Negotiating with Candidates Like a Pro, with Dan Hill

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The seasoned crisis-management expert reveals tips, tactics and strategies to help recruiters negotiate job offers with candidates. Tweet it

Dan Hill, president of Ervin | Hill Strategy, professional crisis manager and negotiation expert.

“The decisive, winning hand might not take shape until the 11th hour. The stakes are high.”

That’s Dan Hill, president of D.C.-based Ervin | Hill Strategy and professional crisis manager, talking about negotiations that happen during crises.

With more than two decades in the field, “handling almost every type of situation imaginable” from challenging legal situations to unfortunate press coverage, Dan knows what he’s talking about.

Recruiters are no strangers to negotiation, either. But what if you could add a little of that crisis-taming mojo to your offer-negotiating toolkit? How would you prepare ? What strategies and tactics would you use? What deal-breaking mistakes would you avoid?

Dan kindly agreed to a little Q&A …

“The negotiation starts before you even decide who you’re hiring …”

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Before going in to offer negotiations with a candidate, how should recruiters prepare themselves?

The negotiation starts before you even decide who you’re hiring, by making sure the pool of applicants actually want to work for you. That’s the most important thing – if the person applying wants to work for you, then you already have leverage for a negotiation. The most common mistake is selecting candidates based just on qualifications; if you pick people who have the right skills and experience but for whom the job isn’t their top choice, then the negotiations are going to be very tough. But if the candidate wants to work for you, the negotiation process is going to be a lot, lot easier.

That makes sense. If they don’t care about working for your company, then they have nothing to lose by negotiation hard.

It seems so basic, but it’s easy to get hung up on what someone looks like on paper with their experience and background. To want to put trophies in your recruitment trophy case. Instead, the focus should be on finding people who will be there for the long haul.

You’ve found a genuinely-interested candidate, and you want to make an offer. Anything else you need to prepare before going in?

One rule in negotiation is to always have more information than the person you’re sitting across the table from. That takes research, discipline and time. This applies to hiring – you want to know what the market can bear, you want to know your strengths and weaknesses as an employer, and you want to know what or who your competition is before you go into negotiation. The more information you have, the better position you’re in.

How do you determine what information you need to hold the better hand?

The first thing I focus on is my weaknesses: what are they? How am I going to overcome them?

For example, our firm had a high-profile client under threat of an unflattering expose by a major news outlet. They had said some things that could look bad when taken out of context. We had to focus that weakness, understand the bigger picture, why they had said those things, so that we could build a bigger narrative to neutralize the threat.

That’s the biggest thing in any negotiation: focus more on yourself, what your weaknesses are, and build around them before you focus on the weaknesses of the other side. Negotiations are about weaknesses, not strengths. If you know your own weaknesses and can answer for them, and you know the weakness of the other side and know how to make them work for you, that’s the real key.

“Negotiations are about weaknesses, not strengths.”

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When you’re going in with a disadvantage – say, you really want the candidate but don’t have the budget to offer a competitive salary – what can you do to give yourself the best possible chance of success?

It’s crucial to understand your value to the candidate, and be able to communicate that value. If your offer is going to be under market in terms of the salary the candidate expects – and you know that it’s under market – selling benefits isn’t going to work. The benefits will probably be under market as well. You’ve got to figure out, what are the intangibles and other things you are selling to this person? If you’re under market for entry-level to middle-management, you should be selling the employee experience and work environment.

How do you manage the emotions that come out during a negotiation?

When I was buying my first home, I fell in love with this one house that I shouldn’t have. And my grandfather told me, “when you fall in love with something, it’s really hard to walk away from it. Even when there are a lot of challenges.”

When it comes to hiring, you can’t get emotionally involved in offer negotiations. If you do, you’ll end up overextending yourself to get the hire. You do have to bring passion, for your work and for the employer you represent, but you have to do it without getting too emotionally involved.

I see companies make the mistake of overextending themselves in the fight for a potential employee when that talent might go work for a competitor. They make promises they can’t keep, which does more harm than good for both the candidate and the company. Keeping someone from a competitor is not the objective. Offer negotiations are about bringing in people who fit your company and paying them what they deserve and what you can afford.

When should you accept failure and end the discussion?

When you get to a point where to get the candidate you have to overextend yourself, offer more than you can or should, step away. Or, if you sense that the candidate has come in begrudgingly, that the offer so far has missed the mark, but that they’re continuing discussions because this is the opportunity that has presented itself, it’s also time to close down the negotiation and move on.

Is there a difference in negotiating by phone, email or in person? Should you listen or pay attention to different things?

I’m a real believer that final negotiations should be done in person. So much can be done via email, or phone, or video, but you want to be able to look for physical cues as to where you are in the process. In person, you can better sense if the person isn’t in it for the right reasons, or isn’t really invested.

However you’re communicating, pay close attention to the words they use and the emotional cues that they give. Their body language, if you can see them. With practice and experience, you can tell whether someone really wants to be doing this or not.

“It’s crucial to understand your value to the candidate, and be able to communicate that value.”

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What’s the biggest mistake people make when communicating an offer of this kind and negotiating towards an agreement?

I don’t think there’s a boilerplate approach that works.

In some negotiations I’ll put it all out there in the first offer: “I’m telling you the best and final, and this is it.” Doing that can build trust and speed up the decision-making process. Other times, you can sense the other party wants to negotiate. They’ve been taught that there needs to be some back and forth. So you hold back a few things so you can bring them to the table at the very end. You pull them out when they’ve hit you with a counter and you have to have something else to bring to the table.

I can’t recommend either of those approaches – you have to use both depending on the candidate.

What’s one tip or practice recruiters should adopt to become better negotiators?

Be authentic. Don’t overrepresent what you’re offering. There are so many platforms out there for people to voice how they were misled. It will come back to haunt you on social media. I tend to undersell positions, because I don’t want a reputation for not delivering on what I’m saying.

From an interview with @ChristianDePape.

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