Dealing with Deadlines in Workplace Negotiating – Focus on “The Four Flexible Features”

“No man is impatient with his creditors.”
– The Talmud

COMMON CASE STUDIES: It seems to happen almost every day: one of our clients is faced with a deadline and a dilemma: “How should I deal with this deadline?”

–Jenna, 44, was the Director of Neonatal Services for a large suburban hospital. She had interviewed four times for the same position at a larger medical complex, and had been offered the job. Her new potential employer offered generous tuition assistance, which was very attractive to her. At the same time, though, Jenna was under consideration at her present hospital-employer for the position of Associate Director for Children’s Services, which would represent a significant promotion, increase in salary and career step forward. She wasn’t sure what to do. Unfortunately, she had been told that she had to give a “yes” or “no” answer to her new prospective employer within a week. The deadline was approaching; Jenna was anxious.

–Sanjay, 37, a Senior Fixed Income Analyst with a first-tier Wall Street firm, had been granted 10,000 “share appreciation rights,” (sometimes called “SAR’s”), a kind of long-term incentive compensation with a value of about $120,000 over five years. However, to accept them, Sanjay had to sign a “Grant Letter” in which he had to promise that, if he should ever leave his job, he would not work for a competitor of his firm for a period of twelve (12) months. He had ten (10) days to accept the award, or lose it. The deadline was approaching; Sanjay was nervous.

–Marlene, 50, was a Sales Director for one of the largest music recording companies in the world. Her employer was facing difficult times due to the phenomenon of music file sharing, and so was planning an upcoming reduction in workforce. Rumor had it that 20% of the employees would be let go. Sure enough, Marlene received notice that she was to be included in that group, along with a “Separation Agreement and General Release,” a legal-sounding document that seemed to offer her 28 weeks of severance pay if she signed the agreement, but only 8 weeks of severance if she did not sign it, and 21 days to make up her mind. Marlene had never been laid off before, and wasn’t at all sure what to do. The deadline was approaching; Marlene didn’t know what to do.

Three common scenarios, three similar dilemmas: “How can I best deal with this deadline?”

LESSON TO LEARN: In every aspect of our lives, we face deadlines, from the annual April 15th deadline for filing tax returns to the expiration dates on medicine bottles. For every deadline, we are faced with having to: (a) take action, (b) within a time period, or (c) risk (d) negative consequences. In that respect, deadlines in office negotiating are no different than other deadlines. But the potential ramifications of deadlines in negotiating at work – deadlines that may affect your livelihood – give them unique urgency, and uncommon concern.

The most common response to a deadline is simply to ask for an extension of time . . . and then to fret when the now-delayed deadline (and the anxiety it causes) inevitably “re-appears.” There’s a whole lot more you can do – with creativity and success – when a deadline faces you down. We have found that when anxiety-provoking deadlines arise in the course of our clients’ negotiating for themselves at work, the remedy for the anxiety is always found within one or more of the “Four Flexible Features” of the deadline faced: (1) Action Required, (2) Time Period, (3) Risk (or “probability”), (4) Negative Consequences.

If you face an anxiety-provoking deadline in your workplace, it is always smartest to look at each of a deadline’s “Four Flexible Features,” in their natural order, to determine where, when and how you can “negotiate the deadline” to your best advantage. Simply say to yourself, “How can I adjust or modify the “Four Flexible Features” to give myself the flexibility or advantage I want?” In this way, you can calmly devise a plan – a reasoned, smart plan, based upon a calm, objective analysis – to help yourself in dealing with that deadline.

If you approach deadlines in this way, you will likely find that deadlines are remarkably flexible. You should never despair over a deadline, or feel that you are trapped, or act out of fear. Instead, if faced with a deadline, first calmly consider each of the “Four Flexible Features,” and try to obtain the flexibility you need by applying appropriate, rational and reasonable requests, in the context you face.

Always remember that a deadline is composed of “Four Flexible Features,” and is not one, big amorphous and anxiety-provoking threat to your livelihood. Deal with it that way, not as you fear it. A deadline is best viewed as a challenge, not a chokehold. A deadline is best viewed as an opportunity, not an omen. And remember, too, that “risks” are rarely “yes-or-no” matters, but more often come in varying degrees of “danger.” If you can reduce “deadline danger” by just one degree, you’ve done yourself a big favor. If you can modify a deadline to create an alternative path around the danger it may pose to you, you will have done a great deal for yourself.

The “Four Flexible Features” is a framework for analysis, thought and action, in effect, a “lens” through which you can see – and respond to – a problematic deadline with greater clarity and precision.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: When faced with your own work-related deadline, don’t get anxious; instead, get out your pencil and a piece of paper. Review each of the “Four Features of Flexibility” of your particular deadline, and consider where, when and how you might request an adjustment or modification that will better suit your needs, circumstances and advantage. Here are a few examples to help you get started:

1. Action Required: Focus, first, on “Can we adjust or modify the necessary Action Required?”

In order to receive severance when laid off, our client had 21 days to sign a release of all claims against his employer. However, he believed that his 401(k) contribution had been miscalculated three years earlier, and so was reluctant to provide the required total release of all claims. An audit of the 401(k) would take months, yet the 21-day deadline loomed. He asked for, and received, the right to release all claims against his employer – except those related to the 401(k) issue – and thus receive his severance without giving up his possible 401(k) claim. In this way, the “action required” was adjusted.

2. Time Period: Focus, second, on “Can we adjust or modify the Time Period?”

In order to receive her annual bonus, our client had to sign a Bonus Award Letter that said, in effect, “If I ever resign, I will give my employer at least three (3) months prior notice, or else I will have to repay this bonus,” and gave her just ten (10) days of her receipt of the Bonus Award letter to sign it. Because she was about to give birth, and considering whether to come back full-time, our client wanted to think about it more before making such a commitment. When she asked for more than ten (10) days to respond, her HR representative told her, “No, we are not permitted to give anyone more than ten (10) days; that number is written in the Company Bonus Plan.” So our client asked whether the Bonus Award Letter could be withdrawn, and re-issued a few weeks later, to allow her to first deal with her delivery and child, and later deal with the predicament. Her request was not, technically, against the rules, and was granted. In this way, the “time period” was adjusted.

3. Risk: Focus, third, on “Can we reduce the Risk” (that is, the probability of harm)?”

One of our clients was management’s “first pick” for a significant promotion, but was told that she had to make up her mind “by next Friday.” She wasn’t sure she wanted the additional responsibilities and travel time, but was reluctant to say “No” to a considerable career advancement. Each day she was called by HR and told “We’ve promised all other candidates a final decision would be made by next Friday.” She knew that she was the chosen candidate, and that HR was reluctant to unnecessarily “lose” her. To gain the additional time she wanted, she asked the Director of Human Resources whether he would be willing to ask the other candidates if the delay of an additional week for a decision would be a problem for them. He told her “I’ll see what I can do.” She thanked him in an email, with a copy to the head of her division. In effect, she was placing the “risk” of a problem on the shoulders of the HR Director. She had effectively reduced the probability that she would suffer the loss of her potential promotion. In this way, the “risk” or probability of harm to her was reduced.

4. Negative Consequences: Focus, finally, on “Can we limit or eliminate the Negative Consequences?”

One of our clients faced two deadlines, simultaneously: first, he had to stay employed for six weeks to qualify to receive last year’s bonus; second, he had to start work at his next job within two weeks, or lose it. The first deadline was a significant risk for him, as employers surely don’t have any motivation to pay bonuses to former employees. The second deadline seemed more flexible, although his new employer was very insistent on his starting as soon as possible. Though faced with two deadlines, our client thought through his dilemma, and chose to share his dilemma with his soon-to-be employer. He asked, “If I was to start soon, might you be willing to reimburse me for the bonus I will lose?” Being a veteran of these transitions, his new boss agreed, although he added his own proviso: so long as you stay here a full year. He effectively eliminated the “Negative Consequences” of his deadline.

Deadlines are serious stuff, and must be treated with respect. But that doesn’t mean fear, dread, or anxiety. Taking deadlines “seriously” to us means “analyzing where you can modify or adjust how they might affect you.” Taking deadlines “seriously” means focusing on the “Four Flexible Features” of every deadline, and approaching each as a challenge. Using this approach to deadlines in workplace negotiating increases your chances of dealing with that deadline on your own terms, and to your own best advantage.

SkloverWorkingWisdom™ emphasizes smart negotiating – and navigating – for yourself at work. Moving upward in compensation and authority over time takes more than luck. It takes making your case, and doing it with intelligence. And surviving the many pitfalls – including deadlines – that you face daily.

Always be proactive. Always be creative. Always be persistent. And always do what you can to achieve for yourself, your family, and your career. Take all available steps to increase and secure employment “reward” and eliminate or reduce employment “risk.” That’s what SkloverWorkingWisdom™ is all about.

A note about our Actual Case Histories: In order to preserve client confidences, and protect client identities, we alter certain facts, including the name, age, gender, position, date, geographical location, and industry of our clients. The essential facts, the point illustrated and the lesson to be learned, remain actual.

Please Note: This Newsletter is not legal advice, but only an effort to provide generalized information about important topics related to employment and the law. Legal advice can only be rendered after formal retention of counsel, and must take into account the facts and circumstances of a particular case. Those in need of legal advice, counsel or representation should retain competent legal counsel licensed to practice law in their locale.