In January, 2020 looked to be another banner year for job seekers. The U.S. was experiencing historic economic expansion, record low unemployment, strong job growth and high employee confidence in the ability to find a new job — and negotiate it to its max potential, to boot.
Then the pandemic hit.
By April, with businesses shuttered and workers sent home to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, the U.S. lost as many jobs as it had created in the decade since the Great Recession. The job-search market became tighter than ever as job openings disappeared while a flood of job seekers who were newly jobless, underemployed or graduating from high school and college entered the talent pool.
Essentially, the job market completely reversed course in the span of a few weeks.
Now, with businesses reopening and parts of the economy stabilizing after a dramatic decline, there are early signs that job search activity is picking back up, both in the number of job openings being listed and the number of job seekers searching for opportunities.
So if you're in the position where you're interviewing for a new job, can you still negotiate a job offer?
"Yes, and you should," says negotiations specialist Alexandra Carter. The Columbia Law School professor and negotiation trainer for the United Nations tells CNBC Make It that not negotiating now can hurt your earning potential and personal finances far down the road.
Given the financial precariousness millions of Americans are experiencing during the pandemic, you may need income immediately and feel lucky to land any kind of offer at all. Still, Carter says most roles will have some room to negotiate, whether that's salary or beyond, to accommodate both your own and the company's needs.
She especially emphasizes the importance of negotiating for women and young professionals who may be more reluctant to do so. "I want women to know that some people will always ask for more, even in a recession and when times are tough," Carter says. "If someone's going to ask, I want it to be you."
Here's what else to keep in mind if you're negotiating a new job offer.
Have a conversation about how the business is doing
First, know that from a hiring perspective, recruiters still expect you to negotiate.
Kelly Lavin is the senior vice president of talent at Jobvite, a recruiting and applicant tracking platform. "Overwhelmingly, I and the people I've spoken with feel you should still negotiate," she says. According to a Jobvite survey of 1,500 job seekers in early April, 61% responded that they felt very or somewhat comfortable negotiating a new job in the current market.
"But there are some things to take into consideration during the negotiation process that's important, really, for any job candidate to think about," Lavin adds.
Make sure to do your research on how the pandemic has impacted the organization, the industry it's in and even the customers it serves.
Research these details by checking the company's website and social media pages for updates, or by seeing if the organization has recently appeared in the news for changes to its staff or business model. Tap into your professional network to see if anyone you know or a recruiter you've worked with before has more up-to-date information about how the company is faring.
Have this information on hand as you kick off discussions with the employer, even if it's just an initial phone screen with a recruiter. Lavin says it's in your best interest to have candid conversations about the company and its financial stability early on in the interviewing process.
Build your case as the best candidate
By kicking off the financial discussions early, you both show the employer you've done your research, and you can explain why you're the best person for the role precisely because the company is going through challenging times.
"You want them to know you're aware of what's happening," Carter says. "I'd then focus the conversation on how you can bring extraordinary value to the team, and why you and this amount are a worthy expenditure of the company's money."
It's likely the company will be working on how it responds to and recovers from the economic impact of the pandemic. It's crucial to know how your role will be affected by those plans, and Lavin says you can again leverage this information to show that you're a fit for the job.
For example, discuss with the hiring manager: "Tell me how Covid-19 has impacted your company, how the company is recovering and what that timeline looks like. How will the role I'm interviewing for address these challenges and find a solution?"
Then, expand on your own experience, skills and accomplishments that you'd bring in to help the company recover and succeed.
"In any economic situation, the candidate should come in with their research done about the type of position they're filling, what value they'd bring to that position based on their skill set and experience, etc.," Lavin says.
Choose one thing to negotiate
Ian Siegel, co-founder and CEO of online jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter, acknowledges that people interviewing for skilled or more senior roles will have more room to negotiate.
"Months ago, you could have fought for everything." Siegel says, referring to the recent job market where there were more open roles than people to fill them. "Now, only fight for the most important thing. If that means a higher salary, go for it. If it's a flexible schedule, go for it. Pick one thing and make it known it's the only thing standing in the way of you taking the job."
Of course, what you ask for and how you do it will be different during the pandemic era, but it's still a conversation worth having. A position with an hourly rate may have a small range to work with, for example. You may be able to negotiate for the higher end of pay based on the skills and experience you bring to the table. If that's not possible, maybe you can negotiate for more hours, bonus pay or an accommodating schedule.
If the company isn't able to match your expectations, Carter says there are ways to continue the conversation and find a way to meet in the middle.
Lead with questions, she says: "Tell me, how have you closed the gap for people in the past? What else might we add here to bring the compensation closer to market value?"
Do your research and have a sense of what's appropriate for the market, she says, and frame the discussion as mutually beneficial — as in, here's what I'm asking for in order to join the organization, and here's how the company is going to benefit by having me on board.
If you know the company won't be able to budge on salary based on previous conversations, Lavin suggests you think about other forms of compensation that could be accommodated, such as a signing bonus, more paid time off, equity, a bonus if you hit a certain target, an accelerated timeline to discuss raises and promotions or a more flexible schedule.
"There are so many different ways to give your employer the opportunity to say 'yes,'" Carter says.
If you're weighing several offers, don't forget to consider other employer-provided perks, such as the cost of your health care, matches to your retirement contributions, employee assistance programs, access to wellness options like teletherapy, child-care subsidies, a home-office stipend and so on. While these components aren't always negotiable, they effectively boost how much you get from the company.
Consider the whole hiring experience
If you make it to the final stage and have an offer in hand, take a breather and know that you don't have to accept anything right on the spot. Take some time to talk about it with friends, family and other household members who could be impacted by your decision. Ultimately, just as with a job offer at any other time, Lavin suggests you do a gut check: Is the offer what you expected when you went into the conversation?
Given the state of the economy, it's understandable that a role's expected salary could change, but Lavin says it could be a red flag if you're not told about a pay cut until the end of the hiring process. Ideally, that news would be shared as soon as it was available.
"Even though we're now entering into a different dynamic where there are more people looking for jobs than job openings, smart companies still care about the candidate experience and their employment brand," Lavin says.
Also take note of how you were treated during the interviewing process, which can tell you a lot about how the company treats its current employees. Were you kept in the loop as the hiring process went on? Were all of your questions answered sufficiently? Were the hiring managers interested in hearing about what you hope to accomplish with the organization?
"Assess, am I working with someone who is engaging with me in a meaningful way?" Lavin says. "Even if they're in a tough position, are they engaging with me and trying to meet me where I am and what's important to me?"
Hiring supply and demand aside, applicants can expect a series of respectful exchanges with a potential employer at the very least.
"Everybody says we're living in uncertain times," Carter adds, "but I like to remind people that they can be certain of who they are and what they have to offer. That doesn't change even if the winds are blowing."