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Negotiating a Work Situation That Meets Your Needs

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Illustration by Nick Dewar

Nick Dewar

When Jane Swift, pregnant with twins, was named acting governor of Massachusetts in 2001, everything from the length of her maternity leave to whether she would work from home became national news. It's not surprising that her case struck a chord: With an estimated 70% of mothers now in the work force and a growing number of fathers determined to be more involved dads, many parents find themselves struggling to balance work and family.

While Swift's efforts drew widespread media coverage, average American parents often find their attempts to renegotiate their work schedules stymied -- blocked, ignored, or just outright dismissed by their bosses. The reason? They haven't mastered the art of negotiation, says Deborah Kolb, Ph.D., a professor at Simmons Graduate School of Management in Boston and senior fellow at the Program on Negotiation at Harvard University's Law School.

Dr. Kolb, who coauthored The Shadow Negotiation, spent six years interviewing some 300 professional women to uncover the secrets to successful negotiations. Her conclusion: Every negotiation is governed by hidden power plays that help determine whether people will agree to come to the bargaining table -- and how they'll act if they do.

Child presented Dr. Kolb with five work-related scenarios frequently faced by new parents. Here, she explains smart strategies for making the most of a negotiation.

Q. Ever since my boss agreed to let me work three days a week (with a 40% pay cut), he and my coworkers have treated me as though I'd been demoted. People "forget" to tell me about decisions that were made, for example. I don't want to give up my part-time status, but I also don't want to wreck my career. Any suggestions?

A. As a consultant to Fortune 500 firms, Dr. Kolb says she often finds that employees are cut out of the loop once they work reduced schedules. "Usually, it's not that their colleagues are being malicious. People just tend to forget about you when you're not around," she says.

The problem for many parents is that they're so grateful for their part-time arrangements, they feel they must suffer in silence. "But the fact that a manager gave you a part-time job in the first place says that he values you and wants to keep you," Dr. Kolb points out. Even in an economic downturn, she notes, it's expensive to replace talented employees.

In this case, meet privately with your boss and tactfully describe what's happening. "I feel as though I'm being excluded," you could say. "Has something changed since we made this arrangement?" It's important not to be hostile or point fingers. Always treat the other person as if he is acting in good faith, Dr. Kolb says. Stress the impact the situation is having on the business so he'll be motivated to look for remedies. ("This is preventing me from getting my job done," you could say. "And it's slowing down the project.")

As for the solution, you and your boss might consider shifting your work duties so that you have assignments that require fewer meetings and enable you to work more independently. You might also propose periodic reviews of your arrangement so that you can resolve issues before problems escalate.

Also, take a proactive approach with colleagues, Dr. Kolb says. Find out if your absence is creating problems for them, and plan accordingly. If, for instance, meetings tend to be held on Fridays, a day that you're off, ask them -- before they schedule the next meeting -- if they wouldn't mind changing it to a day when you'll be there. The point is to speak up so you can create the conditions that will make your arrangement work for you -- and your office.

Q. I recently had my second child and would like to work from home one day a week. But my boss is adamantly opposed to the idea -- she claims that if she allows me to telecommute, "everybody would want it." The company's policy is to leave it to the discretion of the manager. Is there anything I can do to change her mind?

A: Some of the most successful negotiations have started with a firm no, says Dr. Kolb: "Sometimes people just aren't ready to deal with you, so they stonewall."

While some career coaches might suggest writing up a formal proposal outlining the benefits telecommuting would bring to the business and how the arrangement would work, Dr. Kolb says don't bother. "When someone isn't ready to sit down with you and talk business, there's no point in drafting a proposal," she says. "Your boss will just look at it and reject it. You have to get her ready to talk to you first."

The best way to do that is to remind your boss of your value to her and the office. "People negotiate only when they perceive it's in their best interest to do so," Dr. Kolb says. "They must see that they need you." Sometimes, all that's required are small, subtle actions, such as forwarding a note you received from a customer praising your work. Dr. Kolb tells the story of one news producer who jump-started her campaign for a raise simply by having her boss attend a meeting in which she knew her coworkers would be asking her lots of questions. Her manager immediately saw how pivotal she was to the organization, she says, and the woman got the raise.

If your boss still refuses? "Step up the pressure so she understands that if she does nothing, you'll be unhappy and might leave the company," Dr. Kolb says. Rather than threatening to quit, which your boss could see as an idle threat, you can send her a strong message by having allies -- colleagues whom your boss respects -- champion your cause. Not only can they persuade the other person to hear your pitch, but they can also convincingly spell out the risks involved in ignoring you. "If a trusted colleague says, 'Hey, I really think we might lose Susan over this, and wouldn't that be terrible?,' most managers will sit up and pay attention," says Dr. Kolb.

Q. A client of ours has just instituted 7:30 a.m. meetings twice a week. As a result, I have to get my son up early so I can drop him off at a neighbor's house by 6:30 on those mornings, then have the neighbor drive him to school for me. How can I get the client to change the time without the company thinking I'm less serious about work?

A: "Nowadays, everybody is juggling, but people are silent about their work-family issues," says Dr. Kolb. "They see their issues as individual problems and feel that they'd be going out on a limb if they spoke up." But most so-called personal issues are group problems.

Take this 7:30 a.m. meeting. "The client assumes that this time works for everybody," notes Dr. Kolb. "But if you spoke to the other people going to this meeting, you'd probably discover that this is not the case at all. And there would be strength in numbers."

Dr. Kolb recommends asking each of your coworkers (including those without children) and even the client's employees if they find the time difficult. Then brainstorm with the group about how to raise the issue with the client. Should you suggest another time to meet? Or do you want to propose other, electronic ways to keep the project moving -- perhaps on a trial basis?

Keep in mind that the key is not to come up with a solution but to draft starting points for discussion with the client. "If you present an issue as a group concern, then put the focus on strategies to resolve this systemic problem, it makes it much harder for the other side to resist," says Dr. Kolb.

Q. I've been working closely -- and quite well -- with a few colleagues on a project for a year. But when I came back from maternity leave, they began making snide remarks to me about "leaving early." I do leave at 5 p.m. now, but I don't feel my work has suffered. How can I make sure their remarks won't hurt me in my upcoming review?

A: A performance review is like any other major workplace negotiation: You must enter into it on strong footing to get what you want, says Dr. Kolb. In this particular case, that means doing all you possibly can to counter this notion that by leaving at 5 p.m., you're shirking your responsibilities. "If those comments are in the air when you have your review, it can shape how your boss sees you."

To put an end to those nasty remarks, Dr. Kolb suggests trying out different comebacks until you find one that stops the comments. You could, for instance, respond with a tactic Dr. Kolb calls "naming the behavior" -- addressing what the other party is doing, without being antagonistic. "Sounds like maybe you'd like to leave at the same time," you could say.

You could also use what Dr. Kolb calls a "correcting" turn, replacing their negative account of your behavior with a more flattering interpretation ("I come in a half hour earlier than you every day. You and I both know that I've been doing my share of the work"). Finally, you could try what Dr. Kolb dubs a "diverting" turn, shifting the focus away from you to the real problem: "Tell me, is there some way specifically that I'm slacking off?"

Before you even walk in the door for your review, you should begin lobbying for your agenda (a process Dr. Kolb calls "seeding the meeting"). "You put yourself in a better negotiating position by readying the other person to hear what you have to say," Dr. Kolb says. Draft a memo to your boss in which you detail the status of all your projects and highlight your contributions. This is another time when it's helpful to have an ally put in a good word for you. "Even a casual comment in passing, like 'Elizabeth has been doing a really great job since she came back,' can have a positive impact if it comes from a person that your boss respects," says Dr. Kolb.

Q. Right after my boss began to consider me for a promotion, I discovered that I was pregnant with twins. Since I already have a child, my boss is concerned that I might not be able to handle the job. My husband works from home and is a very involved parent, but she still has doubts. Any advice?

A: In negotiations, it's natural to focus on what you want, but people can become so consumed with advocating their agenda that they become deaf to the other side. "Neither person hears the other, so there's a stalemate," Dr. Kolb says. If you want a true dialogue, you must be ready to listen.

Since the issue in this case is whether a mother of twins can handle a promotion (à la Jane Swift), you must find out exactly how your employer envisions the new job. Will it, for instance, require frequent travel? If so, your manager might be concerned that you won't be able to hop on a plane at the last minute. "Usually people have legitimate reasons for taking the positions they do," says Dr. Kolb. "They're not just being difficult."

And once the boss's concerns are on the table, you must treat them seriously. For example, instead of chastising your boss for her mistaken assumptions about your husband's role in the family, explain that he works from home, rarely travels, and has been the primary caregiver since your first child was born. "You want to state your case clearly, but you also want to demonstrate that you appreciate the other person's point of view," says Dr. Kolb. "It's about building trust so you can work out a solution together."

Once you and your boss have this dialogue, you may realize that this isn't the right time to take on a new job, says Dr. Kolb. But unlike Jane Swift, who probably wouldn't have another chance to be named governor had she turned down the job, you could pass on the promotion, confident that your positive negotiations have positioned you well for the next job.

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Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the September 2001 issue of Child magazine.