A Level Playing Field?

I just finished reading a “Your Money” article in the New York Times by Tara Siegel Bernard entitled Moving Past Gender Barriers to Negotiate a Raise [March 24, 2104]. Forgive me again for disagreeing with experts who advise female negotiators not to display “unseemly” behavior. Here’s the latest:

But it [discrimination] can emerge when women act in ways that aren’t considered sufficiently feminine, and when women advocate for themselves, these experts say, some people find it unseemly, if on a subconscious level. As a result, women need to take a more calibrated approach…. Otherwise, they can risk being perceived as overly demanding and unlikable. … Acting feminine enough — that is, showing they care about maintaining good relationships as well as the communal good over themselves, for instance — helps women in the likability department. And that’s important.

I’m stuck on why it’s important for a woman to likeable, but not for a man. Can you imagine advising a man to consider the “communal good” when negotiating a raise? Legitimizing the request is enough. And what exactly is a calibrated approach? Are we asking women to set their sights lower or to back off when they encounter resistance? If we persist in allowing gender discrimination, conscious or unconscious, to dominate the workplace, how will we ever level the playing field? Not by being told to negotiate from a subterranean level, effectively preserving the inequities of the status quo.

But let’s be clear. If you prioritize likeability above your other needs, then by all means, focus on that. Assuming you do want a raise –regardless of your gender– move into preparedness mode. The article touches on this, but not the way I do in my book, The Transformative Negotiator. In any negotiation, you must clearly articulate your wants and needs, and anticipate a range of possible responses from your partner. What happens if you don’t get what you want? Are you prepared to quit? Accept something else?

Start with why. Not all motivation is created equal. Do you need the extra money to cover your mother’s nursing home expenses? Have you been recruited by a competitor who is willing to pay you more, but you want to stay in your current position? Perhaps you spoke with a male colleague who gets paid more for doing the same job. Or you may simply feel that you have done excellent work and deserve it.

Every one of these reasons is valid, but each has different energy and offers varying degrees of leverage. Asking for a raise to cover unexpected expenses, no matter how compelling the need, is a difficult case to make. Why? Because the energy isn’t aligned with your employer’s business purpose, and granting the request might cause issues with other employees. By contrast, a competitor trying to woo you away is energetically aligned; your employer has a vested interest in keeping you and can justify the additional compensation. Competition for your services is clean leverage as long as you present it neutrally.

Your employer will have a why. It’s your job as a negotiator to hear that reason, probe it for validity, and respond with creativity. Your employer wants to pay market, but HR –and its system of fixed grades and salaries– won’t let him. What’s your next step? Go to HR. Find out if there are other options (promotion, career ladder, etc.) to meet your needs. Never stop at the first No.

Approach the negotiation with all the facts, treat your employer as a partner, not an adversary, be clear, direct, and truthful in your communications, and actively listen to the responses. I don’t believe likeability has any place in that equation. The transformative negotiator is assertive without being aggressive.

[1] Obviously, if a man in the same job with similar qualifications is making more than you are, other avenues may be available if your plea for parity is turned down. But that’s beyond the scope of this blog.

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