How to Negotiate with a Potential New Employer

September 12, 2018

Play your cards right to get the best deal.

Metaphor-man that I am, a couple of columns ago I likened the negotiation-process to how one might place bets in a game of poker. Another facet of that comparison beckoned to me, but I have a hard enough time keeping these columns somewhat brief as it is, so here’s a “part two” of sorts.

Poker isn’t just about betting; there are actual cards involved (although to see some games in progress, one might think them an afterthought). Depending on the game, some cards are “on the table,” meaning that everyone can see them, and others are “in the hole,” meaning that only their holder can see them prior to the conclusion of the hand. Ultimately, the strength of your hand depends on some combination of them.

“Playing the cards you’re dealt” has come to refer to a lot more than actual card-games like poker, to the point that an explanation is hopefully not needed here. When pursuing a new career-opportunity (or renegotiating a current one), there are a number of metaphorical cards in play. There are the ones on the table, readily seen by both you and the party on the other side of the negotiation, and the ones that each of you has in the hole, hidden from view until you choose to reveal them.

Before going further with that, however, a basic pointer that sometimes escapes notice: You don’t have to play every hand. That means that you should look at the cards in play, and if you see that the current round is unlikely to be a winner for you, bail out rather than wasting another second or penny.

Same deal with business prospects-especially if you’re a job-seeker in the current radiology market. There are lots of good opportunities out there, and no sign of them drying up anytime soon. If you’re being offered crummy terms or something else doesn’t pass the “smell test,” trying to hammer out something slightly better stands to be a lot of effort in exchange for little, if any, gain.

Back to the cards in play: In this game, cards on the table aren’t necessarily as evident as they would be in a poker-game. By that I’m referring to the importance of due diligence. The party on the other side of the negotiating-table isn’t necessarily going to fall all over themselves making sure you notice and understand all of the information that is available for you to review.

One card on the table, for instance, is the prevailing average salary for a radiologist. If your intel on the subject is a little outdated and you’re expecting/asking numbers 10 percent below what they are now, your would-be employer is probably not going to give a friendly chuckle and tell you that your demands are too low.

On the flipside, the cards you have in the hole don’t have to be played close to the vest. That is, you can choose to be a little more showy with them, whether because you want to make things less secretive (and hope that the other party will reciprocate), or because the cards are in your favor. For instance, if you happen to have documentation from your last few years of work showing that your productivity and/or QA stats are persistently in the best percentiles-rather than keeping that hidden, you probably want to sing it from the rooftops.

Or you can keep some of your good cards hidden for a later reveal-an ace in the hole, for use when you need it. Let’s say negotiations have gone well, but now there’s a sticking-point, and you want something to give things an extra nudge in your favor. If you showcased everything good about yourself in the opening round of talks, you have nothing left to put forward other than repeating what you’ve already shared.

Then, there’s the matter of your weak cards. Probably not things you want to lead off with. Suppose you’ve been sued a bunch of times, or you had your own practice that went belly-up. This is information that’s going to surface sooner or later, so you can’t outright lie about it (or, at least, you shouldn’t-if not for moral reasons then because of the repercussions when you’re found out). Probably best to be ready with a diplomatic explanation, and maybe even to offer it up at an opportune moment when it will do little to do damage. At the very least, sharing your weak-spot can serve to show that you’re an honest, aboveboard type.

One aspect of this game that doesn’t apply to actual card-playing: You’re not just wrangling with cards that got handed to you by fate. The cards you hold are, in large measure, ones you’ve dealt to yourself in the fullness of time. And that means you can improve or even replace them, with the right moves. Or, having endured a weak card for a period of time, you might someday find a situation where it becomes a stronger one.

Take, for instance, a chapter from my own work-history (mentioned in a column maybe three years ago): A couple of my previous jobs were environments where high-RVU studies like MRI were hoarded by the senior folks, and junior types like myself got handed a lot of the cheap stuff, like x-rays.

Fast-forward a few years to my time with vRad, which was experiencing an increasing volume of x-rays that nobody wanted to read on account of their low value. vR came up with a clever solution: Let rads self-select to deal with the lower-paying XR burden. In exchange, since a lot of the XR was non-emergent, those rads could then choose to stop working nocturnally. Presto! My background of being fed a steady supply of XR, which had inadvertently trained me to burn through lots of them at a pace faster than the average rad, was precisely what was needed to take advantage of this opportunity, and I no longer had to work nights.