Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

What’s Your BATNA?

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Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

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In any negotiation, being willing to walk away means that you essentially have all of the power. Sure, the other side might have some things that you wish you had, but in the end, if you don’t agree to their terms, the side that most wanted the contract is the loser.

Here’s an example. Most of us were taught, probably by a parent, that the first rule of car buying is to be willing to walk away from a deal you don’t like. In my house, that is also the second rule of car buying. (Our third rule is to not use paint color as a decision factor.) Applying the walk-away rule to a car deal puts the power in your hands rather than the seller’s. (That is a bit of an oversimplification. You might feel a little sad leaving the car behind. But you’ll get over it knowing you did the right thing.)

Of course not all negotiations are so simple. Among the most difficult are the ones we do in the workplace. And job negotiations in the academic workplace are often especially fraught. For non-tenure-track employees of all stripes, our lack of leverage and job security often means that we have little negotiating power at all. If you are a contingent faculty member at a university without collective bargaining, how can you negotiate more favorable conditions?

I don’t have a magic answer, but I have a concept I want to share that helped me with my own negotiations: BATNA. It stands for: “best alternative to a negotiated agreement.” Thinking in terms of BATNA can make your life off the tenure track — or your transition out of academia — a little more well planned and enjoyable.

Over the Barrel

What led me to BATNA? I spent 11 years as a non-tenure-track employee of various universities. My positions varied widely: I worked at three different universities, in four different divisions, in five different positions off of the tenure track. Once, I had a job where I started out with a three-year contract. I thought it was going to be fantastic. Then the head of the division called all contingent faculty into a room together and told us that all future contracts would be year-to-year. No more multi-year stability.

We were upset. But there was nothing we could do. After all, a year-to-year job was better than no job, and most of us needed jobs. We had no leverage to demand longer contracts. If we all quit together (which would never have happened anyway, given the particular dynamics of our group), the division head could have replaced us with new people. We preferred to think that “new people” might not have been as good as we were, but who knows, really. There are many great unemployed professors out there.

The division chair had us over a barrel. Having no negotiating power was a terrible feeling.

A few weeks later, the division chair called us into that room again, and this time told us that not all of our contracts would be renewed the following year. Some of us would have to be cut. The administration, we were told, would be reviewing course evaluations to make the decision of who to keep and who to fire. (The word “fire” was never used, of course. I believe “not renewed” was the preferred euphemism.)

Once again, we were over a barrel.

At this point, I’d been working in the division for three years without a raise. And there were no raises — not even cost-of-living increases — on the horizon. Instead, we were playing a real-life game of Survivor in academe.

If you want to know why adjuncts and other non-tenure-track faculty unionize, just ask around for stories like that one. They’re everywhere in the academy. Broken promises, Amazon.com-like competitions pitting employees against one another to retain their jobs. When my division chair announced this academic version of Survivor, I left that job without trying to negotiate. What would I have negotiated?

Luckily, I had a place to land. Another non-tenure-track job in another division. Another three-year contract. I thought things would be better. They weren’t. There are some things that will always be problems so long as there are haves (tenure-track faculty) and have-nots (contingents). The tenure-track faculty got paid twice as much as we did to do the same (and sometimes less) work. They had special privileges we never saw. But the social interaction was the worst part: Our names weren’t worth learning. We weren’t worth knowing.

Well that just wasn’t going to work for me. After three years in this new division, I put in for a promotion to the non-tenure-track equivalent of associate professor. I received the promotion. I did not receive a raise or any other added benefits. Just a new title.

Um, what?

I was a mother of two, pushing 40, and tired of playing Academic Survivor. If I was so great that the division would promote me to associate, then it needed to give me a raise and a few other things, too. It was time to negotiate for real. And to do that, I needed leverage. I needed BATNA.

Who’s Got the BATNA?

BATNA is one of my favorite acronyms, right up there with FUBAR and SMITF. In fact, when you find yourself in a FUBAR work situation that makes you want to SMITF, you need to consider your BATNA and then go talk to your boss.

BATNA — “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” — is a negotiator’s term. It is not synonymous with your “bottom line,” which, according to negotiation expert David Venter, refers to the "worst possible outcome that a negotiator might accept.” Bottom lines are terrible. You don’t want to negotiate with your eye on the bottom line. You want the best alternative, not the worst. If you can't agree with your adversary, you want your BATNA.

The function of BATNA, Venter explains, is that "it prohibits a negotiator from accepting an unfavorable agreement or one that is not in their best interests because it provides a better option outside the negotiation” (emphasis added). BATNA is the open door that you can run through as soon as you see that your negotiations are going awry. It’s your escape route, he says.

Often, only one side has a strong BATNA. In a negotiation both sides may ask, in shorthand, “Who has the BATNA?” As you’ve no doubt figured out: You want the answer to be you.

Start Thinking About Your BATNA

If all you do after reading this column is start rethinking your work situation, then you’re already on your way to creating your BATNA. Having the BATNA means shifting the power to your hands and out of the hands of those people who force you to play Survivor with your colleagues. It means that — if at any point you can’t reach a fair negotiated agreement with your chair or dean — you have an alternative.

Often, as you can imagine, that alternative involves leaving your current position. But not always.

Creating your BATNA is the hard part. I was lucky. My first division — with its surprise contract changes — made me paranoid about job security. My paranoia made me feel like I needed to build up outside sources of income. So I start writing books and building up a consulting business — essentially, I started freelancing on the side. And over the course of eight years, that work started to pay off.

Fully aware of my tenuous job security, I worked hard so my side-gigs would pay off. Then, when I got my fake promotion, I had strong BATNA. The strongest, in fact: I was willing to leave the job if the division didn’t meet my terms. And leaving wouldn’t be a desperate move on my part. I would be leaving to do something that would make me just as happy as the job I’d been in. Leaving my job was truly a good alternative for me.

One other thing: BATNA relies on context. When you compare your academic job with your alternative career options, you might see—as I did—that your best alternative to negotiating more favorable working conditions inside academia is a strong job outside of academia. You also might find a new job at another campus, or in another division at your institution, and be able to use that new job as your BATNA.

My BATNA was my willingness to work as a self-employed person (a freelance academic) instead of an employee of the division that gave me the fake promotion.

But your current BATNA could be simply doing less in the job that you now hold: doing less unpaid service or holding only the minimum of office hours. All of the “adjunct heroics” (as Rebecca Schuman has put it) may need to go out the window. Then you’ll have time for your own work that could lead to alternative income — like writing a book or consulting on the side. You’ll have time to strengthen your BATNA anew. After all, who knows when you might need it.

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