How to Use Humour to Negotiate a Better Salary

A salary negotiation is no place for joking around. Or is it? Evidence from some social psychologists suggests that humour — the right kind of humour deployed at the right time — can work in your favour, especially in sensitive situations like salary negotiations. Here’s how.

The Icebreaker

“Would you like to make more money?” That’s what author Dennis Clause, who was working as a supervisor at a factory at the time, asked his boss, who inevitably said yes. Clause was ready with his follow-up: “Good — now you know how I feel. Can I have a raise?”

Opening negotiations with a joke is a risky move, perhaps, but depending on your relationship with your employer, it’s one that can help start an awkward conversation. Getting the ball rolling is often the most difficult part of the process, but it’s an important one, since nearly three-quarters of raises go to the people who have the courage to ask for one. Using a joke to break the ice can help raise the issue amicably, and help keep the atmosphere light even as you’re digging into a heavy topic. For Clause, the gambit paid off: a few weeks after asking, he received his requested raise.

Confidence Interval

You might think that cracking a joke will make you seem unprofessional. There are certainly many situations where that is true, especially with client-facing positions. But a surprising study, recently published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggests that a well-timed joke can actually increase your perceived competence in the workplace.

While acknowledging that “attempting to use humour is risky,” the study’s authors describe how joking can project confidence, which gives your status a boost as well. This can work even during salary negotiation. A. J. Saleem, owner of the start-up tutoring company Suprex Tutors Houston, remembers one job applicant who replied to the typical interview question “What motivates you?” with a surprising answer: “Money is my motivation. The more I get paid, the harder I work.” The answer was intended — and, luckily for the interviewee, was received — as a joke. “This was pretty funny,” Saleem says. “It actually motivated me to pay him more.”

Raising the Bar

Almost every interview builds to one inevitable question: how much compensation are you hoping for? or how much were you making at your last job? No matter how it’s phrased, it’s a loaded question. Aim too high, and the employer might get a sense that you’re out of touch, overqualified, or too demanding. Aim too low, and you might be cheating yourself out of potential income.

As an article published recently on the Association for Psychological Science website explains, the right joke can help boost salary negotiations from the beginning, using a technique called “anchoring.”

To a question about your expected salary, you might answer with, “My expertise is worth millions! But I’m willing to settle for $50,000 a year.” The self-valuation in the millions is not intended to be taken seriously — it’s just an (admittedly corny) joke. But by starting with a 7-figure salary, and coming down to a more reasonable figure, subconsciously it feels like you’ve already made a huge concession. The same trick is used by retailers: place an outrageously expensive camera next to a lower-priced model, and suddenly the lower-priced model seems more affordable, even if it’s still more than a customer would have expected to pay with no outside influence.

In a series of experiments conducted at the University of Idaho, researchers found that throwing out an unreasonably high salary expectation in a joking way could nonetheless establish a high anchor, and cushion negative reactions from employers during the rest of the negotiating process. Running mock interviews where candidates gave unrealistically high ($100,000) or low ($1) anchor points, or simply stated a previous salary of $29,000, the researchers discovered that students playing the role of employer offered, on average, about $3,000 more to interviewees who opened with a high anchor point — even if they went on to quote the same previous salary as the other groups.

Risky Business

When deploying a joke strategically during salary negotiations, the risks seem to be skewed particularly towards women, whom the University of Idaho study found more likely to have a joke backfire and leave a bad impression. Indeed, this is probably the case in most scenarios, and can likely be traced back to the same factors that underlie the wage gap. But the possibility of a joke backfiring is real for everyone, so use at your own risk; whether or not humour can work in any given situation depends on a number of factors, including the very subjective relationship you share with your employer. It’s also important to note that in all these examples, the subject of the “joke” is the employee’s own salary — never another coworker, or another coworker’s salary, or any topic that could be considered sensitive.

Published by Workopolis

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