Monday, May 17, 2010

Ask the Administrator: Handling an Offer

A returning correspondent, in the late stages of a few interviews, writes:

If I do get that happy phone
call from any of these schools, what’s the next step on my end? I’m
obviously going to be super excited and will be holding in my screams
of joy until I get off the phone, but I won’t want to accept anything
officially until I hear from all three of these schools. How do I say
“maybe” and yet still get across the point that I’m really excited?
Is it common/acceptable to ask for a contract before I give them my
final decision? Is it appropriate to give full disclosure that I’m
also waiting to hear from other schools – or will that put the kernel
in their minds that they are not my first choice? At what point do
negotiations occur – before or after I give the official yes?

And, following up on the negotiation aspect, I know that at cc’s there
is often little room for negotiation since most of the salary is
typically formula based, and the course load is pretty much set in
stone (5/5 at each of these schools – typical for a cc), but where is
there wiggle room? Also, I’m ABD and am planning on an October
degree. Can I work into the contract that my salary goes up as soon
as I have that degree in hand?

This is a good problem to have.

It's typically fair to ask for some small amount of time to think about an offer after receiving it. In this employer's market that amount of time probably isn't very long, but a few days to a week should be easy enough. That's especially true if the job involves relocating.

If you already have an offer in hand, of course, it's much easier to bargain with the second offer. Holding one offer open while waiting to hear from someone else is tougher. My experience has been that offers come on their own schedules, and sometimes can't be rushed. Although it's tempting to read all sorts of psychological issues into that, it's frequently a function of process and/or personnel. (One oddly-timed vacation can delay an entire process.) If you have an offer in hand from College A, of course, you're entirely free to call College B and tell them that you've promised College A an answer by fill-in-the-date. Just be prepared to be told something like “well, then, you have to do what you have to do.” In this market, I'd be surprised to hear of competing offers at the entry level. It's possible, but unless you're bringing something really unusual to the table – a bilingual Nurse, say – I'd be surprised.

Salary negotiations are also pretty limited in this market. I haven't had a job candidate even attempt to bargain salary in two years. (Some could have.) That has made my job easier, but I'd expect that to fade a bit when the Great Recession recedes.

In a collective bargaining environment, salaries are usually pretty formulaic. Union contracts typically include a host of criteria that amounts to a de facto 'point' system. It's important to get the best deal you can upfront, because once you're in the system, future raises are done in increments and percentages. That means that over time, a small initial difference will compound. I wouldn't expect a lowball offer to get meaningfully adjusted after the fact unless you're in that rare setting that does “counteroffers” and you have another offer in hand. (Mine doesn't do counteroffers, mostly for fear of salary compression or inversion.) Even then, though, there's always the chance that your attempt to leverage another offer won't work, at which point you'll be left either accepting the low increment or moving.

The most effective way I've seen to get the best opening offer has been to ask if there are any criteria in the salary calculation that you didn't address in your initial application. For example, I've seen contracts that award salary points for prior military service, even if the service had nothing to do with the job for which you were hired. (In your case, I'd definitely ask about a 'bump' for doctoral completion. Don't make the mistake of baking that into the cake initially; get the best offer you can upfront, and then get the bump on top of it. Whatever you do, don't make a binding promise about a completion or defense date; I've seen too many earnest ABD's hit the wall over the years.) You have nothing to lose by asking, and even a small difference now will compound over time.

There may also be some wiggle room for non-recurring expenses, like relocation. Unlike salary bumps, relocation costs don't carry forward into future budgets, so you may sometimes be able to swing something there. It may or may not work, but you have nothing to lose by asking.

Don't give away more power than you need to. Although it's easy to feel like a peon in this market, any first-choice candidate has at least a modicum of power simply by virtue of being the first-choice candidate. If you don't take the job, they'll have to settle for the next choice, which they generally don't like to do. With late-season hires like these, that's particularly true.

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – any thoughts on salary negotiating in the current climate?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.