Salary Negotiations: How to Mess With a Headhunter’s Head

Salary negotiations are often a somewhat dynamic phase in executive searches.

First, clients vary widely in outlining target salaries. Some carefully lay out the compensation band for a given position, while others go so far as to suggest they will pay ‘whatever it takes’ to hire the right person. Some are sincere, others not so much. Salary ranges are material for us since we can recruit the very best person we can find at the salary clients want to pay, or we can recruit the very best person we can find, period. At the end of the day, organizations share the goal of wanting to hire the highest caliber candidate at the lowest compensation possible. In recent years many jurisdictions have altered the traditional power dynamics in compensation discussions by requiring organizations to publicly disclose their compensation bands at the outset of their hiring processes. This is meant to enable traditionally disadvantaged, underpaid groups to enter hiring discussions from the vantage point of what the job pays rather than where they are currently paid.

In general, candidates start compensation discussions with the knowledge of their current compensation package and a sense as to how fair it is relative to the market and their own sense of self-worth. They are also guided by the subtle ‘push/pull’ dynamics in play. ‘Push’ refers to the overall happiness or unhappiness of the candidate with his or her current work/career situation. When looking at a potential new job, someone who is unhappy is likely to make trade-off decisions, including compensation, in an effort to find happiness, while someone who is relatively content with their current job or employer has little pushing him or her to trade-off considerations of any sort. Needless to say, most unemployed candidates are dealing with a fair degree of push.

‘Pull’ dynamics, on the other hand, refers to the attractiveness of the opportunity on the other side of the fence. An exciting opportunity with an outstanding or ‘hot’ company is a gravitational pull as is a long-awaited promotion opportunity into a new company. Meanwhile a company known to have high turnover, poor leadership, high travel or commuting requirements, or whose prospects are viewed as limited will have little pull by which to moderate compensation expectations. A client faced with limited push and pull has little choice but to attempt to buy a desirable candidate’s affections. You see this often in companies with ‘challenging’ founders whose reputations force them to pay above market rates to attract quality candidates who consider it danger pay.

Since headhunters know that the success of an executive search hinges in part on understanding the specific push/pull dynamics at play, they try to read them carefully throughout the course of the search. They may even try to influence them by gently emphasizing the importance of some variables over others. But the headhunter has to be careful since his or her ability to act as an effective intermediary depends on the level of trust with each of the parties concerned. Clients must trust that the search consultant is taking steps to help them hire the right candidate at the lowest cost possible while candidates must also trust that the headhunter’s interests include the decisions made by them.

In our practice we work hard to try to serve the interests of both client and candidate. We make sure that the parties ask the requisite questions of each other for good decisions to be made. We insist on certain due diligence to reduce the risk of hiring mistakes. We probe the push/pull dynamics carefully and try to give balanced advice. As a result, we are usually able to garner the trust and openness to do our jobs well.

But a few times per year, we encounter candidates who manage to mess with our collective heads. These candidates walk the line between cooperativeness and guardedness, always expressing the appropriate level of interest to keep the search moving forward, yet never fully revealing their true intentions or feelings. These candidates are poker players who are difficult to read, yet conduct themselves with a professionalism and class that begrudgingly impresses. They always appear to be one step ahead, and in control. They are thrifty on specifics about their present situation while specific on what they will need for them to move. They are, more often than not, the ‘A’ players.

These candidates make it difficult to predict the likelihood that an offer will be accepted if one is extended to them and as a result they challenge our ability to act as an effective advisor to our client. By clouding the ‘push-pull’ dynamic they also tip the negotiation scales in their favor and are usually rewarded with superior compensation offers. Given how they conduct themselves, they give evidence of strategic negotiation skills that the client will invariably benefit from if the candidate ever joins them. Unfortunately you never know until the very end if that is going to happen.

Want to mess with a headhunter’s head? Walk that line and remain in control. But be careful. We work hard to nudge candidates off those lines and only a few candidates a year are able to pull this off. They just happen to be the best ones.

About the author

Robert Hebert is Managing Partner of Toronto-based executive search firm StoneWood Group. He can be reached [email protected] or call (1) 416-365-9494 EXT 777

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