You're worth it: Negotiating in challenging times

By Melanie C. Simons, CFP™, a Senior Director of Wealth Management who leads a team providing financial planning for TIAA clients

Negotiating isn't a skill I was born with. It's something I have had to develop over time, like a muscle. You can, too—and the more you exercise this muscle, the more confident you'll become in requesting–and receiving—what you're worth.

Yes, negotiating for a promotion, better pay or simply more responsibility can seem challenging, especially when hiring freezes, layoffs and furloughs are the norm. You might tell yourself, "This is the only job available to me," or "This is the only place that's hiring right now." And before you know it, you've mentally given up your much needed leverage in discussions with leadership.

But you don't have to put your aspirations on hold. Even if your employer is going through difficult times, retaining talent and maintaining a successful strategy are still priorities for any organization. There are valuable benefits you can negotiate, given the value you provide. While increased compensation is always the first thing we think of when we consider negotiations, the current environment warrants thinking about your career growth in more creative ways that go beyond asking for a raise.

Whether you're a prospective new hire or already an employee looking to build your career path, consider approaching your manager about these five alternatives if you're told a pay raise isn't in the cards at the moment. These options will help you feel valued while you develop your career and your financial future:

1. Stealth benefits.

Even if there's an organization-wide freeze or cap on compensation, you may be able to increase your total earnings through reimbursement for continuing education or a professional certification. And continuing education could turn out to be a valuable investment when the economy turns around and organizations expand again.

This is also a great time to make sure you are fully utilizing any pre-tax retirement and health savings accounts, along with fitness reimbursements and other programs often overlooked when you are first getting up to speed at a new job. You may be missing out on matching funds or ways to lower bills you already pay that could effectively increase your take-home income now—or retirement income in the future.

2. Opportunities to build your brand.

You may not think you have a personal "brand," but you do. Your brand is the way people think about you when they hear your name, or if they think of you at all. You can influence it positively or negatively, sometimes without realizing it. You'll be smart to identify effective ways to show how you are making an impact at your organization. Whether it's solving communication problems, or leading by example with diversity and inclusion initiatives, there are opportunities to show your organization how well you can stretch beyond your current role. You should consider taking on assignments that your employer doesn't otherwise have the resources to accomplish right now, helping you raise your profile in a meaningful way.

For example, maybe you could pitch in to pilot new remote-teaching or telemedicine software platforms— or put your hand up to work on a PPE-resourcing community service team. Participating in such quick turnaround crisis work can increase your visibility, improve your brand--and help you negotiate for a promotion or raise in the future.

3. Time with your manager and mentor.

At a time when organizations are being careful to conserve financial resources, consider asking for regular one-on-ones and meetings with a mentor. It can be a valuable benefit for you that won't impact the bottom line. In many workplaces, it's a matter of asking for feedback, intentionally scheduling time on calendars to make it happen--and making the effort to honor the commitment. The goal is to set an agreed-upon time, weekly or bi-weekly, for you and your manager or mentor to meet (even if it's virtually). Also ask to set a specific date in the future, such as six months from now, when you'll both reevaluate your progress—and at that point, possibly your pay.

Your manager can help you lay the groundwork to expand your role in the future. Let's say you want to work toward becoming a department head down the road. Can your manager help you find ways to connect on current work with a leader now that could lead to mentorship or sponsorship? You want someone who will advocate for your success and help nurture your growth. Most of the high-powered people I know are happy to devote their time and energy to enthusiastic employees seeking guidance.

4. Career pathing.

Map out your career so far on paper, and it might look more like a zigzag than a straight line. Going forward, identify a deliberate next step, with clearly-defined goals along the way. Not all career paths are alike. A lateral move may make sense in some cases—especially if you want to develop your career at one organization for many years. Even if your title rarely changes, you may have the opportunity to learn a new part of the organization, work directly for a manager who's a rising star, or expand your skillset to make yourself more marketable. And you can ask to be evaluated for promotion after a specific time period. What really matters is having a clear idea of how you can keep making progress.

Before accepting my most recent position, I wrote out my own vision for my career. During our negotiation, I asked my hiring manager what he thought my career track would look like long-term. We then worked together to evolve a route forward that fit both the organization's needs and my goals. Be sure to define the checkpoints along that road so that you can keep checking in on your progress.

5. Be smart about the ask.

There's no way around it: Requesting more than you are offered can seem awkward, and hearing "no" can be hard. So it's important to do some homework that can help you overcome your negotiation nerves. I like to go into the discussion with a backup plan. If you decide ahead of time on a set of targets, the first time you hear "no," isn't the end of the negotiation. Instead, you can move on to the next target.

It's also important for you to keep notes from meetings about your performance and progress: Be sure you're keeping track of your accomplishments, and any accolades you receive. Hard evidence of your achievements, including numbers and client or co-worker quotes, mean more than your own perspective on how you bring value to the team.

You can ask for so much beyond salary that can help you build your career, improve your daily life, and offset personal costs. We've mentioned tuition reimbursement—but what about paid time off to study or attend a professional development course?

It's important to take the time to think through your professional goals so you can articulate clearly at the negotiating table what you're striving for now and down the road. You will feel more confident when you present your value-based request more effectively—in these challenging times and in the future.

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This material is for informational or educational purposes only and does not constitute fiduciary investment advice under ERISA, a securities recommendation under all securities laws, or an insurance product recommendation under state insurance laws or regulations. This material does not take into account any specific objectives or circumstances of any particular investor, or suggest any specific course of action. Investment decisions should be made based on the investor's own objectives and circumstances.