Bullish: How Negotiating A Raise Is Like Dating


One of the first Bullish columns I ever wrote was Bullish: How Business is Like Dating.

As I’ve been plowing through reader questions in response to Bullish: How to Ask for More Money, Part I and Part II, I felt like I was writing “Bullish: How Asking For Money is Like Lots of Stuff About Boys.” I tried to refine the title just a bit.

From Aida, a quandary that surely others are in as well:

“What if you’re desperate? Like, “I’ve been unemployed for x months/years, I really need this job to get back in the workforce/get my foot in the door/build my resume,” so you’d happily work for peanuts, but you don’t want to screw over your future self by starting out with a low salary you might spend the next 5-10 years trying to climb out of?”

First off, figure out what you actually need to live a normal life. Not a bare minimum — people who make a bare minimum are thrown off the horse by even the slightest emergency or setback, and then those people don’t make it into work due to dental pain or not having a car. Figure out what you need to be able to be a good employee who has mental space to think about the job.

Then, think about the future, when your loved ones get old and then you do, too.

So, come up with some kind of number and keep that in the back of your head.

And then spin the situation like hell. You’ve been consulting or freelancing? You charged $60 an hour? At 20 hours per week, that would be $62,000. So what if you didn’t actually manage to bill 20 hours per week.

Imagine that you have an inner dude. His minimum probably isn’t the amount he needs to literally not die. His minimum is a dude minimum. How much does he ask for? Probably twice that.

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. You have a not-quite-minimum number in your head. You know to ask for more — don’t settle for that minimum just because you’re desperate. How do you get started?

If there’s a family business anywhere in your family, work there for a bit. This is a time-honored way to build your salary history. If there are no family businesses, try being an assistant to a random rich/busy person. Sometimes such a person will fudge the numbers on your behalf — for instance, backing up the claim that you were paid $52,000 per year when you actually made $25/hour 18 hours a week (because if you had worked at $25/hour full-time, you’d have made $52,000/year).

Develop a resume that plays up all your freelance work and odd jobs, and claim that you’ve been making some reasonable amount of money at these things, but that the reason you’re looking for a full-time job is for more stability, and because you miss being part of a team and having coworkers. As in, “I can make $45,000 on my own, but I’d rather make about the same while learning from you guys.”

And, as with dating, don’t seem desperate. Send off the scent that you have a lot of options, but you’re happy to consider a new one.

(Did I just invent Job Pheromones? Quick, someone get the domain name!)

From “G”:

“I have only ever negotiated my wage twice in my young working life. The first time the woman who was interviewing me gave me a bitchy “do you want the job or not” to which I capitulated and meekly took what I was offered. The second time, after I had read your articles (during a phone interview with a recruitment agency) when I stated my starting rate at a measly $25ph the woman acted shocked and tried to bully me into admitting that what I was asking was “quite high”.

I managed to hold my ground and squeak out that that was what I have been previously paid for the same role, (and FYI it is less than I am paid for handing out samples of alcohol) – but it was pretty hard. And I think I won’t be getting a call back because of it.

NO WONDER females don’t ask for more money! This shit is stressful over and above the base level of stress that an interview entails in the first place.”

This wasn’t meant as a question, exactly, but thanks for this letter!

Yes, this shit is stressful! I can’t tell you how useful it is to me that my stress-meter sort of overloaded and broke (when my company failed). That, plus (finally) having enough money and options to walk away, make me really chill about this stuff. But I understand! When I was a kid, there were parent-teacher conferences about how I was too sensitive.

I think in some cases, it’s important to toughen up and just ask for money exactly the same way a dude would. In other cases, having more nuanced social skills is a better tack. In to Bullish: How to Ask for More Money, Part I, I suggested trying to draft the decisionmaker to your side. There are ways to get what you want without sitting across a big desk and talking like Michael Douglas in basically any movie from the ‘80s or ‘90s.

For instance, if someone tries to tell you that $25 an hour is “too high,” do a little quick math and say, “That’s actually less than $40,000 a year after taxes, actually!” Maybe add, “You know the cost of living around here, of course.”

I’d try to say it as though, obviously, the hiring agent is on my side — she must just have never really thought about it that way before! Of course you wouldn’t sit across a desk from someone and wish them a non-living wage, right? (Obviously, some people would, but give the interviewer an opportunity to agree. There’s a possibility that your suggestion that, obviously, you are part of a middle-class world just like she is will shift her into thinking of you as some kind of equal.)

Overall, though, don’t let stressful conversations hold you back from having, well – even more stressful conversations. They’re necessary. Proactively bringing them about is a skill.

Finally, one more tip — if you’re feeling like all is lost and the company just wants a $12/hour wage slave, try this one last ballsy move. Ask, “Is there another position at the company that would be more in line with my experience level? I’d love to work for your company and would be happy to apply for a more appropriate position.” Ballsy!

Of course, some problems don’t have solutions.

You might very possibly negotiate and fail, or ask for more money and not get the job in the first place. Just like you have to go on some failed dates in order to meet the person you really want to meet.

Sometimes, asking “How can I get a raise from my boss?” or, “How can I get paid a reasonable fee for this gig?” is like asking, “How can I get my boyfriend to quit his band and have babies with me instead?” You can’t. You need a new boyfriend.

Let’s see one more letter. From “J,” whose profession and situation I have fictionalized just a wee bit:

“I have finally come to the point where I feel immensely proud of asking a client for as much money as I am worth and saying no to projects that waste my time.

I’m rarely asked what my fees are — a ton of [clown-modeling-surgery-piloting] is flat rate in my industry. When the VP of [clown-modeling-surgery-piloting] at [Coca-Verizon-Goldman-TV] asked me to do [clown-modeling-surgery-piloting] that spoke directly to my skill set, I named my price and even said there would be additional fees for revisions.

I had a bad feeling about the guy already, and sure enough, there wasn’t room in their budget for that. (SERIOUSLY? $500 is too rich for their blood?) I felt triumphant. Isn’t that funny? They would have obviously dicked me over in the long run — my gut feeling was right.”

I love this. Sometimes the best move is walking away. It’s a big world out there.

Allow me to return to my central metaphor here – I think that how a lot of dudes deal with romance is how they deal with jobs. Such dudes are very aware that there are other ladies out there; they don’t get that attached to any one lady.

I’ve been writing about online dating lately on TheGloss. Most of the time that I read a story about someone making a spreadsheet of their dates, or running statistics on their response rates, it’s a dude. A failed date becomes a data point. Whereas many women will have one or two awful experiences, take them personally, and despair about the whole process.

Imagine this were some article on “How to Get Your Boyfriend to Marry You,” and so you try some magical technique, but the guy responds, “Actually, I can get a woman hotter than you to marry me and work a full-time job while also doing all the cooking and cleaning and giving me blowjobs while I play video games.”

You wouldn’t blame the negotiation techniques, or yourself, for not turning that around. Instead, you would conclude that that guy was a douchebag.

Some jobs are just like that. You can’t fix the job, you can’t turn it around. You can’t get someone (a guy, a boss) who never respected you to suddenly start respecting you. You just have to move on. Thank your lucky stars that you realized before another couple of years went by, or before you found yourself complaining to your friends about the VP of Clown-Modeling-Surgery-Piloting, who would by this point be ruining your life on a daily basis.

There are other jobs out there. Even in a terrible economy. Sure, there’s a shortage of good jobs, but those good jobs are disproportionately offered to the same people. You can be one of those people.

originally published on The Grindstone