10 Essential Negotiating Skills for HR Managers
Human resource managers spend enormous amounts of time helping both employees and upper
management cope with everyday issues involving two or more stakeholder groups—often with
conflicting interests. What you are doing day in and day out, whether you realize it or not, is
negotiating. Any time you are involved in helping two or more parties come to an agreement, you are,
in effect, handling a negotiation.
HR professionals who hone their negotiating skills are in a tremendous position to influence company
morale, improve productivity, boost the bottom line, and foster a company culture that is harmonious
and competitive. In other words, being a better negotiator makes you better at managing your
workforce, with all of its complexities.
In human resources, you can master the same type of negotiating techniques that are used by high-
powered companies to secure multimillion-dollar contracts. At the core of every negotiation are two
sets of interests that need to get resolved so that the parties can move forward in a constructive way.
HR professionals spend many hours of every day knocking out agreements, large and small, so that
the company organism can continue to function smoothly. Competent negotiating is essential to HR.
What type of everyday issues confronting HR managers could be improved with more effective
negotiation skills? Here’s a short list:
• Working out labor disputes with unions and other labor groups
• Hammering out benefits packages
• Negotiating salaries and raises
• Dealing with employee conflicts
• Hiring top-notch people
• Motivating sales staff
• Managing change initiatives
• Dealing with disgruntled, litigious employees
• Making downsizing and outsourcing decisions
• Developing leadership skills among your talent pool
• Selling new strategic initiatives to department heads
• Managing post-merger cultural acclimation
• Bringing in new management
• Working out budgetary allocations
And there are many more. So ask yourself: Did you ever receive formal negotiating training? Are there
areas of your work that consistently disappoint? It may be that you simply need to learn more effective
ways to come to decisions with people and to problem solve. Many HR professionals are hired for
their “people skills,” and you may feel that yours are adequate. But what does this really mean? Even
if you have an excellent rapport with others, are you using your listening, communicating, and
reasoning gifts to best advantage in your job? Do you always feel as though you’ve come to an
agreement that resonates with all parties involved?
For twenty-plus years, I have been training people in a contrarian, highly effective negotiating
approach called Systematic Decision-based Negotiating, a methodology designed to result in good
decisions every time. At the heart of this approach is the following truth: Emotions can overwhelm you
in any negotiation. In my system, you dispense with feel-good emotions and follow instead a highly
structured, systematic method based on sound decisions, each decision building on the one before it.
This way of negotiating may seem counterintuitive to HR professionals at first, and demands discipline
and self-awareness every step of the way to learn and master. But once you learn it, you will enjoy
dramatic new results in every type of workplace negotiation.
Like most HR professionals, you are probably more adept at and used to compromise-based
negotiation (also known as collective bargaining or win-win negotiation). Here’s the bald truth: win-win
is emotion-based, rather than decision-based. Emotion-based negotiation leads to bad decisions. The
win-win books would never admit this, of course, but they can’t get around the fact that the invitation to
compromise that lurks just beneath the surface of the win-win paradigm is really just an invitation to let
emotions—all kinds of emotions—take over: the hope that you’re going to be the hero; the fear that
you’re going to ruin your company; the desire to make everyone happy; the temptation to make a deal,
any deal, and worry about the consequences later.
Is that “Taps” I hear playing in the background for our beloved apple-pie, feel-good, win-win way that
embraces the all-American concept of compromise? At this point, everyone in business should know
that Fortune 500 negotiators use strategies expressly designed to take advantage of win-win
negotiators. In the upper echelons of the negotiating world, win-win is a joke. Yet a surprising number
of business people don’t know this—until it’s too late. This is why win-win leads to bad decisions and
bad deals, time after time after time. This is why win-win is, all too often, win-lose.
What is the significance, then, for HR managers?
It means that going into negotiations with the idea that you will try to arrive at a compromise is going
to make you an ineffective decision maker and problem solver. If you can master good decision-
making skills that are not based on emotions of any kind, you have the best chance of maintaining
control of the situation and achieving the most beneficial possible outcome—for everyone. That’s
because agreements based on sound decisions will always be superior to those based on emotions.
We often have no control over our emotions, but we can always control our actions—our decisions.
Good, disciplined negotiation is all about making good, disciplined decisions.
In a simplified form, here are ten basic rules of thumb from Systematic Decision-based Negotiation
that can help in any type of HR negotiations.
1. Take a dispassionate, emotionally neutral look at the issue.
Never start with an assumption. When you start with any kind of assumption, such as “that employee
is asking for more than we’ll give her, and she knows it,” then every decision that follows in the
dialogue will be based on your initial assumption.
You cannot know what is on the other person’s mind until she tells you. Assumptions, biases, and
fears are all emotion-based states, and decisions based on emotions are not sound decisions. Begin,
instead, by clearing your mind of any preconceptions—and asking team members on your side of the
table to do the same. Throughout the negotiation, try to stay focused on what is being said, not what
2. Find out the real, not the assumed,
needs of every stakeholder group. Before you begin labor union talks, financial meetings, negotiations
with IT firms, or discussions with key department heads, you should have a deep
understanding of each stakeholder’s interests and current situation. Again,
never base decisions on assumptions. Do your homework and come prepared.
Conduct intensive fact-finding sessions with each group to find out where
they currently stand on a variety of issues. Coming to a negotiation well
informed trumps your “people skills” any day.
3. Deal with the real power holders.
Let’s say your tech people are having trouble communicating and cooperating with your financial
people. Think carefully about who the true decision makers in this scenario are. Whom you negotiate
with will depend on the problem, but make certain that you are negotiating with the real power brokers
and not with blockers—people who try to keep you from the real decision makers. These people may
even consider “blocking” part of their job description. Do show blockers respect, however, as you find
a way to get around them. It is a waste of everyone’s time to negotiate with blockers.
4.Identify all problems you see holding back a
successful arrangement .
Before you go into a negotiation, you should have a clear idea of what might stop or keep you from a
successful solution. State those problems clearly at the outset of your talks and ask the stakeholder
how these problems might be solved. Get stakeholders talking, while you listen. Their answers to
these questions will provide critical information that will be of strategic importance to you as you
5. Keep your mouth shut.
Every step of the way, it’s critical to be fully present in the moment, almost a zenlike state. Remain
open to innuendos, the other party’s emotions, and listen carefully to everything that is said. Each time
you ask a question, it should be built on facts that have been disclosed, never on opinions, needs, or
hunches. Keep quiet as much as possible and take thorough notes. You will be amazed at how much
better you listen when you record rather than speak.
6. Clarify all questions with interrogative-led questions
. When an upper-level executive asks you which departments you believe might prove resistant to his
new initiative, respond with your own question, and be sure to compliment him in the process. Ask
interrogative-led questions—who, what, when, where, why, and how—to get him talking and revealing
more facts to you. For example, you might say, “
That’s a great question, Bill. What types of obstacles do you feel are most problematic to our people
as they decide whether to come on-board with your proposal?” In one fell swoop, you’ve put the
executive at ease, you’re directed the dialogue, and you’ve gotten him to fill in much needed details
that will help you explore the issues more thoroughly.
7. Have a valid M&P.
Never enter into a negotiation with any of your stakeholder groups without a valid mission and
purpose, an M&P that is set in the stakeholder’s world, one that’s based on the stakeholder’s needs,
requirements, hopes, fears, and plans. Because every decision you make along the way has to fulfill
this M&P, it will handle any contingency that comes up during the negotiation, and will not fail to give
you a good outcome. For example, your M&P might be: to create a prosperous and secure future for
the stakeholder by keeping the company competitive.
8. Never begin negotiations by offering a compromise
. Also, never ask your respected colleague to say yes. If you start with a “yes” agreement, there’s
nowhere to go from there. Instead, start by inviting them to say no. Tell them you are comfortable with
a no answer and you want them to be comfortable to say no. Tell them that you will take no as an
honest decision that can be discussed and perhaps reversed during the course of your talks. If your
opponent asks you to tell him or her what you want, resist the urge to answer. You need to get the
other party talking and revealing and spilling the beans.
9. Do not try to be friends.
The stakeholders involved in daily HR negotiations are not your friends; they are respected
colleagues. Trying to be friends is one of the ways we let neediness slip into the process. Neediness is
an emotion; keep emotions out of the equation. The purpose of this negotiation is to reach a respectful
and fair solution that accomplishes your mission and purpose, which will be in your respected
opponents’ interest as well.
10. Never think about closing.
Whether it’s budget reallocations for the next fiscal year or a new labor contract, do not think about,
hope for, or plan for the outcome of the deal. Focus instead on what you can control: your behavior
and activity during the negotiation. The second you focus on closing, the deal is dead because you’ve
let your emotions into the negotiation.