How to Negotiate a New Job Offer – My Recent Experience in BioPharma

by Darwin on December 28, 2015

For regular followers of the blog over the years, you may know I’ve been a biopharma employee for many years at the same company.  Over the years, I’ve had some ups and downs in my career and the occasional headhunter overture here and there.  Finally, I had an offer that was so compelling from both a career aspiration and financial situation that I had to pursue it.  Here, I share some tips, tricks and lessons learned along the way.

  • Background: I’m a Chemical Engineer, MBA with over 15 years at the same large Biopharma.  I’d done everything from manufacturing to technical roles to procurement and supply chain.  Over the past few years my focus was on technical transfers to contract manufacturers and setting up business deals in biopharma.  I had an offer with a new firm growing their external manufacturing presence and the headhunter threw out some numbers that were in the 25-30% increase range (base salary + bonus).  I also wouldn’t have to move.  My current role and future were OK, but it was enough money and I felt I could bring enough to the table at the new employer that I had to pursue it.
  • Multiple Rounds of Interviews: As would be expected, there were multiple rounds of interviews, including some overseas telecons.  In all, believe it or not, the full process was about 6 months from my first phone interview until final offer and start.  Some key messages I delivered during the process were around actual accomplishments and what I bring to the table, and I worked them into the conversation and questions, even where only tangentially relevant.  You really need to sell yourself, but without coming across as arrogant or overconfident.
  • The Initial Offer was Underwhelming:  I went into the offer phase hoping for (and having communicated previously) an offer at the top of the range the headhunter threw out.  Without giving you exact numbers, it was north of 200K w bonus.  What they came in with was toward the lower end of the range (which spanned 25K) and they claimed while they really wanted to hire me, they needed to maintain “parity” with others in the group at the Director level with similar experience.  This did not sit well with me, as I felt market rate was higher and given my prior experience and company I was leaving I could command a higher salary.
  • My counteroffer: I set up a detailed spreadsheet outlining how the new offer was roughly neutral with my prior role when taking into account things like annual stock options, pension, value of severance package accrued in the event of a layoff, etc.  I was basically throwing out there all the various financial concepts that had value to see what would stick.  Ultimately, after a couple rounds of back and forth, they were able to come up on both salary and signing bonus – more on that now.
  • Key Finding was Signing Bonus is Easy to Negotiate Higher: I found that the employer (and probably many others) was much more sensitive to the salary amount than the signing bonus.  I used unvested options, annual pension accrual and other financial drivers to justify a much higher signing bonus.  While they were unwilling to move completely up to my desired salary amount, they were rather nonchalant about the signing bonus, increasing if by about $30,000 from their initial offer without even blinking an eye.  Meanwhile, each couple grand salary increase was like pulling teeth.  I think there are a few reasons for this.  There is probably much less visibility/scrutiny on signing bonuses within HR and other “comp balancing” inquiries within a firm than annual salary.  When they want to see if women or minorities are underpaid, they look at large pools of salaries and employee balance at different levels.  I’m sure they don’t look at what size signing bonus a few incoming candidates got in any given year.  So, with the much larger signing bonus (which is cash in hand today), I was able to bridge several years at the slightly lower comp than I was seeking by just treating it as though I spread it out over several years and still came out ahead.
  • Other factors I tried to negotiate:  While I was unsuccessful in negotiating a few other concepts, you might have some luck in your situation.  It never hurts to try and if they say no, you can demand an increase somewhere else in exchange:
    • Vacation: While I was seeking the same exact amount of vacation days I had at my prior employer, they were only willing to give me 4 weeks.  That is still plenty for an American and probably about as much as one can take in a given year without too many interruptions, but I did have 5 weeks at the prior employer.
    • Severance: I did highlight that given my years of service, I had accrued a fairly sizable severance payout in the event of layoff and would be starting over.  I tried to negotiate in a minimum 6 month severance level in the new job, but that was rebuffed.  They said this was purely a VP and up type discussion.  I had to drop that as well.  But when I kept pointing out how important these two topics were to me, it was factored into the much higher signing bonus.
  • How to Set Yourself Up for New Opportunities: Most headhunters find me through LinkedIn, so that’s an obvious profile you should create.  But aside from that, I derive a great deal of intel on what jobs are out there, especially at the six-figure only level through The Ladders (free!).  Simply set up an account and get emails on new jobs filtered by your criteria so you aren’t bombarded with opportunities that aren’t what you’re looking for.

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