The Art of Negotiation

Developing talent at all levels starts with making good hires, but as every talent manager knows, competition for the best can be fierce. The interview process often feels like a showdown between a hiring manager and job candidate.

Preventing top talent from joining the competition requires negotiation, which requires nuance and precision. Here, some experts share best tactics for negotiating with potential hires and current employees.

Talk Money First

It goes against the conventional wisdom of waiting until the offer to bring up compensation, but Mike Astringer has been laying salary and bonuses on the table during the first interview for more than 20 years as a corporate human resources and talent acquisition leader.

Currently with Alliance Life Sciences Consulting Group Inc. in Somerset, New Jersey, Astringer said agreeing on compensation right away is critical. “We have a long interview process,” Astringer said, “and I don’t want to put them through it if in the end we’re not on the same page in terms of compensation.”

And it’s not just the job candidates he’s thinking about. Managers and team members can be involved in subsequent rounds of interviews, and Astringer doesn’t want to waste anyone’s time if money is going to be a stumbling block.

Often, however, such candor in the first interview catches job candidates off-guard. “I ask where they are now and where they’d like to be,” Astringer said. “If they don’t answer right away, I say: ‘I know you have a number in mind. Everyone has a number in mind. Just tell me what it is.’ If their expectations are reasonable, we can move forward.”

And if they’re not? That’s where negotiation comes into play.

“If they say they’re at $100,000 now and want to be at $110,000, that’s reasonable to me,” Astringer said. “If they say they want $130,000, they’ve really got to convince me why they should get that much of a bump.”

Reiterate the Agreement

The first interview needs to lock down a figure that both Astringer and the job candidate can live with, but it doesn’t end there.

“Every round of interviews, I’ll say: ‘When we met on May 12, we agreed on a package of X amount of compensation and X amount of bonuses. Are we still on the same page?’ ” Astringer said.

But there’s more to this than simply reconfirming the dollar figure. By reinforcing the number at every interview, Astringer is stopping a potential negotiation before it starts.

Because the candidate has agreed to the amount at every interview, there is very little chance the person will angle for more money when Astringer offers the job.

But even though it’s vital to agree on compensation, Astringer said he is wary of candidates who are overly concerned about the dollar figure.

“You can’t just throw money at them because if that’s what they respond to, the next company that throws even more money at them will cause them to walk out the door,” he said.

Emphasize Culture

Once the compensation is locked down, Astringer focuses on whether the candidate will mesh well with his company. He uses culture fit as a powerful negotiation tool to convince star candidates to climb on board.

“I tell them: ‘This is the right place for you. You fit here,’” Astringer said.

Fitting into the corporate culture, getting along with co-workers, being able to mesh with one’s team and liking to come to work each day is a magnetic draw, especially with younger workers. And it’s not just important for new hires; it’s important for the current employees as well.

“Every hire has to be culturally right,” Astringer said. “I’ve passed on people who have every technical skill we need because I knew they wouldn’t fit with the team. They might look perfect on paper, but if they don’t fit with the culture, it will be a disaster.”

Astringer said his secret to determining culture fit is knowing the culture of his company, trusting his gut instincts and considering the candidate’s current job.

“If someone is coming to us from a huge corporate environment, they really have to convince me they’d fit in here,” Astringer said. “People who work for big companies don’t always fit into smaller companies.”

Highlight the Quality of Work

Astringer said he uses the job itself to his advantage when negotiating with a potential new hire, especially if the candidate is young and isn’t completely thrilled about the compensation package.

“The younger generation is less interested in working at Microsoft, where they’ll write code all day for years, and more interested in smaller companies that will give them the opportunity to do impactful work right away,” he said.

Build Relationships

Eldonna Lewis Fernandez, author of “Think Like a Negotiator” and CEO of Dynamic Vision International, a consulting and training firm that helps people hone their negotiation skills, said not forging a relationship with a job candidate is a mistake many people make.

“Building a relationship will help build the ‘know, like and trust’ factor, which may be the tipping point,” Fernandez said. “Asking personal questions to find out a little more about the person you are talking to not only helps put everyone at ease, it also may reveal more information about them that will help a hiring manager make a better decision about the potential employee.”

Prepare in Advance

Go into the interview knowing the salary range, bonuses, vacation time and other perks you can offer, and think ahead a few moves to potential requests candidates might make, Fernandez said.

“We should always prepare in advance and have thought out how we might respond to certain questions or proposals,” she said. “When the possibilities are thought out in advance, it makes it much easier to respond when certain issues or questions come up.”

Harness the Power of Silence

Once you have the offer on the table, stop talking and let the candidate make the next move, Fernandez said. Overselling the offer too much can hurt hiring prospects.

Take a Page From Cable TV

“The biggest mistake I see HR professionals make in union, employee and vendor negotiations is focusing on a single-issue factor — usually money or salaries — instead of presenting the totality of several potential deals all at once,” said Steve Albrecht, an HR and training consultant in San Diego.

Albrecht said he recommends putting together two or three potential deal packages — compensation, bonuses, vacation time, work-at-home options and other perks — for candidates to consider, much like the way cable TV companies offer different bundles to clients.

 “This method adds value by offering more trade-off possibilities,” Albrecht said. “The other side can’t cherry-pick the best of all items. Using this approach, you would understand your interests first then theirs, then create at least two or three deal packages they can examine.” This also works when current employees are angling for a raise.