get that money

When Asking for More Money Backfires

Photo: fizkes/iStock/Getty Images

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

When asking an employer for money, the conventional wisdom is to demand the highest amount you can possibly say out loud (or type in an email) with a straight face — plus more. The worst that can happen is they say no, right? As my friend Jess once told me, “If they don’t laugh at you when you name a number, then you didn’t ask for enough.” She has a business degree and makes more money than I ever will, so I figure she knows what she’s talking about.

But that approach can also backfire — sometimes spectacularly, as it did for Anya, 33, who recently put in for a modest raise at a company where she’d been doing contract work for two years. “I’d always gotten positive feedback, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask,” she said. But when she did, the company didn’t just decline. It launched an in-depth evaluation of the revenue her work was generating, determined it wasn’t enough, and canceled her contract entirely.

Asking for more money has blown up in my face, too. Last year, an editor reached out to see if I could do some writing for his small publication — a low-stakes situation, it would seem. I was busy, so I named a much bigger fee than normal, as I didn’t want to add the project to my plate unless I was well compensated. I assumed he’d counteroffer and we’d meet somewhere in the middle, but instead he said yes — and then wanted me to deliver unrealistic results (namely, very high-profile interview subjects) in return. I felt guilty about letting him down, but his expectations were just … no. After trying to make it work, we finally agreed to part ways.

In both of these cases, Anya and I thought we’d get a simple yes or no, but wound up with messy, costly, and time-consuming results — a negotiator’s worst fear. For all the conversations around asking for more and the importance of transparency about finances, there seems to be a crucial missing piece: What happens when asking for more money goes sideways? How can we parlay it into a decent outcome, or prevent it from happening in the first place?

The first answer may be obvious, but it’s critical: Thorough research can nip a lot of these problems in the bud, says Alexandra Dickinson, a career and negotiation expert who leads membership strategy at SoFi, a personal finance company. “Do your due diligence about both yourself and the marketplace,” she explains. “You can start with salary websites, but I also recommend talking to at least six people — three women and three men — who are familiar with the work you’re considering and can offer advice on what you should ask for.”

Then, determine how much your work is worth to the people you’re approaching. “If you can put a dollar amount on your sales or other accomplishments, great,” Dickinson says. “But otherwise, look at the value you’ve created for your team, your manager, and your company. Also, consider the value that you helped save. For example, maybe a colleague left and their role didn’t get filled so you picked up the slack.” The more specifically you can quantify your strengths, with actual stats and examples, the more solid your case will be. (For example, Anya might have mitigated her situation by soliciting more direct, quantitative feedback from her employer before asking for a raise — although in her defense, her employer should have offered it to her, too.)

Next, there’s the tricky part of making the ask. Claire Wasserman, the founder of Ladies Get Paid, an organization that provides career resources to women, agrees that this can be a double bind — you want to aim high, but not so high that you seem naive or overprice yourself. “It all depends on how you communicate,” she says. “Some salary coaches recommend waiting for the employer to name a figure first, but if you know the market and have data to back up your value, then I say put it out there.” If you’re not sure whether the company can afford that figure, then she recommends making it an open-ended statement. “I’ll start high, and then I’ll say, ‘But I’m willing to negotiate.’ Or, ‘Depending on your needs and the scope of this project or job.’ You want to indicate that it’s a starting point for the conversation.”

This tactic is known as “anchoring” — a term used in behavioral economics to describe the brain’s tendency to focus on an initial value and use it as a baseline to compare subsequent amounts. (You see this on food menus quite a bit — restaurants usually place their most expensive item someplace prominent, making the other offerings look like a deal by comparison.) In money negotiations, anchoring can hurt you if you start too high, because your potential employer might fixate on that first amount even if you have no expectation that they’ll actually meet it. So choose carefully.

I used to think that getting paid was like a chess game where two people were trying to outmaneuver each other, to opposite ends. Now I’ve realized that it’s more like what it seems: two people in a room (or an email chain), both anxious and sweating, worried they’re going to do something wrong or piss each other off. While asking for more money should be a routine part of making a living, one that managers respond to in a logical and level-headed manner, it’s often more of a gray, slippery area. That’s no excuse for anyone to avoid the payment conversation (or be underpaid). But it’s worth remembering that the person on the other side of it may be just as nervous as you are.

For that reason, if your quest for more money does go off the rails, you should always be prepared ask why. “Don’t be afraid of a ‘no,’ because a no gives you information,” says Dickinson. “It may not be the answer you want to hear, but it gives you material to work with. It helps you step back and ask something constructive, like, ‘If not now, when?’ Or, ‘What would I have to do to get the amount I want?’ It also allows you to think about, ‘Do I still have a future here that I should continue to work toward?’” Plus, it gives you an opening to refocus the discussion on why you’re there in the first place — to get stuff done together, under conditions you can agree on.

Of course, I should also mention: If you genuinely suspect that you’ve been the subject of discrimination — which you very well may be — read this and consider your options for recourse. You’ve probably heard of the widely-cited (and damning) studies showing that women are more likely than men to be penalized for trying to negotiate higher salaries, and/or get flat-out denied. It’s a raw deal. But it offers even further impetus to keep having these conversations as openly and strategically as possible.

In Anya’s case, she’s done a lot of thinking since her raise talk went awry. “It taught me to look at myself more honestly, from a business perspective,” she says. “I went into that conversation not knowing what I was worth to the company, and I should have tried to get more information beforehand. I don’t think what happened was entirely my fault, but I could have controlled the circumstances better.” She’s now more calculating about which jobs she takes, and makes sure that expectations are very clear before she does. For my own part, I do too.

“I urge people to approach negotiations as a social experiment,” says Wasserman. “They’re an opportunity to observe. And remember, both sides are on the same team. You each need to be willing to give up something in order to get something, which means that you each need to know your bottom line.” In that sense, hearing a “no” or hitting an uncomfortable spot can mean you’re doing something right — you’ve hit the “laughing” point that my friend Jess described. If you don’t push against it from time to time, how else do you know where it is?

When Asking for More Money Backfires