Work & Money
Ask Lauren: Negotiating Now
Some good news: Parents have more room to negotiate than ever. From how to reset expectations at the office and with kids who always want more of you, columnist Lauren Smith Brody offers guidance for getting what you want at work and home.
- Written By
- Lauren Smith Brody
- Maria-Ines Gul
I have to share an embarrassing story. Many years ago, I was a finalist for a very cool job that I really, really wanted. In the back and forth email follow-ups, I offered to send the hiring manager – a middle-aged man – some more ideas and examples of my work to prove that I was the best candidate. He wrote back a one-line reply: “Keep your powder dry, Brody.”
What?! I had never heard that phrase before and assumed he was making some sort of weird sexist joke about how I needed to go powder my nose. I was outraged. Eventually, a dad friend who works in finance had to explain to me that he was talking about gun powder, not the stuff in my makeup bag.
There are a lot of old-school negotiation rules like that one that are overdue for an update.
“The first person to name a price loses.” That’s a classic one and often true. But…what if you don’t want to waste precious (valuable!) time waiting to find out their number is way too low?
And when pitching new clients, I often think of an old mentor of mine who was fond of saying, “you’re selling until they’re buying.” But, what if the kind of “selling” they require feels phony? And don’t you deserve to be “bought” just as you are?
Fake it ’til you make it? Dress for the job you want, not the job you have? Nope and nope.
These old rules are not bad exactly; they just need to factor in the tremendous value shift that families have been through during Covid, as we have had to prioritize our family’s wellness and our mental health. Even if this virus disappeared tomorrow, no one’s moving backward on that.
As a result, parents have more room to negotiate than ever – for fair pay, fair division of labor, fair representation, and expectations. And we can do so in a newly authentic and transparent way that ultimately creates a better world for our kids. That’s the goal, after all, that we all have in common. And a common goal is the secret to every good negotiation. So here, my answers to your trickiest (and most interesting!) questions about negotiating now:
Q: How can I reset expectations on my working hours and output after having a baby?
A: In a fair world, you’d have a brilliant, empathetic manager, a well-resourced team, fully flexible policies, and six months of paid parental leave for both you and your partner. Oh, that’s not the world you’re living in? Then – I’m both sorry and glad to say – you get to be the one to negotiate your new terms.
There’s a basic formula I follow for these negotiations, and I’ll spell it out quickly at the end of this answer. But first – and almost more importantly – you must convince yourself. Then, when you know your value, you can ask for the changes you want from a position of pride and strength.
At home, realize that the care you provide for your baby is essential labor. We are not paid for it – and goodness knows our public policies don’t support it sufficiently – but it’s the bedrock of our economy as we raise the next generation. So whatever flexibility you need to be able to do that valuable unpaid work while maintaining your income and work product is legitimate.
At work, remember that they’re thrilled you’re back! Thirty percent of moms leave their jobs within a year of having a baby, and attrition costs companies a fortune, 6 to 9 months of a person’s salary on average. And by staying on your terms – in a way that lets you keep going and even grow – you’re a potential money-making machine. Women leaders drive profits. There are a bunch of studies on this, but one recent one showed that if we had gender parity among executives, the United States’ gross domestic product would increase by 26%.
Not great at drawing boundaries? Know that doing so is a very managerial skill – you’ve got to get out of the beneath-paygrade piddly stuff to move up and have time and space for things like business development, mentoring, and innovation. Being a new mom is a great catalyst here.
Next, it’s good to realize that although you might feel conspicuous upon your return, you’re not alone in need of a reset. Many of your colleagues are also in a transitional moment, just back from working remotely or entertaining offers from competing employers in a hot job market. The flexibility and boundaries you need might be pretty universal. And in fact, you might be negotiating not just for yourself but for everyone you work with who has caregiving needs and might be unable to speak up as loudly. And by helping model this new way of working, you’re providing proof of concept on the flexibility that will make your company a more attractive employer, recruiting and retaining the best workers.
Feeling convinced? Great! Then here’s your 5-step plan:
- Do your research, so you know what flexibility your competitors offer, and you can make a case for your company’s being a leader (or keeping up!).
- Know your concrete job description, so you can come up with a plan (not an ask…a plan!) that satisfies your duties on your terms – proving that you don’t need to take a pay cut.
- Enter into the conversation with a “career development” approach. You are here to strategize how to be a satisfied, innovative, high-contributing employee for the long term, making progress for your whole company.
- Anticipate the pushback, and have a plan B as well. Know that whomever you’re talking to probably needs to negotiate on your behalf with the folks above them. Give them the tools they need.
- Do a trial period. Again, you’re helping your employer by piloting this new way of working. Schedule a check-in, communicate clearly, and adjust as needed!
Q: How can I justify asking for what I need while knowing my co-workers have to pick my slack?
A: Why thank you for asking the perfect follow-up to the above question! First of all, see the point above about how when you ask for flexibility around your personal life, you’re ultimately helping everyone else with less visible personal life needs too.
Next, one of the best practices I teach in management training is to assemble a team that has a “swing.” You know how Broadway casts have a few understudies who can fill in for multiple roles? Hospitals do the same thing, often staffing a doctor who could fill any number of positions on a care team, just in case. Basically, when the stakes are high (the curtain is rising, or, you know, people might die), some of the budget is saved for this kind of staffing.
Given the enormous attrition of workers, especially parents, right now (and the measurable loss of productivity among the teammates they leave behind), I’m going to go ahead and say it: The stakes are high in many, many fields.
Right, I know, you’re not necessarily in charge of HR or the budget. Regardless, here’s how you can play a role in this important progress: Camaraderie and fluidity. Deliberately offer to cover for some of your co-workers while on vacation or have a personal life need. Ask them to teach you a bit of what they do. Teach them a bit of what you do. Work together to create shared systems and documents that everyone has access to in a pinch. Have coffee (or impromptu walking meetings, both remote and on the phone) with your teammates to get to know them as people. Then, together, make this trust and sharing of duties visible to the folks above you. And the next time there’s a mid-level-ish opening, suggest a swing.
Q: Help me negotiate with my kids, who are simply vultures for my time, especially when I need to be working. I got in trouble recently for going on “only” half the field trip.
Okay, this tip is super specific and entirely biased by my own hard-earned lessons, but if you can “only” go on half of the field trip, try to make it the second half, so you’re a welcome addition, not sneaking out early.
More broadly, vultures prey on roadkill. Do not be roadkill in the traffic of family life! Do not act guilty! You’re doing nothing wrong! It’s human nature for kids to want as much of you as possible. But we are doing them no good to be all available to them all the time. And you can give them access to you in another meaningful way: By letting them in on what your work is all about. Don’t hide your busiest days away from them. Talk about your victories and your struggles. Help them understand WHY you do this work and what it gives you (yes, money, but also identity, teamwork, or a way to help people). And think about what you’re modeling for them in the work you do – independence, resilience, purpose, determination – and know that even when you’re saying yes to paid work and no to them, you ARE actually parenting. I think that helps.