a Minute”, now in its 6th printing. You can buy his book or reach Jack at http://www.salarynegotiations.com.