A Lession in Negotiating – or, the Perils of Fielding an Offer on a Car Barge

Mylène Kerschner, Associate Director

Negotiating has not historically been my strong suit. In fact, I once accepted a job offer over the phone while standing outside on a car ferry between St. John and St. Thomas. I was eager to move back to Philadelphia, and while I was waiting to hear from a prospective employer my sanity completely evaporated when I saw a 215 number calling my cell phone. I answered excitedly and when my future boss warmly offered me the role and indicated what my starting salary would be, emotions got the best of me. I couldn’t hide my delight, even though the salary was lower than I had hoped.

“YES!” I was shocked to hear myself exclaim, overjoyed. “Yes, definit…”

Shoot!! I had wanted to ask for more money! What happened?! I tried to recover.

“I mean. That sounds great,” I backpedaled. “But do you think there’s any flexibility on the salary?” There was an awkward pause on the other end of the line. (I’m fairly certain my future boss was laughing at this unorthodox approach to negotiating.) “Um. Suuuure. I will see what I can do.”
What had I done!? Of course she wasn’t going to “see what she could do.” I’d already accepted! Why would she give me a penny more?! I kicked myself the rest of the way into Red Hook. No additional money was ever offered.

(The scene of my negotiating crime. *SO* obviously not a good place to conduct employment business.)

Naturally, with this in my not-so-distant past, when I started back at Penn in a new role as an advisor for the first time, I approached negotiating conversations with trepidation. How could I advise a student on asking for more anything when I’d done such a poor job of it myself?

Realistically though, that fateful December day in the USVI taught me a couple of very specific things that I’m adamant about when I speak with students about negotiating.

Number one – You don’t need to answer on the spot! I absolutely should have asked for more time to consider. Heck, I should have asked for any time to consider! My enthusiasm got the better of me, and as I imagined being back near friends and family for the holidays, the practical side of my brain shut down. And that’s fine! It can be overwhelming to receive an offer, which is why there is ZERO obligation to respond immediately. Buy yourself a little bit of time to evaluate. No decent employer should force you to answer on the spot – it’s not expected.

“Thank you so much! I’d love to have a little bit of time to consider. By what date do you need me to decide?” Not saying these three sentences definitely cost me actual dollars in my paycheck.

Number two – Know your worth. Going in, I should have had a clear number in my mind of what I wanted to make based on research I’d done by industry and by location. I had spent so much time considering my own personal intangibles – being back home in Philadelphia, the fact that I’d be able to buy a box of Triscuits for less than $8, etc. – I hadn’t done my research and evaluated what I actually wanted to be earning, and what I could reasonably ask for based on my background. This made it all the easier for my emotions to take over during that call.

These are two pretty straightforward basics, but of course there are many nuances involved in negotiating and lots of things to consider before you even receive an offer.

I loved reading Ellen Pompeo’s story in The Hollywood Reporter about salary negotiation. The Hollywood Reporter points out that “actors typically hate discussing their paychecks in the press, but Pompeo… has chosen to do so… in the hope of setting an example for others.” And this is important. The more transparency there is with salary, the more parity there can be. So, resist the sentiment that it’s uncouth to discuss your earnings. Crowdsourcing can be valuable very literally when you’re considering an offer. Channel your inner Meredith Grey.

Also check out the Career Tools Series Webinar “Don’t Leave Money Behind: A Negotiation Webinar for Women,” whether or not you are a woman. Career Services director Pat Rose addresses everything from what to enter in the “Desired Salary” field on an application, to how to dodge the salary question if it arises during an interview.

With these resources and my two fundamentals, I’m confident you won’t field an offer unprepared and on a car barge between two Virgin Islands. And that makes me feel a little bit less terrible about the time that I did.

Author: Mylène

Mylène Kerschner is an Associate Director in Career Services working with the College of Arts & Sciences team.

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