How I Screwed Up My First “Real” Job Offer: 2 Major Negotiating Mistakes To Avoid
During my final semester of college, I swung a pretty fun (albeit unpaid) copywriting internship for an up-and-coming marketing company in the city. I liked the work I was doing well enough, I liked my coworkers, and my supervisor made clear on the first day that, should all go well, they’d be willing to hire me upon graduation. A month into the semester, they officially put a job offer on my radar.
When my supervisor and CEO first pulled me aside to make the offer clear, we were in a high-end restaurant, sitting at a swanky bar and getting more liquored up than I would have expected for an outing with my workplace superiors. Between drinks, my supervisor made promises of fun, travel, establishing prominent connections, and earning lots of money. And, oddly enough, the specifics of pay and benefits were never actually mentioned.
Looking back, that little fact right there should have been an indicator that things were not going to head in a preferable direction. But I was too high on the idea of achieving that elusive, desirable post-grad job. So, from that point forward, I tried to my best to prepare myself for the negotiations that I was told would be coming up soon. Needless to say, they did not go as planned. Today, I am no longer with that marketing company — though I did learn some valuable lessons in trying to navigate a messy process:
1. Never Throw Out The First Number, But Have An Idea What the Number Might Be
I was first caught off guard the night I asked my supervisor what the pay for the position would be. “Well, what do you want to be paid?” he responded nonchalantly.
I had no clue. I didn’t know what the average salary for my position was at the time, let alone what my worth was as the only copywriter for a company. So, unwilling to pigeonhole myself as a result of my own ignorance, I told him I would do more research and get back to him with a more concrete number later. He persisted in trying to get me to throw out a number — as I did him — but neither of us relented. “Come back to me when you have a number,” he eventually said.
Later, a couple of my professors made it clear to me that this was not, in fact, normal. That a company should not be asking me to throw out the first number. Regardless, I felt too young and uncomfortable to put my foot down with them, so I asked around with other professional copywriters and went on websites to figure out what number to try starting negotiating with.
As the only copywriter for the entire company — and as an intern, they had been trying to recruit for months — I eventually asked for $45K, as a couple of my professors and fellow copywriters had told me to. Plus, Glassdoor and other websites cited this number as the average salary for junior copywriters in the city I was in. I figured I was highballing it, but better to start high and work backward, right?
That’s true. And also, looking back, I know that I definitely was probably overreaching with that number. But that doesn’t change the fact that I should have advocated for myself and asked them for a clearer way to start negotiating.
2. Protect Your Right to Privacy
Put plainly, I answered a lot of personal questions that I should never have been asked in the first place during that negotiation. After my supervisor skeptically shot my number down and told me I was aiming way too high, he said they wanted to offer me $29K. I went into panic mode. I felt stupid. I must have done my research wrong. What had I done? Was this offer truly too brazen?
My sudden anxiety must have shown on my face, because he became further emboldened and launched into a litany of questions concerning my post-graduation life and plans. “Where will you be living?” “Well, why don’t you find roommates?” “Do you have a car?” “Why don’t you stay on your parents’ car insurance?” “How in debt are you with student loans?”
Not only were these questions inappropriate, but he had absolutely no business trying to make suggestions on where I should live or how I should manage my finances so that I could find a way to live within the means they were willing to pay me. Again, I should have put my foot down. A simple “with all due respect, that is my business,” or “I’m not comfortable answering that” should have sufficed. But I was too scared to stand up for myself. Instead, I did what I should not have done: I answered all of his questions honestly and walked out of the first negotiation empty-handed.
By the time I walked in for the final negotiation, I already had another job offer on the table with a company who was (thankfully) willing to offer me more than $29K. Not only that, but I had negotiated an ever-so-slightly-higher salary with this second company, as well as full benefits and a higher moving stipend.
So, just to see what I could manage (as I actually wanted to stay with this first company), I sat down and threw out their number to my supervisor as a new negotiation starting point, curious if he would be willing to match it. He paused. He asked me if that number would guarantee my staying. I paused. I said no. When he asked why, I said that I had another job offer on the table and that they had offered me more than $29K. He told me to take the other job. So I did.
At the end of the day, I learned that you have to be your own biggest advocate when you negotiate. You have to do your research, know your worth, and be willing to put your foot down. And if a company is unwilling to respect that, or is willing to push the boundaries of what is appropriate, you have to walk away. Because I promise you, it will not go up from there.
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