A horrible side job where I found myself waist-deep in a dumpster taught me valuable lessons about negotiating salary


peggy phone mad men


Negotiation is an important skill.


In college I spent some time in a dumpster and learned a lesson about salary negotiation.


Yeah. It's a long story.

A couple of friends and I signed up to lend a hand at an alumnus's local event one weekend.


The pay was low, but we were just a group of random college students, not professionals. We didn't expect to get paid much for passing out food and cleaning up at the end of the day. But it seemed like a fun way to help someone out and earn a bit of cash over the weekend.

Wrong! That right there was very naive thinking.

The event was already running late and spiraling into fiery chaos when we arrived on the scene. The organizers themselves didn't seem to have a clue what they were doing. The decorations and the equipment weren't even at the venue yet when we got there.

Without going into too much detail, we ended up doing double the work we'd originally signed on for. I don't mean extra food or clean up duties. I'm talking about setting up audio equipment, DJing, lifting and moving heavy objects, guarding food from out-of-control children, and decorating the entire venue without help or input from the planners in less than half an hour, among other things.

We were happy to help out wherever we were needed, but we hadn't signed on to be movers or make important decisions about the event with no supervision from the hosts.


As the end of the night, as agreed upon, we helped clean up, slogging five full trash bags out to the dumpster. One ended up exploding as we tried to hoist it over the high walls of the garbage bin. I got drenched in a boozy cocktail of trash juice. It was gross - and kind of funny.

When we got back to the venue, we found that the people who were supposed to pay us had cleared out without saying anything to us. We also discovered that one of the bags we'd tossed out was actually filled with decorations. I'd been the one to accidentally throw it away and I was already covered in liquid garbage, so I volunteered to go back and get it. As I rummaged through the trash, I accepted that the situation wasn't ideal ... or fair.

The organizers didn't necessarily intend to take advantage of us, but we'd agreed to a wage without knowing all the facts. Was that our fault? Yeah. Were were morons for signing on to help in the first place? Probably.

Still, I was waist-deep in garbage and felt somewhat misled. So did my friends. We decided to negotiate with the event planners for higher pay. One of my friends ended up getting the phone number of one of the organizers off a straggler at the event.

She punched in the number after we'd agreed on a wage increase and talked strategy for a few minutes (and after I cleaned myself up a bit in the bathroom). Throughout the call, my friend kept the conversation polite but pointed. She cut to the chase straightaway. We wanted our wages doubled because we'd done more than double the work we'd initially agreed to. Throughout the negotiation, she was totally calm and reasonable.


In the end, we didn't get our wages doubled, but we did get a large increase. We awkwardly met up with the not-too-pleased organizer across town and got an envelope of cash. It was awkward ... but hooray, money!

I learned a few things about negotiating that night:

  • If you're on a team, make sure to strategize beforehand
  • Keep the small talk to a minimum
  • Be the first one to throw out a specific number
  • Give reasons for why you deserve that number (explains what sort of value do (or in our case, did) you bring to the table?)
  • Be forceful, calm, and polite
  • Be realistic about what you're asking for, but don't short change yourself

Also don't sign on to help out at random events where the details on pay are sketchy. You will probably end up jaded in a dumpster.

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