Negotiating During the Pandemic: 4 Keys to Success

These are shaky times for the US economy. In April, a record 20.5 million jobs were lost, driving the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent — numbers we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. The economy received a boost from increasing employment numbers in May, but the job market is likely to need more time to fully recover from this pandemic.
Unfortunately, people can’t sit just around and wait for that to happen. People need work. They need to pay their bills, even in a pandemic. And some organizations are in the enviable position of needing to hire, or they’re still hammering out deals with potential partners or clients.
So, negotiations of all kinds will continue, even as we navigate our way through the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, according to Alison Fragale, a negotiation expert and professor of organizational behavior at the University of North Carolina, negotiation has never been more important than it is right now.
“Step one in succeeding in a negotiation is getting your mindset right,” Fragale says. “If you go in with weak expectations, you’re going to get a weak result.”
What does it take to negotiate successfully during a pandemic? Here are four expert-backed tips to help employees and employers alike:
1. Clarify Your Goal — and Go Big
Research shows that negotiators who set specific, challenging goals are more likely to land higher profits than those who don’t. Fragale echoes that sentiment: “Any time we lower our aspirations for what we’re trying to achieve, we talk ourselves out of those things and lower our goals, or we focus on just surviving: ‘I just need to make sure I get this job.’ Any of those mindsets, we see empirically, reduce performance.”
While this fact does feel particularly relevant these day, it’s always true — not just during a pandemic. For example, a recent survey found that 27 percent of student loan borrowers don’t think they earn enough money to make a dent in their loans. Such a mindset can be discouraging, leading a person to feel too intimidated to set ambitious goals for their negotiations. However, regardless of how you’re feeling, asking for what you really want is the first step toward actually getting it.
What if your negotiation partner balks at your request and walks away? As long as the number you throw out there is supported by a data point, you’re off to a good start.
“Whenever you’re making an ask, you need to justify why,” Fragale says. “Saying you want to make $100,000 because 100 is your favorite number isn’t sufficient.”
On the other hand, if your salary at your last job or your research indicates that $100,000 is a market salary for the position, you have a powerful piece of data to back up your ask.
No matter your goal, make sure that any concessions you make are visible. Asking for less because you’re scared of looking greedy is a concession, but your negotiation partner has no way of knowing that.
“You can’t expect anyone to be grateful for it because they won’t see any of it,” Fragale says. “That’s why you’re always better off asking for what you actually want. If you’re willing to make a concession and you back down from your original ask, they see it.”
2. Highlight What Makes You a Rockstar
“The best argument in a negotiation isn’t just what [you] want, but what [you] can give,” Fragale says. “Talk about your unique contributions, which include the difficulties you’ve been through. How can you spin them in terms of what you can bring to the table?”
One interesting thing about the pandemic is that it has forced workers and organizations to be super adaptable, and Fragale says you can absolutely sell that adaptability. Highlight the times you’ve had to pivot, think on your toes, and overcome hurdles. The idea is to showcase why and how you are uniquely qualified to get the job done — whether it’s a job with a company, a project for a prospective client, or a potential partnership for your organization.
This is precisely why it’s more than okay to toot your own horn. Spotlight past projects as well as concrete ways you’ve helped other organizations hit their goals. In other words, prove your worth.
3. Consider Your Negotiation Partner’s Perspective
With the economy in turmoil, it’s easy to get tunnel vision and think only of your own needs. According to Fragale, however, getting what you want out of a negotiation right now comes down to shifting your perspective and thinking about the other party’s needs. You may be desperate for the job, the client, or the contract, but your negotiation partner may be just as desperate.
“If people are talking with you, they’re not doing it because they feel sorry for you,” Fragale says. “They’re doing so because they need people and they have work that needs to be done.”
You do, in fact, have leverage. Plus, the longer it takes to fill a role (or find a business partner), the more time and energy the organization is losing. Your negotiation partner wants to move quickly, too.
Negotiating with your current employer for a raise or promotion? Again, think about where they’re coming from. Losing a valued employee and having to find and retrain someone new probably isn’t appealing right now, especially if you’re an essential worker.
4. Leverage Your Relationships
Even if you aren’t actively hunting for a new job, candidate, or client, now isn’t the time to sit back and relax. This is where your relationships come in. Tap into your community and put some feelers out there. Having more prospects than you need is a good problem to have in these uncertain times.
For example, employee referrals are the top source of hires, according to a 2017 SilkRoad report. Keep connected with your network to stay top of mind with those who may be able to get your resume pushed to the top of the pile. Being able to present a counteroffer during hiring negotiations could be the thing that ultimately provides the most leverage.
“Keep your relationships warm by continually adding value to them in small ways so that you’re doing things today to help yourself tomorrow,” Fragale says. “One of the problems is we don’t start trying to develop relationships until we really need them.”