Your own worst enemy: three ways you undersell yourself in job negotiations

As a career coach, I often guide and advise professionals as they define or negotiate the terms of their position, including job title, responsibilities, and of course compensation.

No matter how many times I see it, it is always a shock to watch experienced, talented professionals preparing to sell themselves short in a negotiation. I will add that the penchant for underselling oneself professionally is perhaps more common among women; however women certainly don’t hold a monopoly on this unfortunate tendency.

Your title says it all

The process of undermining your professional worth begins with your title. One part of your title is a useful tag to clearly define your professional responsibilities and expertise, and that piece of the title is usually not the problem. The challenge in selecting what titles to apply or wrangle for in a negotiation usually concerns the other half or your title, which will define your seniority.

Let’s say your field is marketing and public relations; are you a marketing intern? A marketing coordinator? Associate? Manager? Director? VP? Although each of these titles also defines the kind of work you will do, their central purpose is to place you on the totem pole, as well as to define your salary bracket.

I cannot tell you how many professionals I know who are doing senior work under a junior title. Some employers even knowingly formulate a junior title for a more senior position in order to get away with paying a lower salary. I often meet with professionals whose titles belie their expertise. Only in discussing their actual responsibilities and experience do I realize that this person is a far more valuable and seasoned professional than their CV or title indicates.

So the first commandment of not selling yourself short is to apply for titles that fit your experience. It may be hard, and it may feel frightening to demand that recognition; but without it, you will continue to be underpaid and unrecognized for the valuable work you do.

What you will do – and what you won’t

Most people have an easier time saying what they will do than what they will not do. We are all glad to use our skills, contribute, and be appreciated for our successes. However when your responsibilities are not clearly defined, you may be asked to do things that ought to be the role of a more junior employee. Many well meaning and committed professionals will do whatever needs to be done, jumping into the breach to complete tasks that other people leave hanging, or doing whatever their superior asks of them.

You may think, “I can do this well, it needs to be done, why should I stand on ceremony and run the risk of this task being neglected?” However if this becomes a pattern, you will likely end up feeling resentful, unable to fulfill your professional responsibilities well, and will be perceived by your colleagues as a less senior professional. That perception may well keep you from promotion and professional development despite your excellent record. So the second commandment of not selling yourself short is to clarify to yourself, and then to others, what you will do – and what you won’t.

How much are you worth?

I recently assisted a well known organization in recruiting a senior professional. We discussed the salary range that would be appropriate for the role, and I began head hunting. In this case, there was a clear difference between the men and the women vying for the role. When asked for their salary expectations, the women consistently asked for the low end of the range; the men generally asked for the high end or over the high end. Of course there are women who ask for what they are worth and men who don’t; however clearly the ability to ask for a salary that is commensurate with one’s professional worth is a challenge for many job seekers and negotiators.

From the employer’s perspective, the effect of your salary expectations is complex; on the one hand, your employer would love to pay a lower salary; on the other hand, selling yourself short in the compensation arena also signals to your employer that you don’t rate yourself highly, and they may be attracted to a candidate that is not afraid to ask for compensation appropriate for their talents and experience, as a more valuable asset to their company.

So the third commandment of not selling yourself short is: expect compensation that is commensurate with your worth. In the long run, you will be appreciated for your confidence; and if you feel well compensated, you will be much more likely to remain in your position and feel motivated to do your best.

I’m a big fan of professionals getting what they deserve at work – in their titles, their responsibilities and their compensation; but no one is going to give you what you deserve if you can’t bring yourself to define it, expect it or ask for it. Don’t sell yourself short. You will be doing yourself, your employer and your colleagues a favor. In your next job negotiation, instead of being your own worst enemy, try being your own best friend.

About the Author
Gila Weinberg, CEO of Mikum Consulting, is a recruiter and a career coach. She helps organizations and companies find great employees, and helps great people figure out their next career move. Gila is also the author of Not So Grimm: Jewish Fairy Tales, a comparison between tales from the Talmud and classic fairy tales.
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