Why You Should Negotiate (even if you work at Walmart)

Is negotiating right for everyone?

Recently, my friend Ramit and I recorded over two hours of video footage all about negotiation:

We got an overwhelmingly positive response from all kinds of different people – guys, girls, established professionals, college students, people making lots of money, and people making less all found useful ways to apply the principles of negotiation to their lives.

One person had a different take on it:

The woman in the video (and it is almost always a woman who says this, even when the material isn’t explicitly aimed at women) just has to point out that women make less money than men, and that women are not very good negotiators (“by nature” is assumed even if not said) and often aren’t shown how to do it…so obviously, you know, that leads to the completely logical conclusion that if women were better negotiators, we wouldn’t have such a problem with wage disparity.
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Of course, it’s no accident that the woman in this video is younger than me, recently graduated from Stanford and got 60K/yr at her last, poorly-negotiated job.  So if I, or someone else, were to say to her, “YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.  LET’S TELL ALL THE WOMEN WHO WORK AT WAL-MART TO NEGOTIATE BETTER SALARIES, AND MAYBE WAL-MART WILL AGREE TO PAY THEM THE SAME AS MEN,” I’m sure she would be genuinely shocked to ponder that, for the vast majority of women, being fresh out of Stanford and needing to pull better than 60K out of your next round of “recruiter” interviews is not, in fact, the main problem.

Wage discrepancy, gender inequality, and labor issues are all very, very complex social issues. So, I can understand how someone can get lost in the overlapping areas, or have trouble understanding how their individual actions fit in with seemingly uncontrollable macro factors.

This person touches on an interesting point: women working low-wage, unskilled retail jobs at Walmart have a hard time negotiating for higher salaries, not just because they don’t know how but also because they may be working in situations where retaliation is a real risk.

Yes, there are plenty of things wrong with society. There’s ongoing discrimination that maintains a wage gap not only between men and women, but also between all sorts of different people. Big companies like Walmart – or really anyone in a position of power – have the ability to discriminate against you and make your life bad.

Why do I encourage a hardworking, but low-paid, Walmart worker to take on risks that are a privilege of rich white collar employees who should be more than satisfied with their generous paychecks? Because it’s not about absolute numbers, it’s about the act of standing up for yourself.

Here’s some interesting data from the New York Times:

Women earn less than men, especially at the top. In most jobs, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings narrows greatly when you adjust for factors like career path and experience. But at the top of the income scale — jobs paying more than $100,000 — the salary gap between equally qualified men and women is still vast.

Negotiation is an individual’s opportunity in the face of overwhelming macro-social factors like discrimination. As a skill, it’s just as important of a for low-wage workers at Walmart as it is for so-called privileged women earning over six figures.

Negotiation is a way to advocate for yourself, your community, your ideas. Making more at your desk job (though still less than your male coworkers) than you used to make at Walmart doesn’t mean you should sit down, shut up, and be satisfied with your relative good fortune. Now, times may be tough and you may still work at Walmart, but that’s exactly why this is your golden opportunity to do a little better in what might otherwise be rough social conditions.

Let’s explore this commenter’s statements a little more.

The woman in the video (and it is almost always a woman who says this, even when the material isn’t explicitly aimed at women) just has to point out that women make less money than men, and that women are not very good negotiators (“by nature” is assumed even if not said) and often aren’t shown how to do it…

Women do make less money than men.

Women have actually been shown to be better negotiators than men – when negotiating on behalf of their company, group, or community. Women are talented advocates, but women are afraid or unused to being advocates for themselves.

W omen attempt to negotiate for themselves far less than men. A 2002 research study of Masters degree recipients at Carnegie Mellon University revealed that while 51.5% of men negotiated their initial offers, only 12% of women did. If you don’t ask, you won’t receive.

There’s no “by nature” implied here. One major reason why women don’t negotiate for themselves is because they don’t know that they can. At my last job, I conducted an informal poll of my young colleagues (assumption here is that young workers are equally inexperienced when it comes to professional tactics like how to negotiate your salary).

When I asked female coworkers in their 20s if they negotiated their salaries, every single woman said “No, I didn’t know you could do that.” When I asked males in their 20s if they negotiated their salaries, every single man said “Yes, of course.”

Mind you, these were all smart, self-assured, non-risk-averse employees at a Silicon Valley start-up.

Since there’s no “women are bad at negotiating by nature” implication here, and since it’s clear from employment data that women negotiate as much as 40% less than men, we can assume that many women can improve their earnings simply by trying to negotiate.

One final note here — as a woman, my statements were definitely aimed at women. I should have been more explicit. To the ladies: go out there and ask for it!

so obviously, you know, that leads to the completely logical conclusion that if women were better negotiators, we wouldn’t have such a problem with wage disparity.

Yes, that’s right.

The reasons we have a wage gap are very complex and plentiful. You can read up on it here. That said, one of the reasons women make less than men is because they don’t negotiate their salaries. And remember, your employer is unlikely to agree to pay you more if you do the same work.

Negotiation – or self-advocacy – doesn’t just refer to the dollar amount on your paycheck. You can ‘ask for it’ in a multitude of ways — higher-value responsibilities, more visibility on the job, a more prestigious title to match your new, high-value responsibilities, and, finally, a pay raise to wash it all down.

Of course, it’s no accident that the woman in this video is younger than me, recently graduated from Stanford and got 60K/yr at her last, poorly-negotiated job.

While it’s convenient to think so, the truth is that Stanford’s not a golden ticket.

To some people, a Stanford degree signals privilege. For me, it was a huge privilege – and an honor – to have been able to attend Stanford, but privilege is no guarantee. No matter how you get there, or who funded you, graduating with a Stanford degree does not guarantee your entry into your dream job, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee you the highest possible salary for your position.

Nearly every one of my coworkers at my first and second jobs had graduated from great universities. That’s literally tens of thousands of golden ticket-holders. Salaries still varied wildly, even among top performers. How could this be? If you do a good job, won’t you get recognized and rewarded?

One of my first lessons as a young person in the job market was that recognition and reward aren’t automatic. People are busy. People who are important enough to make decisions about other people’s salaries are even busier.

Very few employers these days deliberately discriminate against women, employees at either end of the age spectrum, or people of color – especially since it’s illegal to do so – but that doesn’t mean bosses are going to spend their time taking careful inventory of your contributions and calculating out a handsome monetary reward for you to take home. They’re just not going to do that. Unless, of course, you advocate for yourself and bring it to their attention.

YOU’RE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT.  LET’S TELL ALL THE WOMEN WHO WORK AT WAL-MART TO NEGOTIATE BETTER SALARIES, AND MAYBE WAL-MART WILL AGREE TO PAY THEM THE SAME AS MEN

Many non-management retail or service jobs technically have non-negotiable wages, but this doesn’t mean people in those jobs can’t advocate for themselves in other ways.

My friend Hillary is a public schoolteacher whose salary is not negotiable, but who didn’t like the way she was being pressured to run her classroom around standardized tests. She advocated for her ideas, successfully negotiated for the diversified curriculum she wanted to teach, and is now starting her own charter school. That last part is an especially inspiring example of what can happen when you decide to take control and ask for what you want, but the point is that it can happen.

My friend Jon works at an hourly job through a temp agency where his wage is definitely non-negotiable. However, he was able to successfully negotiate for flex scheduling that has allowed him more concentrated time to work on his freelance business. Again, anyone can say “but I can’t do that! My case is especially bad because I work at Walmart / my boss hates me / XYZ” but I think it’s important to note that these are fundamentally limiting beliefs that we sometimes use as excuses. While they might be comforting in the short term, they do us no good in the long term.

Negotiating doesn’t mean you storm up to your employer and demand more money. Negotiating is not about alienating others, and it’s not about arguing with them either – it’s two parties working together to achieve an outcome that both can be reasonably happy with.

Some employers like Walmart have a long and well-publicized history of discrimination. We all know it’s not legal to fire someone because they asked for a raise or different hours or time off, and this is the reason why ‘Walmart’ and ‘lawsuit’ are such commonly associated words. And yes, even the women who work at Walmart, who are being paid less than their male coworkers in similar positions, should initiate conversations about their wages. If they don’t want to, because they perceive that there’s a risk of retaliation, then that’s one more unfortunate sign of persistent inequality in our society. Women – including Stanford-educated women – reaching positions of power is a great way to start to change this.

I also think of any “other” minority (not that women are numerically a minority; I suppose you could say “oppressed class”), and what being a job candidate must mean for them. Probably saying “and oh, by the way, I’m aware of the issues and my rights as a _______” is a great way to never get called back — even if they “need” to hire one, they’re not going to want the trouble and expense of one like you.

The retaliation question again. No one wants to get on the bad side of someone who has power over you. However, it’s a huge mistake to think that negotiation is an argument, a demand, or an adversarial interaction. If that’s your attitude going into any kind of negotiation – whether that’s with your boss over your salary or with your spouse over who washes the dishes – you will not get what you want. You may get your boss to give you a raise, or your spouse to wash the dishes, but you’ll also get a fat load of resentment. For that reason, your negotiation will have failed.

A negotiation is a cooperative discussion where two parties try to find common ground. Your employer wants you as an employee and may be willing to pay a little more; you want your job at a higher salary, but may be willing to take a bit less. Focusing on compromise and cooperation while negotiating makes it possible for all parties to walk away satisfied. The act of negotiating in itself doesn’t mean you’re a ‘trouble’ and an ‘expense’ if you know your true value and are simply communicating it — but, if you’re not worth the salary you’re asking for, then that’s when resentment can begin.

I’m sure she would be genuinely shocked to ponder that, for the vast majority of women, being fresh out of Stanford and needing to pull better than 60K out of your next round of “recruiter” interviews is not, in fact, the main problem.

What is the single main problem, then?

Negotiation as a way of life

Why do I care if other people negotiate? Can’t I be happy with my generous salary, my flexible schedule, and the fascinating and glamorous career opportunities that my Stanford degree has opened up for me? The truth is, I am happy with my salary, my schedule, and my career path. But I still care very much about negotiating. The act of negotiating doesn’t simply mean you’re dissatisfied with what you have.

Instead, think of it this way: negotiation is just a fancy word for knowing your own value, understanding the value of where you stand in relation to others, and of speaking up for yourself. In my dream world, every little girl and boy would happily embrace this type of self-advocacy, and nobody would cry out in backlash against those who have succeeded in asking for what they want.

Negotiation is about agency. It’s not just about money, or your job title, or even about getting exactly what you want.

Negotiation is a philosophy of change – it’s believing and seeing proof that every situation is changeable in some way or another.

And every situation is, if you give it a try.

***

Interested in negotiation or looking for advice? Contact me at susan@susansu.com

15 Comments on “Why You Should Negotiate (even if you work at Walmart)”

  1. Pingback: The Writing On The Wal » Blog Archive » Can you negotiate while working at Walmart?

  2. So there is wage discrimination against women meaning lower salaries but they should negotiate better like men who receive higher salaries.

    Is this gap caused by wage discrimination, higher male negotiation per capita… or both?

  3. Hi AJ,

    There are a lot of factors contributing to the gap– not just more frequent negotiation by men, and usually not because of overt wage discrimination. In this day and age, very few employers are out there saying, “Sit back down little lady! I’m going to pay you less because you’re a silly woman.” Instead, it comes in the form of different policies and practices toward men and women regarding parental leave, flex scheduling, and assertiveness on the job – among MANY other things. This is a pretty good article on it: http://clinton4.nara.gov/WH/EOP/CEA/html/gendergap.html#tren

    Susan

  4. Hi Susan,

    I found you through the videos you did with Ramit Sethi, and I’ve enjoyed reading the material you have here.

    I consider myself a well-educated and ambitious young woman, and I definitely go to battle for colleagues, companies, friends, groups, and more. But it’s taking me a little more time and courage to realize that I can do the same for myself. Over the past few years, I’ve been exercising my take-care-of-me muscles in a number of ways, but it hadn’t occurred to me to negotiate salaries. I feel silly to admit that, had you asked me if I had negotiated my salary, I would’ve responded, “No, I didn’t know I could do that.”

    I know I’d heard of the concept and that it always made sense, but I never really thought it would apply to my specific situations. Besides, wouldn’t it just make me seem demanding and like I was more trouble than I was worth?

    Hoo-boy!

    Your videos with Ramit and this post have really helped me to recognize that I do have those skills (“Hey! I’ve been doing that kind of stuff for other people all this time!”) and that I sure as hell can use them for myself.

    Thanks for the great information, and thanks for taking on this commenter.

    Cheryl

  5. Best comment ever! Thanks for being so candid, Cheryl.

    I understand exactly where you’re coming from – a lot of us ‘strong’ women talk a big game about knowing our worth, getting fancy degrees, working at fancy jobs, etc etc, but when confronted about our own actions to advocate for ourselves when it really counts, we sheepishly say “No, I didn’t know you could do that.”

    When we’re talking white-collar jobs (ie, those kind of jobs that have the potential to confer significant decision-making power within an organization), negotiating salary, title, or responsibilities is uncomfortable idea for many otherwise ‘liberated’ /strong women. Yet, it’s all the more important. Over the course of an entire career, it can add up to millions of dollars that could go towards providing for a retirement, or leaving a legacy for your family.

    Thanks for reading!

    Susan

  6. Pingback: Where are the women?! « Real Grad Life

  7. Wow. I got totally played with my new job. Could have gotten extra $10k at least. I am sure of it.

    Thanks. I will never make this mistake again.

  8. “Negotiation is about agency.”

    That is an exceptionally powerful sentence.

    I’ve negotiated for years working my way up from a “new to the industry” production assistant to successful producer. In many ways the film business does not experience the gender gap that other industries do. Freelancers have “day rates” and there is a minor variable based on the project budget, not the professional’s gender. I’ve talked down major studio vendors to give up to 80% discounts on rack rates and I’ve negotiated high figure overages from advertising agencies when necessary to the project.

    Imagine my surprise to find myself completely stymied in asking for a well-deserved raise when I found myself at a full-time position at an event production company! How could this be happening to me? Where is my courage? Where is my self-esteem? This is not who I am!

    That I worked in a heavily male-dominated department with an “old boy’s” network style of communicating had never been a problem before. And yet there I was, fumbling for the right words, grabbing what moments I could steal to speak with my immediate boss (VP and principal of the company). What was up with that?!

    It’s simple and sad all at once and you hit it on the nail: I never had to negotiate *for myself*, let alone in a foreign 9-5, corporate culture! I found myself overcome with negative self-talk and buying into endless assumptions that served no purpose but to hold me back. That my colleagues and boss were only too happy to continue those assumptions is beside the point – I needed to believe in myself first then practice the very same skills I had previously used for my clients for myself.

    New negotiating scripts for a new purpose , but same basic skills and concept. Would that I had seen your video and read your blogpost during that time!

    As an additional consideration: Perhaps there is a way to teach these skills and this sense of self-advocacy to those in elementary school. Maybe there is a place for your passionate conviction in a children’s book or educational game. The earlier these ideas become second nature in our lives, the sooner our country’s gender gap will close.

    Thanks for an extremely informative post,
    Denise

  9. Hi Denise,

    Thanks for the great comment and story. I’ve heard similar anecdotes many times, across industries and up and down the food chain.

    Great suggestion, too — a book for teens has been a fun dream idea of mine for awhile!

    Best,
    Susan

  10. You obviously have no clue what what poor negotiating is like. $60,000 for the first example? That’s rich people money. The person did an excellent job. Why don’t you try being poor your entire life ($20,000 or less)?. At thirty years old with years of experience and the degree suma cum laude I can’t even get a chance at $25,000 to $30,000 a year. Yet a person with just a GED can get more just because. You need to live below poverty to know what a gift from god the $60,000 is. Even $35,000 to 40,000 is rich.

  11. Your whole thing about women making less is wrong. I guarantee you that any women would get more money then me just because the person is a female.

  12. You know what I like here: you don’t come off as at all aggressive here. You really calmly, civilly and helpfully dissect the complaint made against you.

    Just wanted to say you come off as very classy here. :)

  13. Wal-mart does not negotiate pay. The input your experience and education into a system and it spits out a number. They then tell you to take it or leave it. There is also no negotiating on vacation time either.

  14. Good Morning!

    I am teaching a class on International Business Negotiations in Chongqing, China …

    I wonder, could you please send to me a downloadable (and therefore useful in the classroom) copy of your video?

    Thank you very much!
    Bill Maddox

  15. Hi Susan,

    I saw an insightful post of yours on a Fuze meeting forum, and was hoping to talk briefly to you about webinars. Please call me at your convenience: 310-497-1899.

    Thanks,
    Val Nathan

    Premodaya.com

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