Workplace

Salary negotiations can backfire. Here’s how to get what you deserve.

A Q&A with negotiation expert Kathryn Valentine on how women and other groups can better negotiate pay in the tech industry.

closeup photo of 100 US dollar banknotes

"Anyone who's not the predominant group benefits from negotiating collaboratively," says negotiation expert Kathryn Valentine.

This story is part of our Salary Series, where we take a deep dive into the world of pay: how it's set, how it's changing and what's next. Read the rest of the series here.

Kathryn Valentine was first inspired to learn negotiation skills as a summer intern when she was in business school. During that internship, she walked into the company’s HR office, hoping to negotiate a new assignment in a different department. Instead, she ended up walking out of that office without a job.

Now Valentine runs Worthmore Strategies, where she helps companies retain, develop and promote female employees.

“How did that one conversation derail my career?” was a question she kept trying but wasn't able to answer. That experience inspired her to devote her life’s work to understanding how to be a better negotiator. What she discovered: Women run a higher risk of backlash when they negotiate professionally. Unless they do it the right way.

Protocol spoke with Valentine about how to make the most of salary negotiations, regardless of gender.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What does the research show about the role of gender in negotiation?

Societal conceptions of gender have led to men being seen as agents of their own destiny. They can be aggressive, and they can argue for what is theirs, whereas women are much more seen as communal beings. Those are the expectations of men versus women. What that means is, if you were to negotiate aggressively as a woman, it very likely will trigger a backlash, which happens when someone isn't acting in a way that is predicted, leading to cognitive dissonance, which people don't like. It makes them uncomfortable, it scares them. They put you back in your place.

The way that that happens right now in workplaces is not the first-generation gender bias of "Mad Men," but it's much more subtle second-generation gender bias. All of a sudden, your career isn't progressing as fast as it was before. You're no longer given the high-profile assignments. Or you're no longer invited to the after-work drinks, which is where the real decisions are made.

This backlash effect is well-documented. The obvious follow-up question is, “What do you do if you find yourself in this position? How do you navigate it?”

The No. 1 thing to do is to take a negotiation training. Research shows doing that will virtually eliminate the gender gap in outcomes. I recommend a two-part approach. The first part will be taught in any real negotiation training these days. Women benefit from having a collaborative approach to negotiations. So rather than being about you versus me, it's about us versus the problem.

I worked with a client who is an executive at a regional bank last week, and she had gotten a competitive offer. And she was like, “I'm gonna go in there and throw it on my boss's desk and tell him he's gonna have to address it.” And I told her, “No, that's probably not the best way to handle this.” The problem is that a competitor's trying to poach you, allowing him to then get competitive with the competitor. And as a result, she got a 33% raise and a $300,000 retention bonus, because he wanted to keep her.

What did she say?

The way that she said it was, “As you know, I've been able to accomplish X, Y and Z here. I've been here for 15 years. I love being here. And we're on the path to being able to accomplish [insert whatever big goal you have together]. I wasn't looking, but I was surprised, however, that somebody came to me. And the package that they're offering blew me away, because it's 30% more than I'm making here. As the primary breadwinner in my family, that's important for me to take a look at. Can you help me figure out how we can close the gap so that I can continue contributing here?" In her case, this was all true. If it's not true, don't say it.

You should never negotiate just a raise, but a package of things that will enable you to contribute more.

How do you recommend people go about evaluating and finding negotiation training?

There's a great free one on LeanIn.org if you just want a 101. It's maybe 20 minutes, and you'll get a really good foundation on it. On the other side of the spectrum, Harvard does a four-day leadership and management negotiation training that's phenomenal and I think around $2,500, maybe more.

Any good negotiations professor at this point in time is teaching collaborative negotiation. The second piece of the approach, which is still not widely talked about, is the communal ask. The communal ask is the part that virtually eliminates the risk of backlash as a woman, and it’s when you ask for that thing that you need. Explain why it's better for others, why it's better for your clients, your company, your team, whoever it may be. What I find is that my clients generally are thinking this way. They just don't actually say that extra piece out loud. And it's the act of saying that piece out loud that takes the cost of negotiating to zero.

What have you seen when it comes to backlash in the context of not just gender, but also race?

In gender negotiations, we have 40 really good studies, and probably like 60 or 80 studies total. Up until two years ago, there just wasn't as much done on race. There are four, maybe five good studies that I can think of. And what those studies say is essentially the same thing: that the way negotiation is set up right now, the rules of the game benefit the predominant group, which is historically white men. Anyone who's not the predominant group benefits from negotiating collaboratively and using a communal ask. So what these studies show, and I've really focused on women, is that women of color gain even more from using this approach than white women do, which, unfortunately, is because there's more of a gap to close.

What about for trans women? Is the advice applicable for all people who identify as women?

This is another area that needs more research. I want to be open to the possibility that there is something out there I’ve missed, but sadly I haven’t seen anything.

What’s unique about the tech industry compared to other industries when it comes to pay and norms around negotiating pay?

What fascinates me about the tech industry is the ability or openness to think creatively. So if you are negotiating anything, you never want to negotiate just one thing, because that will walk you into a win-lose proposition. You should never negotiate just a raise, but a package of things that will enable you to contribute more.

These are highly-trained, highly-educated workers. Losing them hurts you. So what can you do to keep them?

What's so interesting to me about tech is that the openness to have those conversations is much higher than it is in, say, banking. In tech, I have this list of 70 things that I've helped women negotiate. You can really start to have a holistic conversation about the things that would enable you to deliver more impact in your job versus at a bank that's existed for 250 years that might say, “For the past 200 years, we've done it this way.”

What are some things that people don't typically think of that they can negotiate?

I always start with the question of, “If you could wave your magic wand, what would your career look like in five years? Or what would it look like next year? What are the things that you could have that would enable you to deliver more impact? What are things that you could have that would lower your stress?”

I worked with one woman who was very good at her job but burning out. So she negotiated that she would be on a local masters swim team. It meant that she wasn't available Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and she has worked that way for eight years. The benefit for that company is they got to keep her. She was a top performer, and she would have left eventually. By saying yes to this, they got to keep her for an extra eight years.

It makes a lot of sense right now in tech. These are highly trained, highly educated workers. Losing them hurts you. So what can you do to keep them? Right now, we've seen the top-down programs have only gotten us so far. So what if we took a bottoms-up approach of empowering people to ask for what they need at this point in time?

I have seen women ask to be off the computer from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., because that's when the majority of their caretaking happens. I've had women negotiate for backup childcare when schools are closed due to COVID. I've had people negotiate location to take care of their parents. One of my favorite ones is negotiating additional resources for your team. If you had that inventory management or CRM system, is your team able to rack up so many more wins? If so, then make that part of your negotiation.

Should you only ask for these other things once they’ve told you, “No, we can’t give you a raise?” Or do you present the options all at once?”

You 100% present the options all at once. Because if you ask for a raise first, you're asking for one thing, which means that it inherently cannot be a collaborative negotiation. That’s a competitive negotiation. And women do very poorly in competitive negotiations because of gender perception. In order for it to be a collaborative negotiation, there have to be multiple issues.

I saw an article the other day that advised people to say, “I deserve more.” That is horrible advice. You just derailed somebody's career. So instead of saying that, you could say, “I've accomplished X. We are on our way to doing Y. And I’m very excited about what that means for the company.” And then your communal ask, which is, “In order to achieve that, I wanted to take a step back and talk about how I can deliver more impact. And things that I've brainstormed are X, Y and Z. I think it would be helpful to have even a part-time assistant to help me focus on higher-value tasks. I think a 20% raise would put me really where the market is for the impact that I'm delivering. Lastly, I wanted to talk about potentially getting some more sales training for our team that I think would help us talk to our customers better.”

We’re hearing, “You’ve got to ask. You’ve got to ask.” And then we're being given a bazooka that is aimed at ourselves.

Would you say your advice has changed given what we’re experiencing in the workplace right now in terms of the Great Resignation?

The advice hasn't changed; the environment has. So before, the No. 1 negotiation prior to COVID was how to help women work remotely one or two days a week. Now, workers are in a much stronger position, and companies have been forced to think creatively. And so what we were thinking about doing before is a lot easier to do right now. I've been encouraging my community to do it now, because we don't know what the world is gonna look like in six months.

As in, tech workers have the upper hand now, but that might not be the case in six months.

I’m not an economist, but I know that they have the upper hand right now.

I've also read some other studies out there that found that not only do women receive more backlash than men, but men also don't have to negotiate as much as women because they tend to get promotions and raises without asking for them in the first place. It's like that whole saying about how men are judged on potential, whereas women and people of color are judged more on past performance. Do you agree with that, and how do you think overlooked employees can better advocate for themselves?

I do think that that's the experience. However, I see it as an opportunity. Because, as a woman, when you negotiate communally and collaboratively, you are able to sidestep the double-bind. So you get both better negotiation outcomes and better social outcomes. I've had this happen in my own career, when I negotiate using a strategy and I do it well, people afterward not only see me as more competent, but also as more likable. They rate me higher on leadership potential and all kinds of other things. I see negotiating when you're able to do it this way as an opportunity to accelerate your career.

On the other hand, what do you think managers can do to make sure they're not overlooking people because of their gender or race, and that they're promoting people equitably?

We know that men have been conditioned to see and request opportunities more than women. I worked with one manager who made a policy that any opportunity was openly announced at his team meeting on Tuesdays, and anyone who wanted to throw their hat in the ring could. Men had been coming to him and saying, “Hey, I just heard about this new deal. Can you put me on that account?” Women weren’t hearing about the new deals. Men and women didn't have equal access to information. Just by making it open that way, that brought more fairness to the team.

What advice do you give for managers on the other side of negotiation?

I train them to consider how gender comes into the equation. When a woman comes to you with her back against the wall asking for something, I need you to understand how much harder it was for her to do it. She probably doesn't want to. Acknowledge how high the potential cost is to her career. You can't interpret it the way you would if a man came to you aggressively.

So is it true then that women don't negotiate as much as men?

The studies are mixed. I think if you were to do a trend line of them, you would find that up until about five years ago, women didn't ask as often as men. And now what you're finding, particularly with the younger groups, is that women are asking just as often, if not more. We’re hearing, “You’ve got to ask. You’ve got to ask.” And then we're being given a bazooka that is aimed at ourselves. We’re being told, “Here's how you’ve got to ask, but the advice is gender-specific to men and is actually going to hurt you when you go do it.”

Research shows that having objective data helps eliminate bias. What resources are out there for women in tech to find out more info and context around pay and benchmarking market rates?

Well, my first point is there’s often a conception that the only thing I can benchmark is my salary. That's not true. You can benchmark a whole host of things that don't even have to be quantifiable. I worked with one woman who wanted to get a partner promotion. The way she benchmarked is she talked to five people who had gotten it, and what she discovered is that running a P&L is the one thing that they all had in common. So her benchmarking uncovered that there's actually an opportunity she needed to ask for. Because she didn't currently have a P&L, she had to demonstrate she could run one in order to become a partner, which means she needed to ask for the opportunity to run one.

In terms of pay resources, one of them is Salary.com. The other one is Carta. They have a new DEI initiative where you can run a benchmarking report for your job, your location, et cetera. They have the most competition data on privately held companies. The other source is people who have left your company, because they're very open books.

The key for women and people of color is, naturally, we tend to ask people that we're the closest to. But if we just ask women and people of color, we will get lower numbers. So go find a white man, and ask him what he thinks. The approach that I’ve found works is, “Hey, I'm going in for my annual review. I’m thinking about asking for Y. Does that seem right to you?” What I’ve found is that 80% of the time I get a yes or no, "that's too high" [or] "that's too low,” they then come back with, “Here's what I make, in case it's helpful.” It's an easier ask than just straight up saying, “What do you make?”

If we just ask women and people of color, we will get lower numbers. So go find a white man, and ask him what he thinks.

Say you find out that number, and it’s a huge discrepancy. How do you bring it up with your manager? Do you reveal that this specific person told you that they made much more than you? How do you frame it?

In general, I would never say who the person is. That just brings risk onto them. I wouldn't straight-up say, “That's not fair.” That, unfortunately locks yourself into a competitive discussion about what fair is. What you want to do is to go one level deeper and approach somebody in terms of what their interests are and how your interests align with that. You could say, “You know, I've been doing some research, and it looks like the market value for this role at this point in time is about X. What do you think about that?”

I feel like benchmarking is easier when you have a job that has very clear levels, like an engineer, for example. But how do you negotiate when your role’s a little bit less structured or more unique? How do you know what you're supposed to be paid and what the norms are if you don't have a good comparison?

I advise clients to be out in the market every 18 months or so. You are worth as much as somebody else will pay you. So if you have a highly ambiguous role where it's near-impossible to figure that out, then the best way for you to figure it out is to see what somebody else would pay.

Is there any instance where you would recommend not negotiating?

The answer to that question is probably to understand the other side's BATNA, or best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Basically, what's your backup plan? If your company has been losing people left and right, then their backup plan is pretty weak, and it might be a good time to negotiate. Right now in general I would say is a really good time. If your back’s against a wall and you're highly emotional, I would probably give yourself a few days before negotiating.

What do you do when your company says, “Here's your raise, here's what we're offering you. It's non-negotiable.”

I think that's, again, why you do not want a single-issue negotiation, because they can do that. But you can go into your midyear or annual review, or whatever the conversation is, and say, “Here are three things that would allow me to deliver more impact.” Because of the way human nature works, if they don't give you one, then it increases the likelihood that they'll give you another. Maybe they say, “Unfortunately, because of budgetary reasons, raises are locked at X percent this year, but we were able to get you another team member, or support for the executive program that you want to be a part of, or additional training.”

If your company has been losing people left and right, then their backup plan is pretty weak, and it might be a good time to negotiate.

Do you have any final thoughts on the biggest misconception women have when it comes to negotiation?

What I’ve found is that there are four things that hold women back from negotiating. One is fear of backlash. That is real. I think that this approach significantly mitigates it. Then there are three other lies that women tell themselves. One of them is, “Well, what if they tell me, ‘No?’” They feel like, “'No' means I'm not worth it.” But actually, it is not a read on who you are as a person. It's just a piece of information that you take in and then do something with. The other one blows me away, because I used to say it: “Well, I'm not going to ask for more, because I have everything that I need. I can pay my bills.” And then the third one that I hear a lot is, “Oh, I'm just not good at this,” which I think kind of devolves into, “Women just aren't good at this.” And that's untrue. You may not be good at this yet because you haven't been given the right tools yet, or you haven't had enough time to practice yet. But to believe that women aren't good negotiators is factually untrue. And in cultures that are less individualistic than ours, women actually consistently have better results than men. It's just that in ours, we have to tweak the rules of the game a little bit.

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