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The Workplace: Making Bold Moves in Tough Times

by Lauren Young

It may come as a surprise, but a bad job market can be a good time to get what you want—and deserve.

How do you get ahead on the job when the labor market is crumbling? Michael Donaldson, an entertainment lawyer and author of Fearless Negotiating (McGraw-Hill; $16.95), says workers often have more power than they think they do, even in tough times. Personal Finance Editor Lauren Young asked Donaldson for negotiating tips.

What kind of leverage do employees have at a time when the job market is looking for grim?

It’s actually a wonderful opportunity, because most people in the same situation are badly shaken and have the same assumption that it’s a bad time to be asking for things. Take starting salary: People often reduce what they are asking for. It’s a terrible thing to do. That’s what everyone else is doing. You need to say: “I’m worth this. Here’s what I cost.” That’s how you distinguish yourself. In my own practice, we just hired a new attorney. A couple people who applied had seriously undervalued themselves. You can’t help wonder: “Do I wan this person negotiating for my clients?” We hired the one who was the most expensive. The resumes all look kind of alike, but employers want the best.

What about asking for a raise?

About a year ago, a client’s son came to me because he thought he should be making a lot more than he was-he was an important part of a support team for a Xerox sales group. We had a couple coaching sessions, and when he approached his boss, he pushed hard for a raise. The company eventually showed him that he was at the top of his pay bracket. I told him: “If you like working for Xerox, stay right there, but we have to change your bracket.” During the course of the year, he was able to get himself relabeled as a salesman. He learned a lot about what he was being paid and what he was worth. He’s now making twice what he was making. His duties frankly have not changed that much, but by relabeling himself he got a heck of a lot more money.

Many workers are being asked to do more with less. How do you broker a fair deal when a salary bump isn’t an option?

This is the great American myth. When companies say they are reducing jobs, they aren’t cutting positions-they are just doubling up work on some poor person. Employers are pulling this off because workers are afraid to assert themselves. My advice is to talk a walk and think about the implications of a heavier workload. What’s necessary for you to do this job? Is this something you can farm out? Then go to your boss, and say, “I’ll take this on, but only for an interim period. Otherwise, the work won’t get done well.” Be precise-say you’ll work on overdrive for three or six months. It’s a lot better than deciding you’ll revisit the issue in six months when you are exhausted and have had a cold 18 times, so you are worn down.

Finally, what’s your advice for people negotiating severance agreements?

Most people negotiating severance feel very unempowered. Ask yourself: “What value will I have to this company even when I leave?” You may end up in a position where you still have a strategic relationship with your employer. It helps to identify an ongoing project that the two parties can work on together in the future.

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