This is a guest article by our friend Alison Fragale. Alison helps individuals and organizations negotiate, influence, and lead better by understanding the science of people. She is an organizational psychologist, international keynote speaker, and award-winning professor at the University of North Carolina. She also loves, in no particular order: cheap coffee, not-so-cheap wine, fabulous shoes, home organizing, sushi, the Pittsburgh Steelers, Orange Theory workouts, Hallmark movies, and The Golden Girls. To learn more about Alison, visit her website.
“How do I negotiate effectively with a potential new employer if I’ve been laid off? If the employer knows I’m not currently working, doesn’t that limit my negotiation leverage?”
Unfortunately, this is a negotiation question I’ve been getting a lot this month. If this question applies to you, let me start with this: I’m sorry. You don’t deserve it. And you are amazing. You were amazing when you had a job. You are equally amazing without one. And you will still be amazing when you find your next opportunity.
Now, let me answer your question: No you don’t necessarily lose your leverage in a negotiation just because you’re currently unemployed. In fact, with an effective strategy your unemployment can even be to your advantage. One element of an effective strategy: Signaling “Authentic Strength.”
What you don’t want to signal: “I’m desperate. I’m broke. I’m demoralized. I’m starting to question everything I thought I knew about myself. I’ll take any job I can get. Any job, literally.” This may be authentic, but it’s not necessarily strategic. Your counterpart may feel sorry for you, but they will also think (even nonconsciously) that they have a lot of leverage in the discussion and be less creative in working to get you a great deal.
But, you don’t want to lie or misrepresent either; for example, saying you have other offers when you don’t, or suggesting or stating that you’re still with your former company – these approaches are obviously not authentic, and they’re not even strategic. Get caught in a lie and your reputation will burn like wildfire. And, if you act too disinterested in the opportunity because you think playing “hard to get” will give you leverage, this strategy often backfires – if an employer thinks there’s no chance they can get you, they often will not even try and just move on to the next candidate they think is more obtainable.
What you do want to signal: “I’m the candidate you really want to be talking to. Not only do I bring valuable skills to the table, but I’m also actively job searching, and I’m ready to say yes to the right opportunity. I’m really interested in your firm and I could see myself making a major contribution here, if we can come up with an arrangement that is a win for both of us.”
To do this, reframe your current narrative so you display authentic strength – something that is completely true, showcases your enthusiasm and your talents, and also indicates that you are willing and able to wait for the right opportunity. For example, maybe you are enjoying the extra time with your family. You could truthfully say, “My kids are loving the extra time they get with me these days, and I’m loving it, too. It’s made me realize that when I do choose my next opportunity, I want it to be one filled with meaning and impact. That’s why I’m excited to be exploring this possibility with you.”
Alternately, you could take an action that changes your reality and helps you construct a stronger narrative. For example, my friend’s son just took a job at Ace Hardware after being laid off from his corporate job. He is young and newly married and thought that it would bring in a little money and get him out of his apartment. And, he thought he could learn a lot about home improvement that would ultimately benefit him when he becomes a homeowner. But, this action to work at Ace may also help him construct a narrative of authentic strength in a future negotiation. He could choose to highlight this in a discussion with a potential employer, saying something like, “When I was laid off, I decided to use my unexpected unemployment as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn a new skill. I love home improvement and I’ve always thought it would be amazing to be able to renovate an old house, but I didn’t have the skills. So rather than just jumping into another corporate role right away, I decided to spend some time working at Ace to up my game. I’m either going to stay there until I learn how to build an entire house from the ground up, or I find a new corporate opportunity that is even more exciting. I’ve learned of the great work you’re doing, and I’m hopeful this might be the kind of opportunity that is worth hanging up my tool belt.”
These are just examples, of course, and they may not represent your authentic truth. But I guarantee you do have an authentic narrative that signals “I’m talented, I’m excited about finding an opportunity to use those talents, and I am interested to see if this is the opportunity.” With some planning and strategy, you can find this voice and use it as one of several tools in the negotiation for your next dream job.
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