Negotiating a Raise in a Pandemic

Three ways how, even in the deteriorating economy, employees and candidates at all levels can still have some leverage.

As the pandemic continues, not a day goes by without new announcements of salary cuts, hiring freezes, mandatory unpaid days off, or layoffs. All of which put talks about pay raises somewhere in most people’s fantasyland.

Or maybe not. Experts say—and data supports—that some employees actually may have more leverage at the negotiating table than usual. As of April, for example, only 17% of firms were canceling pay raises, according to a survey by World at Work, a trade group that tracks pay and rewards. There’s hope for higher compensation for lower-level employees too. It all just might take a little bit of time. “People are still asking for more and getting more,” says David Ginchansky, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.

Here are three tips for negotiating amid the pandemic-inspired downturn.

Create leverage out of the bad stock market.

Employees at many levels are usually given options to buy stock as part of their pay package, only to watch their values now sink dramatically in today’s tumbling market. “If your option’s strike price is $40 but now the stock is $30, the stock has to get back to $40 just for it to break even,” says Irv Becker, vice chairman of Korn Ferry’s Executive Pay and Governance business. At the same time, restricted shares, the most common form of long-term incentive many executives receive, also have fallen in value.

But the bad news may actually work in favor of certain employees. Organizations know that one way to keep talent is to give employees long-term stock plans that will pay off if they stick around. So a top performer could ask the firm to adjust those plans or just boost their bonus plan in 2021 to compensate for the current fall-off. And nearly every firm realizes the need for strong staff when business resumes. “Yes, it’s an employer’s market, but companies won’t be so foolish around their top performing people,” says Becker.

Take the right approach.

No matter what the employee level, the key to any negotiation now is the approach, Ginchansky says. Of all times, it’s critical for employees to emphasize all the value-adding projects they’ve done recently and how committed they are to the company. This can be particularly beneficial to essential-service firms like healthcare that are actually doing well in the pandemic.

But even at firms experiencing hiring freezes or layoffs, successful salary negotiations are possible with the right demeanor. “You should say, ‘I know it’s not a conversation to have right now, but here’s what I’ve accomplished so far,” says Ginchansky.

The raises might not happen immediately, experts say. But letting your desire for higher pay be known now (and having a good performance track record written down that displays the reasons for higher pay) may pay off in better times.

Knowledge is power.

Finally, experts say the negotiating strategies that worked when the job market was good can still apply surprisingly well in such harsh times. For one, instead of stating the desired salary, candidates should do everything they can to make the potential employer disclose a salary range first. That way, candidates won’t either inadvertently suggest a salary far lower than what a company was willing to pay or price themselves out of the job.

After finding out the company’s salary range, it’s a matter of how you ask for more money, Ginchansky says. “Be agreeable, not demanding,” he says. Candidates can get a sense of what their potential roles pay industry-wide by looking at sites such as Glassdoor and PayScale.

From there, experts suggest negotiating once there’s an actual job offer—not during a first or second interview. In their book The 3-D Negotiation, authors David Lax and James Sebenius recommend making a “non-offer offer,” or a statement that can anchor the discussion in your favor without seeming extreme. Instead of saying, “I deserve $80,000,” you can say, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve heard people like me typically earn $80,000 to $90,000.”