Q&A with Jamie Lee and Jen: What Role Does “Fairness” Play in Negotiating?


Ji Eun (Jamie) Lee will be presenting Hands-on Workshop for Negotiation Prowess at the 2013 Bullish Conference this November 29 – Dec 1.

Bullish: Hi Jamie, thanks for talking with us today. I recently attended a seminar about negotiating, and I remember hearing a speaker suggest that we keep in mind when negotiating that, after all, we’re only asking for “what’s fair.” I thought, hmmn … no. I think that’s a very stereotypically female way of thinking. While you’re asking for what you think is “fair,” men are asking for three times that. And what is “fair,” anyway? The whole idea of fairness is often used by employers to keep workers (equally) down — the pretense of democracy is used to keep from paying the highest-value employees in line with the value they provide.

Jamie: You make an excellent point regarding the “fairness” argument in the context of salary negotiation. I’ve been subject to this same argument myself at the negotiation table. Because I know this to be a negotiation tactic, my response was to not respond to it. When used effectively, silence can convey power and the willingness to walk away from the table.

Bullish: So what role does the idea of “fairness” really play in negotiating?

Jamie: To me, the idea of fairness reminds me of childhood — particularly the flawed childhood lessons in negotiation that don’t apply in the real world of work. Think of six year old Sally stomping her feet, scowling her face at her parents, and demanding for the same toys and privileges as her older sibling Mary. “That’s not fair!” she cries.

Or, in my case, growing up with two siblings meant bickering over limited resources on the table, namely food. If we had to share a pie, I would not be happy if my older sibling got the lion’s share of it. To be fair, it would have to be split into even thirds, but that was hardly the case. The bigger or faster sibling got to eat more pie than the smaller or slower one. You had to fight for more, and someone, a slow eater like me, would invariably complain that it wasn’t fair.

By the way, the field of conflict resolution has a term to describe the scenario of splitting the pie; it’s called distributive bargaining. That’s definitely not the type of negotiation I’d advise, because a professional delivers and grows the value of her company or client. She’s growing the pie, not splitting it.

Okay, so life isn’t fair. As working women we have to see and act in the world as it actually is and not how we think it should be. It doesn’t serve us to approach the negotiation table with an idealized expectation that our employers or clients will pay us what’s fair, because that’s what we think they should do. For the same reason, it’s never a good idea to ask for more pay based on the argument that you should make just as much as a coworker, or — if you’re a consultant or contractor — someone in your field, who does similar work as you. I’m talking about comparing, which is not to be confused with benchmarking against industry standards. By comparing, you might think you’re just asking for what’s fair, but to the other side, you could come across as whiny and childish, like little Sally.

Instead, make the argument based on your own merits and the value you bring to the table. How did you help the company or client achieve their business goals? What were the positive outcomes of your services and contributions? If you are delivering great value, and you can make a compelling case for it, you can open a dialogue for getting more for it. The right mindset, with a focus on the value of your work, underlies effective self-advocacy, asking and getting your worth.

In other words, instead of worrying about how the pie is split, aim your focus on how you are growing the pie.

Bullish: Thanks, Jamie! I’m looking forward to your workshop at BullCon. And I’m sure I’m not the only one!

The Bullish Conference takes place November 29-December 1 at the Surfcomber Hotel in Miami. Read all about it and register here.