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is it OK to put up a Christmas tree at work?

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A reader writes:

I work at a public university, and together with a few colleagues, I supervise a group of graduate students who work in a shared lab office space. Our lab space is a little dreary — there are no windows, and there’s a fair amount of dusty old academic detritus. To add a bit of seasonally appropriate cheer and make the space more inviting, I brought in a small artificial Christmas tree and set it up on our lab’s conference table yesterday. Before doing this, I asked on the lab Slack (used by both students and faculty) if anyone objected to having a Christmas tree in the lab, and no one said anything. Admittedly, I put up the tree only a few hours after asking, and not everyone looks at Slack frequently, so it’s possible that someone who did object to it didn’t see my message.

After doing this, I mentioned it on social media, and someone pointed out that it might be a good idea to keep religious symbols out of shared spaces. To be honest, I had not thought of the tree as being a religious symbol. Personally, I grew up with Christmas trees in an atheist household, and I see them as quite different from, say, a nativity scene. I asked my faculty colleagues what they thought, and they said that they thought it was fine and that it bothered a student, the student could speak up. I then reiterated on Slack that I was serious about wanting to hear from anyone who didn’t like the tree, and that I would be happy to take it down in that case. There still haven’t been any complaints, but I’m conscious of the power imbalance between me and the students; it’s entirely possible that the Christmas tree does make someone uncomfortable, but that they don’t want to raise a stink about it with me.

Your tree is probably fine.

But I wouldn’t assume people will speak up if they’re uncomfortable. Many people won’t, because they don’t want to be perceived as difficult or as the one who “ruined” something for others.

That said, most of us who don’t celebrate Christmas aren’t going to find your small personal tree offensive … as long as you understand that it represents a holiday that isn’t ours. When people assume Christmas trees are inclusive or universal in some way, that’s what’s alienating, not the tree itself.

Because for the record, a Christmas tree is a symbol and marker of a Christian holiday. And as a Jew, I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to hear people say it’s not.

There are of course many people who celebrate Christmas and enjoy its various trappings in a more cultural than spiritual way. But the fact that you’re able to see a Christmas tree as secular or universal is because Christmas has the privilege of dominance in our culture. For many of us who don’t celebrate it, it’s not secular and it’s not universal — and saying it is really erases non-Christians from the picture.

Often people who are culturally Christian (meaning, for example, they celebrate Christmas) but don’t strongly identify with its faith-based elements end up assuming that anything about its traditions that isn’t explicitly faith-based is secular — Christmas trees, Santa Claus, etc.

A commenter addressed this really eloquently a couple of years ago, writing, “To me – and to many other minority-religious people – anything that is part of a religion’s beliefs and practices is part of that religion. So having Christmas trees, being a practice done in the celebration of Christmas, is Christian regardless of the personal beliefs of the people owning them. And I think the fact that cultural Christians often don’t feel that way is because of their cultural dominance – seeing one’s own practices as more neutral than they are. I don’t think most Americans would see the celebrations of Eid, Chanukah, and Holi as being as secular as a family lunch on Easter Sunday, even though they are equally celebrated by people who have no faith-based relationship with those holidays.”

You are, of course, free to decide that you will celebrate Christmas in a way that doesn’t feel religious to you! The important thing is that people outside those traditions shouldn’t be pushed to ignore the religious framework it exists within.

But as long as you’re not pushing cultural or religious observances on others and as long as you don’t assume it’s a neutral symbol that everyone will embrace, you’re allowed to decorate your space for your own holidays, and your tree is probably fine. It’s just the mental framing around it that I’d urge you to reconsider.

is it OK to put up a Christmas tree at work? was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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2 hours ago
Melbourne, Australia
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#1240 and #1241: “Closure” Is The Gift You Give Yourself

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Y’all I have another Vice piece dropping soon and I have to confess I am HOLIDAYED TF OUT RIGHT NOW. Let’s talk endings. Breakups. My wheelhouse.

We’ll call the first one #1240: “How do I approach a friend who doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?”

Hey Captain Awkward,

Here is my dilemma:

I am currently in my second year of college. At the beginning of last school year, I became friends with a girl [M] and we both hit it off. We instantly became best friends and spent a lot of time together, including with my family (I live close to school). We grew close and so I decided to shoot my shot and ask her out. I was politely turned down and said she wanted to just be friends. She was really cool about it and never made me feel uncomfortable about the situation.
Over the course of the last year we got extremely close to each other and were inseparable. I never really did lose feelings for her and that became a problem eventually.

She was in a relationship with someone from back home, but they were constantly on the rocks and had even been on-and-off over the year. This left me with the slightest bit of hope that things might change. That being said, I was always respectful of [M] and her relationship. I rarely asked about the situation or pry into her relationship — I always let her bring it up.

She went away for the summer (abroad) and I was ok with the distance — a lot better than I thought I would be. So when we came back from summer break, I tried to pursue other people (romantically), but I never felt the same connection I had with [M], with anyone else. I then talked to her about it and that led me to telling her my feelings, to which she had no response other than being gracious for my kind words. Things were seemingly normal for the next couple of days, and we made no mention of the discussion.

After a few days, she did not talk to me or text me. This was not normal at all.

Once I talked to her (a whole two weeks later), she let me know that she felt uncomfortable about what I said and that I had crossed a line, “Something a friend doesn’t do.” Noting how her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky but was committed to him. I apologized profusely, admitted I made a mistake and crossed a line. She accepted and said that she was unsure how to proceed with our friendship and need time/space. Especially since I knew that she had a boyfriend and already turned me down previous.l I agreed and admitted that I put myself in an emotionally unhealthy situation, by spending so much time with her if she was never going to be interested in anything more than a friendship.

Since then, we have not spoken to each other beyond a greeting and in class we don’t say hello to each other (she sits in front of me in class). We go to a small college and have a class together, but it was as though we had never known each other. When we pass each other around campus, a greeting is barely shared. This has left me confused, hurt, and sad.

I am not delusional and expect us to become best friends again, but I don’t think we have to ignore each other and pretend we don’t exist. I feel like I have no closure about the situation which hurts the most.

I have no idea what to do. I want to at least talk to her and see what she was to say about the situation, now that it has been over a month since we last talked — at all.
Do I try to talk to her or let things be and just try to get over it?

Thanks for reading, any help is greatly appreciated.

— S.

Dear S,

You gotta leave M. alone. 

I know you are hurting. I know you tried your best to be a good friend and be respectful of her boundaries and you tried to be a good manager of the feelings you were developing for her. I know it would sting slightly less if M. would talk it over one more time and maybe give you hope that something is salvageable. Still: You gotta leave M. alone. 

We don’t, as a culture, have a good template for scaling down or ending friendships (and let’s face it, our collective romantic breakup skills ain’t anything to brag about, though obviously I’m working on it). It’s okay if both you and M. are muddling through this and don’t know quite how to act.

That said, I feel strongly that there is no conversation you could “approach her” about that would send the message “Hey I want to be respectful of what you need and not bother you, but what the fuck, can we talk for just a second and clear the air?” that communicates “I will leave you alone if that’s what you want” better than actually leaving M. alone like she wants. Every single past interaction you describe in your letter eventually leads to a conversation where what M. wants most from you seems to be “more space” with a side of “never talking about your feelings about her again.”

Her silence now is a way of making that space when asking didn’t work.

Maybe it’s not a smooth way of making that space, an “I gotta let him down easy” way of making that space (a thing she tried several times), but as messages go, but freezing you out is hardly an ambiguous way of claiming space. What is there to explain? She’s been pretty consistent with you from the start and it’s extremely clear what’s going on, the way it’s clear that a cat who hides whenever you walk into a room is a cat who doesn’t want your snuggles. The only way to ever get the cat to come out without being a ball of needle-claws and yowls is to ignore it until it comes out on its own. You’re probably not going to make a situation any worse than it already is by applying the same principle to humans who indicate they’d prefer to be left alone.

Things might not stay this chilly between you and M. forever, once enough time goes by, but the thing you can do to give the situation the best possible chance of a thaw is to realize that the only way your former friend’s shoulders are going to come down from around her ears when you’re around is if you show her you will give her space…by giving her space…and not hanging out expectantly waiting for her to explain herself or suggesting that if you could just talk about all of it one more time that will fix it somehow. When someone sets a hard limit, we show we are safe people who respect boundaries by retreating back behind the boundary and staying there until invited to cross, not by hanging out just outside the gates trying to have just one more conversation about what kind of fish to put in the moat.

So where do you go from here? You can decide that M. is incompatible friend material for you at the present time without talking through it with her. She decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, which is a thing she gets to do without taking a vote, and you also get to decide, hey, I need friends who want me around, she’s not that person, it’s time to stop trying to make this happen.

In the class you share, say ‘hello’ if she says ‘hello,’ try to match her energy where possible, don’t double down on the awkwardness by giving her the silent treatment or doing anything dramatic to “punish” her. Find a different seat if you can, actively seek different study buddies and lunch companions, don’t lurk around her conversations, don’t monitor what she does or who she talks to, try to think of her as just another stranger in the room. When you get tempted to dwell on her during class, dare I say it, re-focus your attention on the material you’re there to learn at considerable expense? 😉 And let her do the same, without having to manage your feelings!

Outside of class, put your energy into other connections that aren’t so fraught. It’s a small campus, but women you have a crush on and a failed friendship with aren’t the only people on it. M. has already occupied a lot of a school year you’ll never get back, I wonder how many hangouts with other people did you forgo to hear more about the dude back home she likes better than you in the hopes that today would be the day she’d either love you back or you’d become finally immune? It’s time to break that cycle, stick the landing on your finals, enjoy the holiday break, and next semester or quarter, get yourself a fresh start. Join a club or two, try something new, and make some friends who aren’t her. In both friend material and future crush/romantic partner material, start selecting for people who enthusiastically want you around and who want the same thing you want.

As for M., one last thing: It actually takes a ton more effort to ignore someone and actively freeze them out than it does to be casually pleasant, so This WILL pass, I think, if you give her space. It won’t go back to how it was before, a little friendliness from her absolutely will NOT be an indication that she’s changed her mind and is now Into You That Way, but chances are it won’t always be quite so tense. If and only if: You give her space.

(And if you hear that she’s broken up with her boyfriend at some future point? KEEP GIVING HER SPACE. We don’t forget when people close to us tell us they are in love with us, if she ever wants to talk about that again you will know because she seeks you out and brings it up. If she doesn’t talk about it, assume she’s not feeling it.)

I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t persuade people into loving you back or letting you in even if you use all the best words. It took so many times and so many words for that to sink in, but it never stopped being true if I’d only let myself see it. What I’d love to hand down to you, my dear S., is the knowledge that the closure you give yourself is the closure that ultimately heals you in the end. Giving M. space, walking away, and choosing to prioritize other people is the kind of closure that lets you stop auditioning in an empty room where she walked out, turned out the lights, and shut the door behind her. It’s the kind of closure where you find the story you can live with, the one where you tried your best. Time does the rest, if you’ll let it.

Now, onward to #1241, “Is a person ever entitled to direct communication?” 

Dear Captain,

I’m early 40s (she / her), long-term single, generally happy about it. I have a Significant Ex (late 40s, he / him); we broke up nearly a decade ago for a whole load of lifestyle-related reasons (I have a job that I absolutely love but which takes me abroad, often to unsafe places, for long periods of time), and over the ensuing years, we have cycled through not being in touch / being very casually in touch / thinking we were friends, getting drunk together, angst+kissing / not being in touch, etc. etc. About a year and a half ago it seemed like we had broken the cycle, in that YES we got drunk together and YES we ended up in bed together but then … it was fine? And we segued into what was, to me, a kind of perfect arrangement whereby we were very much not in a relationship but every few weeks we would hang out, have dinner, and sleep over. (I know I know I KNOW that whoever is reading this is probably rearing back in horror at my bad decisions, I knoooooow.)

And after about nine months of this, he slow-faded and then entirely ghosted me. It’s not that I expected this arrangement to go on forever, but I did genuinely believe that he valued me enough to tell me explicitly when he wanted to step back from what we were doing, and also that he knew me well enough to know how being ghosted by him would wreck me in a way that direct communication would not. It’s been six months since I realised it really was a slow fade rather than just a normal break in communication and I … just … cannot … let it go. And so my question is twofold:

1. I cannot let go of the desire to get in touch with him just to say: wow, that really fucking hurt, why couldn’t you just TELL ME that you wanted to step back? But then I think of all the advice I’ve seen over the years about the need to respect a soft no, and so … should I just slink off quietly into the night? Is there ever any justification for this sort of parting shot-style feelingsmail? Did he owe me direct communication? I don’t knooooow.

2. How on earth do I let this one go? It’s been A DECADE since we split up; we’ve had years of no contact over that time; I have a weird and wonderful and extremely full life that I adore (and am also currently on the other side of the world from him); I am absolutely NOT putting anything on hold because I am “waiting” for him, and yet my dumbass of a heart is still hanging on. The only piece of advice on How To Get Over Someone that I am not taking is around dating other people, because I just really do not want to. But WHAT DO instead?


Eternal Kwisatz Haderach, I guess

Dear Eternal Kwisatz Haderach,

A cooler dude would have said something instead of ghosting you.

A better friend would have said something instead of ghosting you.

A great fuck buddy would have said something instead of ghosting you.

The person who actually belongs in your life would have handled this better and said something instead of ghosting you.

If he’d said “This isn’t working for me anymore and I want to end it, and since we know that ‘being friends’ usually ends up right here, I’m so sorry, but I need to end that part too and make a clean break” it would have been SO MUCH COOLER and BETTER IN EVERY WAY than what he did. He had choices about how he treated you and he was a coward. It’s okay if you needed and wanted different things from him than what he gave you, but “owed” isn’t the right word. Not to get all The Merchant of Venice about it, but can something be owed that is neither given freely nor anything you could possibly hope to collect?

If you send one text along the lines of “Hey, it’s been six months and if you’re wondering, I am still pissed at you for ghosting me. That’s not what friends do and I deserved better.” before you blocked his number vs. skipping directly to blocking his number, I wouldn’t judge you. The Last Word is both a potent cocktail and a powerful fantasy, and if having either or both would help you sleep better tonight? Get it.

As long as you block his number.

And his email. And his social media profiles. And every single solitary way you could possibly get in touch with each other or monitor what he’s up to.

Texting to have the last word so you can finally stop fantasizing about having the last word and be done with this dude forever vs. texting in order to provoke a response where you finally get your explanation are two entirely different projects. One is hopefully the beginning of healing. The other puts you exactly where you are now, probably for another six months, waiting for him to say something back that could even possibly explain what happened, finally deliver the apology you are owed, or at least confirm that you still have some power to command his attention even if it’s to wound him the way he wounded you.

But what happens when you say your piece and he keeps right on Caspering out of your life? Do you send even more angry texts and set yourself up for even more waiting? He knows what he did was shitty. He knows he’s a coward. He knows that he deserves to be told off. That’s why he got gone and stayed there, he wanted to avoid the part where he let you down and you (in his imagination) told him off. He’s got nothing for you now that he didn’t have six months ago, when he had less than nothing for you, not even goodbye.

The “closure is a thing you give yourself” recommendation isn’t about what you’re owed, or what you deserve, except when it’s about reminding yourself that a person who deserves you would be much more careful with your feelings. Of course you can want  an adult break-up conversation, and expect a caring sex partner who claims to be your friend to be as honest and considerate with endings as beginnings. But when that’s impossible, what can you do stop waiting for it to be different and start writing the next chapter of your life where you survived this and you don’t need a goddamn thing from someone who let you down?

I want help you get OUT of the ‘please come back and be good this time’ part of the sad breakup playlist:

Like, imagine we’re in a boat and I’m steering you gently past the Adele Peninsula and through the Etta James Straits, around the Portishead shallows that remind us of old times but will only make us cry if we look too hard at the bottom, right past the Jeff Buckley Reef and the Cape of Leonard Cohen, and into the gentle blue lagoon of sometimes-cheesy, always-catchy empowerment jams:

Your musical map probably has different signposts on it than mine but it will still eventually reveal the safe haven where I want to take you, Ms. Kwisatz Haderach ( and S. in the first letter, and many past Letter Writers), the point on the compass where the needle crosses over from “But I still love ____! So much!” to “Yes, ok, but I’m going to try to love myself more and see where that takes me.” Since I am as yet unable to build a time machine to go back and unsend all of my personal “well I guess at least I can have THE LAST WORD (but please please oh please write back, you can have the last word if it means I get more words)” emails and texts that never did anything but make my exes more avoidant and worried about my sanity and me feel more pathetic (and worried about my sanity), I’m trying to spare you at least some of that. Don’t worry, though, I’ll definitely still be here if you wind up taking the long way round.

If I’d found out what rejection-sensitive dysphoria was and that I definitely experienced it at 16 instead of 40, what would my life be like, I wonder? Would I be Captain Awkward or just a regular level of awkward? We’ll never know, but if I can make one person feel less alone about this, if I can make one person understand that time you spend convincing people to love you is time spent on people who, baseline, do not love you enough to be what you need, no matter what you hoped and what they may have promised, then I’ll take it.

What I want you to do now, Kwisatz Haderach, is to do whatever lets you grieve this fucker like he died and start enjoying your life again. If you need to send one last text into the void to get there, so be it, but my vote is for skipping ahead, and if I can help you get started on the next part of the story, I gladly will:

“Once upon a time I made a very fun bad decision and let my ex back into my life, and it was great for a while, but in the end he remains as disappointing this time as he did the first time around. I knew he was unsuited to being a long-term partner; now I know he’s incapable of being a friend. Honestly, people should think twice about leaving a cactus at his house.

I will never know what made him decide to take off without even a word, and he’ll never know that if he’d managed to talk to me about it like an adult for five minutes I would have sent him off with my blessing in a way that could leave us both feeling good about our history together. He’s the reason that we can’t have nice things and I’m still pretty angry about it, but if that’s what he needed to do, it’s his decision and his loss. I lost a disappointing friend, he lost a fucking great one. 

I’m probably gonna be pissed off about this for a while. If I can’t forget or stop feeling it soon, maybe it will help if I think of the anger as a vaccine in case he ever tries to ooze back in. One thing I probably need to look for in new relationships are people who value direct communications. I guess we’ll find out.” 

S. (#1240) and Kwisatz Haderach (#1241) you both deserve people around you who think “HELL YES!” when they see you. That goes for friends the same as it goes for lovers, so as you meet new people, try your best to move toward the ones where the “HELL YES!” is mutual and don’t mess with Mx. In-Between. ❤ ❤ ❤

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19 hours ago
if I can make one person understand that time you spend convincing people to love you is time spent on people who, baseline, do not love you enough to be what you need, no matter what you hoped and what they may have promised, then I’ll take it.
Melbourne, Australia
6 hours ago
Having been on both sides of this, I have to agree. And I'd add that it is impossible for the un-lover to convince themselves to fall in love. Even if after the hundredth exhausting conversation about the lack of love, they might think to themselves that they really should love you. But that is being backed into a corner and will never lead to love.
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How Artists on Twitter Tricked Spammy T-Shirt Stores Into Admitting Their Automated Art Theft

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Yesterday, an artist on Twitter named Nana ran an experiment to test a theory.

Their suspicion was that bots were actively looking on Twitter for phrases like “I want this on a shirt” or “This needs to be a t-shirt,” automatically scraping the quoted images, and instantly selling them without permission as print-on-demand t-shirts.

Dozens of Nana’s followers replied, and a few hours later, a Twitter bot replied with a link to the newly-created t-shirt listing on Moteefe, a print-on-demand t-shirt service.

Several other t-shirt listings followed shortly after, with listings on questionable sites like Toucan Style, CopThis, and many more.

Spinning up a print-on-demand stores is dead simple with platforms like GearBubble, Printly, Printful, GearLaunch (who power Toucan Style), and many more — creating a storefront with thousands of theoretical product listings, but with merchandise only manufactured on demand through third-party printers who handles shipping and fulfillment with no inventory.

Many of them integrate with other providers, allowing these non-existent products to immediately appear on eBay, Amazon, Etsy, and other stores, but only manufactured when someone actually buys them.

The ease of listing products without manufacturing them is how we end up with bizarre algorithmic t-shirts and entire stock photo libraries on phone cases. Even if they only generate one sale daily per 1,000 listings, that can still be a profitable business if you’re listing hundreds of thousands of items.

But whoever’s running these art theft bots found a much more profitable way of generating leads: by scanning Twitter for people specifically telling artists they’d buy a shirt with an illustration on it. The t-shirt scammers don’t have the rights to sell other people’s artwork, but they clearly don’t care.

Once Nana proved that this was the methodology these t-shirt sellers were using, others jumped in to subvert them.

Of course, it worked. Bots will be bots.

For me, this all raises two questions:

  1. Who’s responsible for this infringement?
  2. What responsibility do print-on-demand providers have to prevent infringement on their platforms?

The first question is the hardest: we don’t know. These scammers are happy to continue printing shirts because their identities are well-protected, shielded by the platforms they’re working with.

I reached out to Moteefe, who seems to be the worst offender for this particular strain of art theft. Countless Twitter bots are continually spamming users with newly-created Moteefe listings, as you can see in this search.

Unlike most print-on-demand platforms like RedBubble, Moteefe doesn’t reveal any information about the user who created the shirt listings. They’re a well-funded startup in London, and have an obligation not to allow their platform to be exploited in this way. I’ll update if I hear back from them.

Until then, be careful telling artists that you want to see their work on a shirt, unless you want dozens of scammers to use it without permission.

Or feel free to use this image, courtesy of Nakanoart.

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5 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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3 days ago
You know that scene in Home Alone 2 where Kevin gets the offended woman to deck Harry & Marv - this story reminds me of that.

Riot Games to pay every female employee since 2014 with $10M settlement

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"at the end of the day, Riot prefers to pay the women still here for the trouble of continuing to work with alleged abusers"
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6 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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Job negotiation for programmers: the basic principles

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You need to negotiate at a new job: for your salary, or benefits, or my personal favorite, a shorter workweek. You’re not sure what to do, or how to approach it, or what to say when the company says “how much do you want?” or “here’s our offer—what do you say?”

Here’s the thing: that final conversation about salary might be the most nerve-wracking part, but the negotiation process starts much much earlier. Which means you can enter that final conversation having positioned yourself for success—and feeling less stressed about it too.

The way you can do that is following certain basic principles, which I’ll be covering in this article. I’m going to be focusing on salary negotiation as an example, but the same principles will apply when negotiating for a shorter workweek.

In particular, I’ll be talking about:

  1. An example from early in my career when I negotiated very very badly.
  2. The right way to negotiate, based on four principles:
    1. Employment is a negotiated relationship.
    2. Knowledge is power.
    3. Negotiate from a position of strength.
    4. Use the right tactics.

The wrong way to negotiate

Before moving on to the principles of negotiation, let me share a story of how I negotiated badly.

During my first real job search I interviewed at a company in New York City that was building a financial trading platform. They were pretty excited about some specific technologies I’d learned while working on Twisted, an open source networking framework. They offered me a job, I accepted, and my job search was over.

But then they sent me their intellectual property agreement, and I actually read legal documents; you should read them too. The agreement would have given the company ownership over any open source work I did, including work on Twisted. I wanted to ensure I could keep doing open source development, especially given that was their reason for hiring me in the first place. I asked for an exemption covering Twisted, they wouldn’t agree, and so we went back and forth trying to reach an agreement.

Eventually they came back with a new offer: in return for not working on Twisted I’d get a 20% salary increase over their initial offer. I thought about it briefly, then said no and walked away from the job. Since I had neither a CS degree—I’d dropped out—nor much of an employment history, open source contribution was important to my career. It was how I’d gotten contracting work, and it was the reason they’d offered me this job. And I enjoyed doing it, too, so I wasn’t willing to give it up.

I posted about this experience online, and an employee of ITA Software, which was based in the Boston area, suggested they were happy to support contributions to open source projects. It seemed worth a try, so I applied for the position. And when eventually I got a job offer from ITA and they asked me for my salary requirements, I asked for the second offer I’d gotten, the one that was 20% higher than my original offer. They accepted, and I’ve lived in the Boston area ever since.

As we go through the principles below, I’ll come back to this story and point out how they were (mis)applied in my two negotiations.

The four principles of negotiation

You can think of the negotiation process as building on four principles:

  1. Employment is a negotiated relationship.
  2. Knowledge is power.
  3. Negotiate from a position of strength.
  4. Use the right tactics.

Let’s go through them one by one.

Principle #1: Employment is a negotiated relationship

If you’re an employee, your employment relationship was negotiated. When you got a job offer and accepted it, that was a negotiation, even if you didn’t push back at all. Your choice isn’t between negotiating and not negotiating: it’s between negotiating badly, or negotiating well.

Negotiate actively

If you don’t actively try to negotiate, if you don’t ask for what you want, if you don’t ask for what you’re worth—you’re unlikely to get it. Salaries, for example, are a place where your interests and your employer’s are very much at odds. All things being equal, if you’re doing the exact same work and have the same likelihood of leaving, would your employer prefer to pay you less or more? Most employers will pay you less if they can, and I almost had to learn that the hard way.

Applying the principle: In my story above, I never proactively negotiated. Instead, I accepted a job offer from the financial company without any sort of additional demands. If they were happy to offer me a 20% raise just to quit open source, I probably could have gotten an even higher salary if I’d just asked in the first place.

Negotiation starts early, and never ends

Not only do you need to negotiate actively, you also need to realize that negotiation starts much earlier than you think, and ends only when you leave to a different job:

  • The minute you start thinking about applying to a company, you’ve started the negotiation process; as you’ll see, you’ll want to do research before you even talk to them.
  • Your interview is part of your negotiation, and you can in fact negotiate the interview process itself (e.g. suggest sharing a code sample instead of doing a whiteboard puzzle).
  • As an employee you will continue to negotiate: if you always say “yes” when your boss asks you to work long hours, your contract for a 3-day weekend will mean nothing.

In short, your whole relationship as an employee is based on negotiation.

Distinguish between friend and foe

A negotiation involves two sides: yours, and the company’s. When you’re negotiating it’s important to remember that anyone who works for the company is on the company’s side. Not yours.

I once had to negotiate the intellectual property agreement at a new job. My new employer was based in the UK, and it had a US subsidiary organized by a specialist company. These subsidiary specialists had provided the contract I was signing.

When I explained the changes I wanted to make, the manager at the subsidiary specialist told me that my complaint had no merit, because the contract had been written by the “best lawyers in Silicon Valley.” But the contract had been written by lawyers working for the company, not for me. If his claim had been true (spoiler: they were not in fact the best lawyers in Silicon Valley), that would have just made my argument stronger. The better the company’s lawyers, the more carefully I ought to have read the contract, and the more I ought to have pushed back.

The contracts the company wants you to sign? They were written by lawyers working for the company.

Human Resources works for the company, as does the in-house recruiter. However friendly they may seem, they are not working for you. And third-party recruiters are paid by the company, not you. It’s true that sometimes their commission is tied to your salary, which means they would rather you get paid more. But since they get paid only once per candidate, volume is more important than individual transactions: it’s in their best interest to get you hired as quickly as possible so they can move on to placing the next candidate.

Since all these people aren’t working for you, during a negotiation they’re working against you.

The only potential exception to this rule are friends who also work for the company, and aren’t directly involved in the negotiation process: even if they are constrained in some ways, they’re probably still on your side. They can serve as a backchannel for feedback and other information that the company can’t or won’t share.

Principle #2: Knowledge is power

The more you know about the situation, the better you’ll do as a negotiator. More knowledge gives more power: to you, but also to the company.

Know what you want

The first thing you need to do when negotiating is understand what you want.

  • What is your ideal outcome?
  • What can you compromise on, and what can’t you compromise on?
  • What is the worst outcome you’re willing to accept?

Do your research

You also want to understand where the other side is coming from:

  • What is the company’s goal, and the negotiator’s goal? For example, if you discover their goal is minimizing hassle, you might be able to get what you want by making the process a little smoother.
  • What resources are available to them? An unfunded startup has different resources than a large company, for example.
  • Has the company done something similar in the past, or will your request be unprecedented? For example, what hours do other employees in similar positions work? How much are other employees paid?
  • What do other companies in the area or industry provide?
  • How is this particular business segment doing: are they losing money, or doing great?

The more you understand going in, the better you’ll do, and that means doing your research before negotiation starts.

Applying the principle: In my story above I never did any research about salaries, either in NY or in Boston. As a result, I had no idea I was being offered a salary far below market rates.

As a comparison, here’s a real example of how research can help your negotiation, from an engineer named Adam:

Adam: “Being informed on salaries really helped my negotiating position. When my latest employer made me an offer I asked them why it was lower than their average salary on The real reason was likely ‘we offer as little as possible to get you on board.’ They couldn’t come up with a convincing reason and so the salary was boosted 10%.”

Glassdoor is a site that allows employees to anonymously share salaries and job reviews. Five minutes of research got Adam a 10% raise: not bad at all!

Listen and empathize

If you only had to make yourself happy this wouldn’t be a negotiation: you need to understand the other side’s needs and wants, what they’re worrying about, what they’re feeling. That means you need to listen, not just talk: if you do, you will often gather useful information that can help you make yourself more valuable, or address a particular worry. And you need to feel empathy towards the person you’re talking to: you don’t need to agree or subordinate yourself to their goals, but you do need to understand how they’re feeling.

Share information carefully

Sharing information at the wrong time during a negotiation can significantly weaken your position. For example, sharing your previous salary will often anchor what the company is willing to offer you:

Adam: “I graduated from university and started working at the end of 2012. At my first job I worked for way under my market rate. I knew this and was OK with it because they were a good company.

Then I switched jobs in 2013. What I hadn’t accounted for was that my salary at my first job was going to limit my future salary prospects. I had to fight hard for raises at my next job before I was in line with people straight out of school, because they didn’t want to double my salary at my previous company.”

In general, when interviewing for a job you shouldn’t share your previous salary, or your specific salary demands—except of course when it is helpful to do so. For example, let’s say you’re moving from Google to a tiny bootstrapped startup, and you know you won’t be able to get the same level of salary. Sharing your current salary can help push your offer higher, or used as leverage to get shorter hours: “I know you can’t offer me my previous salary of $$$, but here’s something you could do—”. Just make sure not to share it too early, or they might decide you’d never accept any offer at all and stop the interview process too early.

Most of the time, however, you shouldn’t share either your previous salary or specific salary requirements. If the company insists on getting your previous salary, you can:

  • If you work somewhere with relevant laws (e.g. California and Massachusetts), point out that this question is illegal. Asking about salary expectations is not illegal in these jurisdictions, so be careful about the distinction.
  • Ask for the company’s salary range for the position, as well as the next level up in the salary tree. Chances are they will refuse to share, in which case you can correspondingly refuse to share your information.
  • Say something like “I expect to be paid industry-standard pay for my experience.”

Applying the principle: I shouldn’t have told ITA Software my salary requirement. Instead, I should have gotten them to make the first offer, which would have given me more information about what they were willing to pay.

Principle #3: Negotiate from a position of strength

The stronger your negotiation position, the more likely you are to get what you want. And this is especially important when you’re asking for something abnormal, like a 3-day weekend.

Have a good fallback (BATNA)

If negotiation fails, what will you do? Whatever it is, that is your fallback, sometimes known as the “Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement” (BATNA). The better your fallback, the better your alternative, the stronger your negotiating position is. Always figure out your fallback in advance, before you start negotiating.

For example, imagine you’re applying for a new job:

  • If you’re unemployed and have an empty bank account, your fallback might be moving in with your parents. This does not give you a strong negotiating position.
  • If you’re employed, and more or less content with your current job, your fallback is staying where you are. That makes your position much stronger.

If you have a strong fallback, you can choose to walk away at any time, and this will make asking for more much easier.

Provide and demonstrate value

The more an organization wants you as an employee, the more they’ll be willing to offer you. The people you’re negotiating with don’t necessarily know your value: you need to make sure they understand why you’re worth what you’re asking.

For example, when you’re interviewing for a job, you need to use at least part of the interview to explain your value to your prospective employer: your accomplishments and skills. Once you’ve established the value of your skills, asking for more—more money, unusual terms—can actually make you seem more valuable. And having another job offer—or an existing job—can also help, by showing you are in demand.

Finally, remember that your goal is to make sure the other side’s needs are met—not at your own expense, but if they don’t think hiring you is worth it, you aren’t going to get anything. Here’s how Alex, another programmer I talked to, explains how he learned this:

Alex: “Think about the other person and how they’re going to react, how you can try to manage that proactively. You need to treat your negotiating partner as a person, not a program.

Initially I had been approaching it adversarially, 'I need to extract value from you, I have to wrestle you for it’ but it’s more productive to negotiate with an attitude of 'we both need to get our needs met.’ The person you’re talking to is looking to hire someone productive who can create value, so figure out how can you couch what you want in a way that proactively addresses the other person’s concerns.”

Principle #4: Use the right tactics

Once you’ve realized you’re negotiating, have done your research, and are negotiating from a position of strength, applying the right negotiation tactics will increase your chances of success even more.

Ask for more than you want

Obviously you don’t want to ask for less than what you want. But why not ask for exactly what you want?

First, it might turn out that the company is willing to give you far more than you expected or thought possible.

Second, if you ask for exactly what you want there’s no way for you to compromise without getting less than what you want. By asking for more, you can compromise while still getting what you wanted.

Applying the principle: If I’d wanted a $72,000 salary, and research suggested that was a fair salary, I should have asked for $80,000. If I was lucky the company would have said yes; if they wanted to negotiate me down, I would have no problems agreeing to a lower number so long as it was above $72,000.

Negotiate multiple things at once

Your goal when negotiating is not to “win.” Rather, your goal is to reach an agreement that passes your minimal bar, and gets you as much as is feasible. Feasibility means you also need to take into account what the other side wants as well. If you’ve reached an impasse, and you still think you can make a deal that you like, try to come up with creative ways to work out a solution that they will like.

If you only negotiate one thing at once, every negotiation has a winner and a loser. For example, if all you’re negotiating is salary, either you’re making more money, or the company is saving money: it’s a zero-sum negotiation. This limits your ability to come up with a solution that maximizes value for you while still meeting the other side’s needs.

Applying the principle: In my story above, the financial company wanted intellectual property protection, I wanted to be able to write open source, and we were at an impasse. So they expanded the scope of the negotiation to include my salary, which allowed them to make tradeoffs between the two—more money for me in return for what they wanted. If I’d cared less about working on open source I might have accepted that offer.

Never give an answer immediately

During the actual negotiation you should never decide on the spot, nor are you required to. If you get a job offer you can explain that you need a little time to think about it: say something like “I have to run this by my spouse/significant other/resident expert.” This will give you the time to consider your options in a calmer state of mind, and not just blurt out “yes” at the first semi-decent offer.

Having someone else review the offer is a good idea in general; a friend of mine ran her job offers by her sister, who had an MBA. But it’s also useful to mention that other person as someone who has to sign off on the offer. That gives you the ability to say you’d like to accept an offer, but your spouse/expert thinks you can do better.

Notice that the employer almost always has this benefit already. Unless you’re negotiating with the owner of the business, you’re negotiating with an agent: someone in HR, say. When you make a demand, the HR person might say “I have go to check with the hiring manager”, and when they come back with less than you wanted it’s not their fault, they’re just passing on the bad news. The implication is that the low offer is just the way it is, and there’s nothing they can do about.

Don’t fall for this trick: they often can change the offer.

Beyond negotiating for salary

You can negotiate for a higher salary—or rather, you should negotiate for a higher salary. The Adam I interviewed in this article is now a partner in DangoorMendel, who can help you negotiate a higher salary.

But salary isn’t the only thing you can negotiate for. You can also negotiate for a shorter workweek.

And yes, this is harder, but it’s definitely possible.

In fact, this article is an excerpt from a book I wrote to help you do just that: You Can Negotiate a 3-Day Weekend. It’s on sale for 30% off until December 3rd, 2019.

Struggling with a 40-hour workweek? Too tired by the end of the day to do anything but collapse on the sofa and watch TV?

Learn how you can get a 3-day weekend, every single week.

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11 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
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grown women are not “girl bosses”


To all the marketing people who keep emailing me pitches where they call grown women “girl bosses”:

This is gross and sexist and you should stop.

They’re women, not girls.

And the default for “boss” is not male. “Boss” covers all genders. You don’t need to modify it with gender, just like you wouldn’t (one hopes) say “girl pilot” or “girl lawyer.”

Or “boy boss.”

We don’t need job titles with gendered markers, and we don’t need to talk about adults as if they’re children playing at being in charge.

grown women are not “girl bosses” was originally published by Alison Green on Ask a Manager.

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11 days ago
Melbourne, Australia
12 days ago
seattle, wa
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