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How to Negotiate a Job Offer

Businessman and woman taking while sitting on couch against wall at conferenceBusinessman and woman taking while sitting on couch against wall at conference

Let’s face it: Whether or not you’re already working, looking for a new job isn’t fun. To get the stress and uncertainty over with, you might be tempted to take the first halfway-decent offer an employer puts on the table, without pausing to explore possible ways the company could sweeten the pot.

In this job market, that’s a mistake. Chronic talent shortages, along with 102 straight months of low unemployment, have made employers more willing to haggle. In other words: The payoff for negotiating a job offer could be higher than it’s been in years. “Right now, the candidate is king,” says Thomas Moran, CEO of staffing and recruiting firm Addison Group. “Employers are under pressure to be flexible.” He expects that to continue “for at least the next 12 months.”

Still, according to an Addison Group study on why people change jobs, barely more than half (53%) of job seekers say they’re “comfortable” negotiating with employers—even though almost that many (47%) say they’re looking for a new gig because they’re dissatisfied with their current compensation.

That reluctance to bargain comes partly from a lack of experience at it, and partly from simply not wanting to seem greedy. But there are ways to ask for what you really want in your next job without coming across as arrogant or grasping. Here are three of them.

Make a list beforehand of what matters to you (besides money)

In a fascinating book called Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do It Well, and Advance Your Career, author Art Markman points out that any job comes with a whole package of specifics—from your office space (private office, cube farm, open plan), to career development (skills training, mentoring, education benefits), to hours (flextime, weekends, late nights). Think hard about what’s crucial to you, and what you care less (or not at all) about. “Details that may not seem important before you take the job could become a lot more so once you’re an employee,” notes Markman, who is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin.

Having a list at your fingertips of what’s negotiable, and what’s less so (or not at all), helps clarify—both for you and for a prospective employer—what it would take for you to accept the offer. It also gives both sides some wiggle room on those things that won’t make or break the deal.

Approach the discussion in the right frame of mind

A sneaky metaphorical bias in Western cultures equates negotiations with battles, where the winner takes all. But “just because you’re negotiating with someone doesn’t mean they’re an adversary,” says Markman. Instead, he suggests seeing negotiations as exercises in joint problem-solving, where both sides aim to reach an agreement that gives everyone what they want. “This approach opens up potential win-win situations where both parties have the same goal.”

It’s especially apropos for a job offer, because both parties do in fact have the same goal: You get the job and the compensation you have in mind, and the employer fills an opening with a qualified person who’ll be satisfied enough to stick around for a while. “If you assume [an employer’s] goals oppose yours, you may not ask for exactly what you want,” Markman says, so “you might reach a deal that is actually worse for both of you.”

He adds that this is a good time to talk with the hiring manager about your long-term career plans, since an employer “can’t help you reach your goals without knowing what they are.” Even if some items on your wish list just aren’t possible right now—a big bump in salary, for example—something else, like tuition reimbursement or skills training, might serve your purposes just as well in the long run.

Be realistic.

With so much information available online about pay (at sites like PayScale, Salary.com, and the myriad of salary guides that staffing and recruiting firms publish), you might think everyone would take the time to look up their own market value before attempting to negotiate with an employer. Alas, not so. The Addison Group report found that 58% of job seekers say they do online research about pay—meaning that a sizable 42% still don’t.

But, especially if you’re changing jobs primarily in hopes of earning more money, it’s unwise to go into a discussion about a job offer without objective knowledge of what your skills and experience are worth. “Have the facts,” says Thomas Moran. “You need to look up the range of salaries and benefits for people with your title, in your industry and your geographic location.”

Depending on demand for what you do, and on how long it’s been since you checked last, you might find that you’re already earning above-average pay. In that case, “be ready to justify why you believe you’re worth more,” Moran adds. “You need to make a solid logical argument based on reliable information.”

It’s worth a mention, too, that—in negotiations as in so much else—attitude counts. No matter how hot your skills are, or how impressive your track record so far, “don’t go in all cocky,” says Moran. “Be courteous, and don’t talk about taking an offer at a competing company if your terms aren’t met, which employers perceive as threatening.” Noted.

More must-read stories from Fortune:

What to do when you’ve been passed over for a promotion

—How algorithms are helping achieve diversity in hiring

—Why companies are hiring more part-time workers

—Why you should start planning a truly work-free vacation

Underqualified for a job? Why you should apply anyway

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