Expand the pie: 5 tips for the compensation conversation

Wedding pie. (Photo by Cassidy Duhon)
Wedding pie. (Photo by Photo by Cassidy Duhon)

When you imagine a negotiation, you probably imagine this scene: on one side of the table, there’s an employee who wants more money -- a bigger slice of the pie. On the other side, a manager who wants to save some pie for other employees, for big projects, and for the sake of the bottom line.

When Will Neville-Rehbehn of VShift got married about four years ago, he wasn’t thinking about salaries or compensation packages. But he was thinking about pie.

He knew that not only did he want pie at his wedding, he also wanted to make the pies himself. Everyone told him it was not only unconventional but also impossible. Instead of compromising on what he wanted, he zoomed out and thought about what was important to him. He ended up with a custom four-layer cake and 108 glass jars of homemade pie, which he gave as wedding favors.

“The point is: expand the pie. If you are talking only about salary, you’re talking about a number,” he said. “If you’re talking about a compensation package, the world of what you’re asking about just got bigger.”

Neville-Rehbehn led a session with Meredith Artley of CNN on compensation during the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media this week at Poynter. Here are five tips from Neville-Rehbehn on expanding the pie, getting what you want and having the compensation conversation.

1. Think about your life goals and think about how to get there

“There are milestones in life that take different kinds of planning,” Neville-Rehbehn said. At different times of your life, you may be trying to “pull together a down payment, level up your skills to change the trajectory of your career. [Maybe you’re] coming from a dysfunctional organization to look for people you don’t mind working with every day.” Keeping your priorities in mind when you go into a negotiation may allow you to weigh your options and enhance your compensation package beyond just asking for more money. Neville-Rehbehn says you should figure out what it is that you want out of where you currently work or where you’re looking to work and what you want your life in general. “That’s going to give you a lot more flexibility when you think about money and what you want as part of this package,” he said.

2. Think about other things you can ask for beyond salary

When you look at the picture of your life and what you want to prioritize, it may become apparent that there are ways to get what you want that have nothing to do with money, or at least nothing to do with the actual number that shows up on your W-2. “There are the things you may not know are on the table, such as relocation expenses, equity, signing bonuses, negotiable vacation time, things that change so drastically from company to company that you’re not sure if it’s something you should be talking about,” Neville-Rehbehn said. You can approach these conversations as a potential new hire in an exploratory way, like a reporter. “You can say, ‘I’m literally just learning how you handle this. Signing bonuses. Is that a thing you do that I should be asking about?’”

3. Consider who is on the other side of the table

Your strategy in a negotiation should change based on your relationship with the person across the table, Neville-Rehbehn says.

"In certain circumstances," he advises, "you may even want to literally get up and sit next to that person, particularly if you are the one doing the hiring." 

If you’re speaking to the manager you have a strained relationship with, your approach may be different than if you’re speaking to the human resources representative you have no relationship with. If you know how your manager likes to handle difficult conversations -- at the office or at Starbucks, over email or face-to-face, scheduled or spontaneous -- use that information to your advantage and be respectful and strategic about how you approach the conversation.  “They want you and they want you to say yes. So you may have more power than you think,” he said.

4. Think of it as problem-solving

“When we think of negotiation, we think of compromise instead of problem-solving,” he said. But when you are being hired for a job, or when you are negotiating at a place you work, “This isn’t a fight -- it’s really important to come out of this excited to go to work together.” It’s okay to acknowledge the awkwardness of the moment and to diffuse it by joking or talking about how awkward it is. But the reality of the situation is that replacing someone is incredibly hard, time-consuming and expensive, and employers want to keep the good people who work for them. Neville-Rehbehn advises employees to look back at their list of priorities, of how they want their lives to look, and to advocate for themselves based on that list, but with the expectations and goals of the employer in mind also. For example, he said, if the employer is looking to fill a certain position quickly, perhaps they’ll pay more in a signing bonus. If your goal is to spend more time with your family, perhaps negotiating for less travel is the way to solve that problem. “You have more power than you think,” he said.

5. Find salary buddies

It’s important to do your research on what people in your position are being paid in your industry and in your area, but your information shouldn’t just come from long hours combing the Internet. Finding people who work in similar organizations or do similar work and talking frankly about salary with them is essential. He suggests asking general questions, like, “How much do you know about how people get paid at your newsroom?’” Because, he says, “It’s not only ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,’ it’s more about the process and the people than collecting a spreadsheet of numbers.” And in order to get salary buddies, you also have to be a salary buddy.

“Being vulnerable and being the person to say it, you have to be willing to put down what you ask,” Neville-Rehbehn says. “It’s destigmatizing the conversation, so you’re more comfortable and more informed when you are not under the spotlight.” Also, knowing what a range of people make gives you a better idea of what to ask for and can give you more leverage in conversations about compensation.

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