Quitting Time

Negotiating during the Great Resignation

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Nov 11, 2021
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"If you're known and respected and have relationships, credibility and organizational trust, you're in a really good leverage position," says leadership consultant Amii Barnard-Bahn. carlosalvarez via Getty Images
Quitting Time

Negotiating during the Great Resignation

David Brancaccio and Erika Soderstrom Nov 11, 2021
Heard on:
"If you're known and respected and have relationships, credibility and organizational trust, you're in a really good leverage position," says leadership consultant Amii Barnard-Bahn. carlosalvarez via Getty Images
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Quitting — it’s on a lot of people’s minds lately. This massive shift, with workers leaving their jobs in droves, has even been given catchy names. Take the Great Resignation or the Big Quit, for example. But instead of leaving, now might be the perfect time to stay with your employer and renegotiate a few things.

Amid this period of departures and company shake-ups, there’s an opportunity for workers to open discussions with higher-ups about their job responsibilities, pay and working conditions, according to Amii Barnard-Bahn. She’s a former Fortune Global 50 executive as well as a coach and consultant for big company leaders. 

In her recent article for Harvard Business Review, she urged people to slow down before putting in their two weeks’ notice. 

“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with Barnard-Bahn about the leverage many workers have right now and how best to use it. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

David Brancaccio: It’s all the rage to quit, I’m told. I mean, if you feel undervalued or you see something better, why not?

Amii Barnard-Bahn: Absolutely, there are many reasons to quit. And my goal is just to — having looked back on multiple careers and seeing mistakes made on this — just take a pause and think about it. Because there are also very good reasons to stay, depending on what your long-term goals are.

Brancaccio: All right. So first of all, certainly be deliberate, don’t be impulsive. I get that. But what do you mean there are good reasons to maybe stick around?

Barnard-Bahn: Yeah, well, staying for some people is going to be the best decision they can make right now — both for their growth and for laying the groundwork for bigger opportunities long-term. If you’re a valued employee doing great work, you have bankable credibility, and with the WorkQuake or the Great Resignation, or whatever we want to call this, you have a window of opportunity to negotiate for the job and working conditions you want. And I have seen it time and time again. COVID’s new, but ups and downs in the market and attrition are not. And there are going to be huge opportunities for those who stay. Because this is essentially a bigger pie, David, with less people at the table to eat it. And so if you’re known and respected and have relationships, credibility and organizational trust, you’re in a really good leverage position.

Brancaccio: Right. And I hear what you’re saying. You’re not talking about people who feel really disrespected in the workplace, where they’re not given opportunities for growth.

Barnard-Bahn: No, or abused. Yeah. Or it’s unethical business practices or any reasons where I’d say, “Yeah, get the heck out as soon as you can.”

“Your sandbox of possibilities”

Brancaccio: All right, but if it seems like people have noticed you but really should have noticed you a bit more, now’s the time to have that conversation with those in power.

Barnard-Bahn: Yes, exactly. For me, it’s think about and get clear on two questions. And the first question is, “What do I want?” You know, greater autonomy, like flexible work hours or a pay increase, a promotion, more responsibility. So what would make you 10% or maybe 20% happier in your career and work life? Because with all these departures, your company may have open roles, and you could have a hand in crafting a new job for yourself.

The second question I would have people ask is, “What’s possible?” So think about this from your company’s perspective. Are they in a growth mode? Financially successful and flush with cash? I’ve got clients who are in that position. Or are they having a tough time and they recently laid off people, they froze salaries. This is going to impact your sandbox of possibilities.

So discreetly research what deals may have been cut in the past, especially recently, to get a perspective on how things are done. But let’s say you offer to pick up the slack on a critical role that’s open for a key project for six months. I would go in and negotiate a one-time project-based bonus for doing the extra work. Or maybe you want to ask the company to pay for continuing education, to learn some new skills that are needed for the role above you, that’s going to position you well for a future promotion. They may do that. So, after you ask these two questions, “What do I want?” [and] “What’s possible?” and you’ve gotten really clear, I’d aim for negotiating the sweet spot, which is the intersection of those two things: what you want and what’s possible.

Preparing for a conversation with the boss

Brancaccio: You know how many of us are, though. Approaching the boss might be harder than just answering a job-opening ad somewhere else. I mean, you have to, like, reopen negotiations. There’s a kind of awkwardness to that.

Barnard-Bahn: There is, and so my next tip is to prepare for a dialogue. And people get so stressed out often. And what I find can be the net negative, if you don’t prepare well, is you can come across as really aggressive. Because you’ve got an agenda, you’re stressed out when you go into the meeting. So you don’t want that. So, the best thing to do is prepare. This conversation is going to be presumably with your boss, presumably an important relationship to you. So be prepared, have relevant data points, think through any concerns or questions your boss might have. You know, like, see from their perspective and attack your proposal and say, “OK, what would their concerns be?” and be ready to respond to those. That’s superhelpful. And it’ll also get rid of some of your anxiety because you will have thought about it with empathy from the company’s standpoint.

And then the next tip, I would say, is, you know, look for that win-win. In the meeting, ask questions, get as much information — think of this as not just a one-way demand. One of the things that is so helpful is to set up a dialogue where you’re getting information as much as you’re giving. Because that’s an opportunity for you to learn some of the stuff that might be behind the closed doors, David, that you might not know around what is possible, right? So this may be a series of conversations, this may just be a kickoff. So setting it off with a respectful tone, like you and I are talking right now, just saying, hey, you know, “I’ve been thinking about this. This is really important to me. These are the reasons why.”

Equip your boss to advocate for you, make it easy for them to say yes. And another reason that it’s important to equip your boss is because he or she may not have the power to grant your request. What you’re asking for might set precedent or it might go against a pay matrix. And so they may have to go up the chain to ask [human resources] or their boss. So, if you thought it all through and your boss has what they need to advocate on your behalf, they can give it their best shot, that granting your request is clearly a win-win for the company. And let’s say it’s a salary increase. I’d come prepared with data points on market pay and comparable jobs. And if they can’t meet your request, ask what they can do.

The likability penalty

Brancaccio: I hear what you’re saying about not wanting to be too aggressive right out of the box. But you know, you’ve probably studied this. That can be a gendered thing. When guys ask aggressively, it’s like, “OK, the guy’s asking.” Sometimes when women ask, they’re seen as being too aggressive.

Barnard-Bahn: Yes, that’s an issue. There’s been a lot that I’ve worked [on] with clients around that. What we find with gender is that men can lean into their assertiveness side without the likability penalty more than women can. And that women, particularly when they’re making an ask, need to lean into the approachability part more.

Brancaccio: Frustrating, but that’s what you’ve learned, right?

Barnard-Bahn: Yes. It is not something that I have the power to change. And knowing it helps. Whether it’s fair or not fair is kind of irrelevant if you want the best strategy in place to get what you want.

Leverage and overnegotiating

Brancaccio: Now, I get a lot of what you said from the company’s point of view. And also, I get it from the employee’s point of view of trying to maximize the win-win here. But we should just rest on the fact that this is a moment in history where a lot of employees asking for something better from their employer have a little more leverage.

Barnard-Bahn: They do. It’s remarkable. And I have some curiosity about a backlash with that, David. I’ve often advocated, you know, when I’ve done executive recruitment, with candidates to be careful of not overnegotiating simply because you have the stronger power play. And I’m curious about that right now as well. And that’s why I try to stress the win-win. Because unless you’re a short-timer and you just want to get everything you can while you can, you want to strike a deal that is sustainable and that doesn’t get yanked at the first opportunity. It’s never good when something’s given to you begrudgingly. Or you ask in a way that damages relationships and references you may need later.

You can always ask. It never hurts to put it out there, like seeking a promotion. I think how you ask is important, but actually asking if you do it in a respectful way — and it can be an assertive way too, I don’t think respect necessarily conflicts with assertiveness at all. But again, having that dialogue. And companies just need to know what you’re aiming for. Because even if they say no the first time, when they’re conducting succession planning and deciding who gets invited to high-potential programs or top 100 meetings, etc., you want them to think of you.

So, if you don’t get it on the first round, you may be on the list the next time because it’s duly noted that, you know, you came forward. You asked, you maintained the relationship, and they’re like, “Yeah, they’re almost ready. I’m gonna put them on the next time.” So if you’ve done your homework and kept it a respectful and powerful dialogue, you’re probably going to make a good impression on your boss because you are demonstrating ambition, assertiveness and, possibly, if you’ve been creative around some of the things I’ve mentioned in terms of ideas, you possibly demonstrated strategic thinking if you’ve integrated the business strategy to your wants. And this is bankable when future opportunities arise. And it’s really good to put a stake in the ground because it will be remembered.

Correction (Nov. 12, 2021): A previous version of the photo caption misstated Amii Barnard-Bahn’s title. The caption has been updated.

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