How to mess up a salary negotiation

You've heard that you should always negotiate your salary and benefits, because the worst that will happen is that they'll say no, right? Generally that's true, but occasionally, you get a job offer pulled. This happened to a woman, identified as W, who had a job offer as a assistant professor at a small liberal arts college pulled. She responded to the offer with the following requests:

1. An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2. An official semester of maternity leave.
3. A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4. No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5. A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.

Now what's wrong with that? A blog in Slate magazine says the only thing wrong with it is that she asked while female. I disagree. I believe the problem with her request is in the way she phrased it -- that she asked while feeling entitled to a whole bunch of extras. I'll break down what is right and wrong with her request.

1. Salary increase. This, on it's face is a fine thing to do. And, generally, if there has been limited discussion around salary before you receive the offer, it's a good thing to ask about. (If you've already said you're looking to make $50,000 and they offer you $50,000, it's bad form to attempt to negotiate from there.) But, the question on salary is, is your request reasonable? Glassdoor says that the average assistant professor salary at this school is about $51,000. In comments made after the fact, W says that the salary offer was higher than the Glassdoor average and that she then asked for a "less than 20 percent" increase. I'm here to tell you, 20 percent is way too much to ask for. In most companies that means you're asking for a pay level outside the range allowed for the position. They would have to rewrite the job description to accommodate your request, and that is not going to happen -- especially in a highly competitive field like this.

What she should have done: Asked for a salary that was between 5 and 10 percent of what was offered, and double checked local numbers. Remember, salary reflects local rather than national averages.

2. Maternity leave. It's actually pretty important to know what the maternity leave policy is if you're planning on having a child. But these policies already exist, so a better question would have been to ask for information on the policy, and then, if that doesn't work for you, perhaps asking for a very specific exception. But again, the job offer is for a junior level professor and it's highly unlikely that they would be able to grant a request even if they wanted to. If you don't know the policy, ask. Don't just decide what you want and go for it.

What she should have done: Asked for an employee handbook.

3. and 5. A pre-tenure sabbatical and a postponed start date until 2015. The concept of a sabbatical is common in academia and not so common elsewhere. So on it's face, asking isn't so bad. But combine this with asking them to hold the job for an entire year, and then throw in the maternity leave, and it seems as if she's focusing on not working rather than working. When you're negotiating, it can be kind of sticky to start talking about extra time off because it starts to seem like you don't really want to work, you just kind of need a job to fund all your fun time off. Additionally, while this college isn't a "small" organization, the department is. And if she's not there, her coworkers are pulling her weight.

What she should have done: Forget both. In a buyer's market, these types of perks are reserved only for the star, senior people. If you're coming in at the bottom like she was, extreme requests are, well, extreme.

4. 3 new class preps per year. If you've ever taught a class you know that the time on your feet in front of a class represents only a smidgen of the work that you put into the class. Putting a class together is labor intensive, no doubt. But this request speaks strongly to limiting her workload to something far below her colleagues. Many professors in small liberal arts colleges are expected to teach 4 classes per semester, or 8 per year. With only 3 class preps allowed that first year, she's going to be teaching the same class multiple times. That's unrealistic for a small school. She is either demonstrating a serious lack of understanding of what the environment would be, or she's demonstrating that she feels her time is more valuable than her colleagues.

What she should have done: As part of the discussions about the job, the work load should have been discussed. Don't try to drastically change your workload in the negotiations without giving on something like salary. Asking for reduced work plus an increased salary screams entitlement.

Now, while she said in her email that she understood if not all requests could be met, she didn't come across very well. She came across as someone who would be difficult and demanding to work with, and that's not what you want when you're negotiating a new job. You want to come across as enthusiastic and excited, and as someone who can't wait to jump right in and get to work. Therefore, you need to know what is realistic and what is not.

Now, with all that said, the college doesn't get a pass. I purposely haven't named it because they didn't publicize this, W did, but it wasn't nice to respond to her requests by pulling the offer. The nice thing to do is to say, "I'm sorry, our offer stands as is," and let her take it or leave it. That said, because her requests were all over the top, I can see a panicked dean thinking, "Oh my word, what a mistake we've made! I do not want to bring her on board!" As for the legality of the whole thing, companies (and colleges) can certainly withdraw an offer. Keep that in mind when you're asking for the moon.

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