Why Being Nice Can Hurt You in Salary Talks
Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison highlights an awful salary-negotiating tactic someone tried on him, along with five techniques that stand a better chance at success.
The candidate stepped into my office carrying, of all things, a fruit basket.
It was the final round of interviews and meeting me was part of it. As the candidate talked about his eagerness to join the firm, I kept waiting for some explanation—some story—that would make sense of the half dozen apples, four pears, and three oranges sitting in on my desk.
A family orchard, perhaps? Some point he wanted to make? Nope. It was just his way of being nice—and it felt manipulative.
When most people think of “nice,” they think of being pleasant and likable. But when it’s camouflaged to disguise weaknesses and shortcomings, then it’s just ingratiating and placating. It’s a ploy, and it feels insulting.
Simply put, it is the worst strategy to use during a salary negotiation.
Of course, no one wants to deal with a jerk—someone who comes in “hot” with unreasonable demands, as if arrogance is a strategy. But it’s just as problematic when people believe being nice will land them a better deal.
It doesn’t always pay to play nice.
According to new research from Harvard University, being too nice in a negotiation can backfire—and after more than 20 years of interviewing and hiring, I couldn’t agree more.
Across four experiments, and with more than 1,500 participants, researchers tested the economic and interpersonal implications of different negotiation strategies. They found that negotiators with a tough and firm communication style achieved better outcomes than those who were warm and friendly. “Negotiators should recognize that being nice may make it more difficult to claim a lot of value,” the study’s authors wrote in a Harvard Business Review article.
Of course, the goal is to get what you want and walk away with your relationship intact. But niceness that crosses the line into phoniness is a major red flag in both interviewing and negotiating.
So how do you improve your negotiation strategy? If you can master the five rules below, then it won’t matter if you’re naughty or nice:
1. Don’t be too agreeable.
Someone who only nods and says “yes” without countering on anything comes across as naive or, even worse, desperate. Whenever I meet candidates who are too agreeable, I can’t help but wonder: Are they completely out of options? Does this unwillingness to engage in the give-and-take signal how they’ll interact with customers and vendors?
Collective genius comes from constructive conflict—when the deeper questions get asked and explored. And often, an overly agreeable person won’t engage in that process. For all these reasons, a smiley face isn’t going to tip the balance for you. Negotiation is all about leverage and the value you bring to an organization.
2. Work together.
With all due respect to “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone was wrong when he declared: “It’s not personal, it’s strictly business.” When it comes to negotiating a salary with your current or future boss, it’s both!
I’ve seen it all: Shouting matches, uncontrollable sobbing, storming out. Even if it works and you end up reaching a deal, you’ll still need to work together once you’re officially part of the company. And people—your boss, especially—will never forget how you acted during the negotiation.
The bottom line? Work together and be professional. Do it in a way that acknowledges you’re both on the same side of the table.
3. Have a value mindset.
You’ll never have as much leverage as you do when an employer makes you an offer. It means you have best and most essential skills compared to all the other candidates who interviewed for the job—and that the leaders really want you to join the team.
So, focus on the value you bring to helping the company achieve its goals. Doing so can keep you from coming off as arrogant or greedy, and it will prevent you from underselling yourself.
Without a value mindset, it doesn’t matter how nice you are or how friendly your smile is. (Mr. Fruit Basket learned this the hard way. When we checked his references, the opinions about him were unanimous and validated my view: Nice guy, little value.)
4. Do your homework.
Always do market research on what your position is worth. Look at job sites and listings for similar positions. Ask a recruiter or seek out advice from your network.
Once you have a number, keep it in your back pocket. Also important: Never respond to part of a verbal offer with: “What do you think about X salary?”
It’s kind of like buying a car: It doesn’t matter how “nice” or “happy” the salesperson is to see you. When the smiles fade and the dealing begins, you don’t negotiate against yourself by giving your number first. Instead, you wait for them to give you their “best price” for the car you want.
Salary negotiation is really no different: Know your number and where you’re willing to be flexible.
5. Think like your boss.
By putting yourself in your boss’ shoes, you’ll see that he or she isn’t trying to be stingy. Rather, there are budgets for compensation and a rationale for how salaries are divvied up.
If you want to earn more, you need to demonstrate how you deliver value and contribute to achieving the company’s goals and priorities. Think about what past achievements indicate the kind of strong contributor you’ll be.
By thinking like your boss, you can paint a picture of how you’ll improve outcomes. That kind of substance will make a far greater impact than any fruit basket ever will.
A version of this article appears on CNBC.com.