Winning the Negotiating Game With Candidates

Aug 8, 2008
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

For most recruiters the make or break moment comes at the end of the process, when it’s time to negotiate the offer. A successful negotiation means that the process concludes with a hire, and the recruiter rides off into the sunset.

But a successful negotiation doesn’t mean coming out on top with a low-ball offer that gets accepted. That can cause the candidate to get turned off and in the worst-case result in the candidate walking away. Even if accepted, it could leave the candidate with a sour taste in the mouth and essentially starting off with a negative attitude toward the employer. An overly generous offer on the other hand is a waste of the employer’s resources and can upset internal equity. Getting it right is not easy as few recruiters are trained in negotiating.

The number of books that have been written on negotiating can fill a large room — several thousand are in print. But an easier approach can be discerned from recent research at Northwestern University. A study by Prof. Adam Galinsky and his colleagues suggests that a powerful way to influence the outcome to be closer to a win-win situation is to view the situation from the candidate’s perspective — also know as the perspective-taking approach.

What this means and how it works is explained below, but the research has demonstrated that recruiters using such an approach consistently achieve the highest level of economic efficiency, without sacri?cing their own material interests. They produce a better overall outcome for both sides.

Getting Inside the Candidate’s Head

The perspective approach means try to get inside the candidate’s head. To achieve an understanding of the candidate — their motives and likely behaviors — consider the world from their viewpoint. Basically, put yourself on their side of the table. This is not as ridiculous as it may appear. The research demonstrates that recruiters adopting such an approach achieve the best possible outcome close to half the time.

To be able to do this well recruiters need to do their homework before arriving at the negotiation. First, have an understanding of the likely issues. These always fall into three categories.

1) Distributive: issues for which the parties’ preferences are diametrically opposite. For example, the candidate wants a higher salary and the recruiter wants to pay a lower one.

2) Compatible: issues on which the parties’ preferences are identical. For example, the job location.

3) Integrative: issues on which the parties have different high and low priorities. For example, bonus and vacation time. The candidate may care more about the bonus amount because of a belief in her own ability to earn it. The recruiter may care more about getting the candidate to accept a smaller amount of vacation since that represents guaranteed income.

The solution to the disagreements is not to split everything down the middle, but rather to try and maximize the joint outcomes. That requires having a good idea about what makes the candidate tick — taking their perspective. Recruiters need to make an effort during the interview process to gauge what is important to a candidate. An assessment can help to fill out the picture, but even without that it’s important to pick up cues about what drives a candidate. That does not mean to ask questions that are unrelated to the job, but to probe for what a candidate considers important or not.

Head not Heart

There is a danger that a recruiter attempting to take the candidate’s perspective may end up empathizing with them — that is, show compassion for the candidate’s situation. Successful negotiation, especially where economic outcomes are involved, do not require having an emotional connection with the other party. The research demonstrated that empathizing recruiters achieved the poorest individual outcomes, and the gains went almost entirely to the candidates.

It’s better to “think for” than to “feel for” the candidate. It is more bene?cial to get inside their heads than to have them in your heart.


Taking the perspective approach is easier said than done. It requires serious effort to try and understand a candidate, based on a lot of information that may not be readily available to the individual handling the offer negotiation. The more people who are involved in the selection process, the harder this gets, especially since most interviewers do a poor job of documenting what they learn about a candidate. Recruiters may also be constrained by the extent of flexibility they have in negotiating particular issues.

That being said, the Galinsky research does show that a failure to take a disciplined approach to an offer negotiation will produce a poor outcome for all concerned. Ultimately, organizations that fail to recognize this will suffer the consequences of losing good talent.

This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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