Most Americans have an inherent notion of fairness and expect others to act in the same way. In some cases, however, you should not rely on this working in your favor. When asking for a raise at work, for instance, many people assume that their diligence and efforts will be noticed and rewarded. Unfortunately, most companies do not operate in this way: the squeaky wheel gets the grease, while employees who refuse to speak up get the bare minimum.
Do you even know what to say when asking for a raise at work, though? Shouting “Show me the money!” like in Jerry Maguire probably isn’t your style, but pleading “Please sir, may I have some more?” a la Oliver Twist won’t get you the best outcome either. If approached in the right way, however, renegotiating your salary will very often yield positive results.
The keys are to be realistic, be able to provide evidence of why you deserve a raise, and treat the conversation as one where a win-win compromise is not only possible but what both parties are hoping to achieve. This advice may sound too generic to be useful, especially if you’re not very experienced at negotiating. Never fear, though: applying the following tips on asking for a raise at work is sure to get you more of what you want.
Table of Contents
- 0.1 Do Your Research Before Asking for a Raise
- 0.2 Find Out as Much as You Can About Your Company’s Financial Health
- 0.3 Research the Salary Range for Your Position
- 0.4 Have a Solid Understanding of What You Contribute to the Company (and Be Ready to Explain It)
- 0.5 Keep a Work Journal
- 0.6 Emphasize Your Deep Work
- 0.7 Shine a Light on Your Worth as a Team Player
- 0.8 Practice Makes Perfect
- 0.9 Remember that this Is a Conversation, Not an Ultimatum
- 0.10 Avoid the Title Trap
- 0.11 Quick Bonus Tips About Asking for a Raise at Work
- 1 * * *
Do Your Research Before Asking for a Raise
One thing you need to understand before asking for a raise at work is that you’ll usually start off on the back foot. In many cases, it’s easier for a manager to just say “no” or even replace an employee than it is for an employee to find a similar job quickly. Managers are also more experienced at this type of negotiation and ultimately responsible to the company’s shareholders or owners. Any extra money they spend on labor impacts these parties directly, so they need a positive, definite reason to increase your salary.
The antidote to this is to arm yourself with as many facts as possible. In most situations where reasonable people need to come to mutually acceptable terms, the outcome is largely determined before they even sit down to discuss the matter: the best informed and prepared person will be in the driver’s seat. Here’s where to start:
Find Out as Much as You Can About Your Company’s Financial Health
Rightly or wrongly, open-book management hasn’t exactly caught on. Most managers don’t want to tell the people under them if their business (or their part of a larger business) is treading water. This will only make people want to explore opportunities outside the company, and it’s a universal truism that the most skilled employees are the first ones to leave.
This is more important in small and medium-sized companies. It’s just not possible for these to hand out raises when there’s not enough money in the bank; they may still, however, be willing to consider realistic requests from superstar employees. In large corporations, the policy on raises is typically made at a high level and is still affected by what the company can afford. If you work for one of these organizations, your manager will typically have very limited leeway when it comes to extraordinary increases.
If you do get hit with a comment along the lines of “We’d like to give you more, but we just can’t afford it right now,” try to separate their acknowledgment that you deserve an increase from the practical limitations on their cash flow. Especially if you can get them to commit to a raise in principle, this will count heavily in your favor once things are looking up for the business. Asking for a raise sometimes means playing the long game.
Conversely, most smart managers won’t bring up record profits when an employee is asking for a raise. It may not be in an employee’s interest to do so either. Even when there’s more cash available, this doesn’t mean that workers who have no clear, direct impact on a company’s success are entitled to some of it. This will, however, make it difficult for them to refuse a reasonable request based on what others are earning.
Research the Salary Range for Your Position
What different employees in the same company earn is generally regarded as confidential information. This is partly to prevent jealousy and embarrassment but, when you think about it, the more important reason is to benefit the company. It is much easier to pay sub-par salaries to some people when every employee has to negotiate their own remuneration without knowing that of their colleagues doing the same job.
Many companies discourage this kind of conversation. Luckily, there are several tools at your disposal for figuring out what the benchmark salary is for someone in your job. This is one piece of information that counts for a lot with managers when asking for a raise, but you also have to be realistic:
- Are you above or below the norm in your field in terms of skills, qualifications, and experience?
- How do wages in your part of the country relate to the national median? You shouldn’t expect a New York salary if you work in Nevada.
- How do the intangible aspects of working for your company compare to its competitors? If people with your job typically work 60 hours a week but your boss expects only 40, don’t push too hard when asking for a raise.
Have a Solid Understanding of What You Contribute to the Company (and Be Ready to Explain It)
One thing that all the best ways to ask for a raise have in common is that they are rooted in business realities, not simple desire, politics, or relationships. These may play a role, of course, but market forces and the value of your work are where the rubber really meets the road.
Another way to put this is that objective facts beat subjective opinions every time. The more realistic you are about what you’re bringing to the table, the more confident you’ll be when asking for a raise. Conversely, if you find that your performance over the last year has been less than stellar, this kind of self-evaluation may prevent you from asking for a large raise when it isn’t really justified, preventing awkwardness all around.
Keep a Work Journal
You don’t have to update your resumé at the end of every week, but it is a good idea to keep track of your job tasks, performance, and achievements. You’ll be very glad you documented all of these when you’re asking for a raise at work in a few months’ time. Jotting down the details of problematic interactions with coworkers will also be a huge help in combating unprofessional behavior. In addition, keeping track of your changing goals and responsibilities over time will often reveal areas in which you can do better or indicate that it’s time for a change of priorities.
If your workload has increased significantly, you’ll be in a very strong position when asking for a raise. Similarly, an employee who can show that the main focus of their activities is aligned with the company’s strategic goals can make a better case for themselves, especially when their job has a direct impact on profitability or productivity. Try to avoid vague language such as “was involved in” or “initiated project XYZ”. The more quantifiable metrics you can mention, like increased revenue or money saved, the better.
Emphasize Your Deep Work
Depending on what kind of work you do, the average salary for someone with your job title may not matter all that much. In some jobs, like sales, engineering, and law, a “rockstar” can easily earn several times what an entry-level employee can hope for. This is because such employees are expected to perform the work of multiple run-of-the-mill workers in the same field, earning their company ten or a hundred times their salaries. This, of course, is indirectly and in conjunction with other kinds of employees but they’re still indispensable, particularly due to the deep work they perform.
To truly understand this concept (and learn how to apply it in your own professional life), you’ll have to read the best-selling book by Cal Newport. As a first approximation, though, we can define it as focused work requiring extended periods of concentration as well as profound knowledge of a subject, that creates new value and is difficult to replicate by others. Examples can be things like:
- Resolving a long-running business problem by analyzing data going back months,
- Learning something complicated, like a new piece of software used in your industry, to the point where you can explain its more obscure features to others,
- Spending a few hours on automating a recurring task, like creating a spreadsheet or decision tree that can be used to slice off 90% of the time needed to do a job,
- Conducting research for a highly technical article you’re writing for the company blog, or
- Creating a self-study course for new hires on your company’s systems and procedures to help them become productive faster.
The opposite, shallow work, refers to stuff like sitting through meetings, answering emails, requesting quotations, reviewing reports and setting schedules. One principle that will become clear if you read the book is that busyness is not the same thing as productivity. Any of the deep work examples above have a major impact on how a business runs – one that extends far beyond the initial time investment. Mundane, shallow tasks are essential, but deep work is profoundly important.
For this reason, separate “deep work” tasks from routine responsibilities when preparing to meet with your manager. When you’re asking for a large raise based on what you truly bring to the table, deep and shallow accomplishments should be evaluated by separate criteria. Make sure your boss understands the concept before you even begin the meeting; he or she should have a firm grasp on the idea that an employee who spends 60 hours a week sorting paperclips is of less value to the company than one who devotes 6 hours a week to designing efficient business procedures.
In conclusion, asking for a large raise should revolve around your deep work activities as much as possible. The more you can document these and their measurable impacts, the better. As a side benefit, this will also highlight your suitability for promotion and make the company more eager to retain you as an employee.
Shine a Light on Your Worth as a Team Player
Being helpful counts, especially when you assist someone outside your department or professional specialization. If you as a technician tag along to a sales call on a new client, make sure that goes in your work journal.
Ideally, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you’re indispensable. For some people, this may mean having a rare technical qualification. However, it can also come in the form of having good relationships with suppliers and/or customers, knowing enough about what’s going on in the company as a whole that people ask for your opinion, or being known as the guy others can approach when they’re in trouble. Reputations like these are built slowly over time, often by being willing to go outside your own job description. An employee who’s willing to take initiative to help others succeed (without trying to take the lion’s share of credit) is incredibly valuable to any company.
Practice Makes Perfect
Most people prefer to avoid confrontation and awkward discussions. Do you even know what to say when asking for a raise at work, or how to say it? This is truly unfortunate: with your compensation package as with many things in life, you will only get a fair deal if you’re willing to ask for or even demand what you deserve.
One opportunity for exercising your assertiveness muscles is your annual or quarterly performance review. You don’t have to treat every single one of these as a salary negotiation – mostly, you’ll just want to accept the standard cost-of-living increase your company offers – but don’t underestimate their importance. Anything said in these meetings will be taken as fact later unless you challenge it in a timely manner.
This isn’t always easy – one survey reports that 18% of women and 25% of men have cried after a performance review. Even so, you’ll be in a much better position if you review information like your goals and achievements in your work journal the night beforehand. When you receive justified negative feedback, accept responsibility for not being perfect and try to suggest solutions where possible.
You can also hone your negotiation skills in low-stress situations like asking for a discount at a restaurant or getting your roommate to do the dishes. If you believe you need it, or you’re potentially looking at a large amount of money, you can also use a proxy for your boss such as a life coach for professional rehearsal and advice.
Remember that this Is a Conversation, Not an Ultimatum
Perhaps the worst thing you can do when asking for a raise at work is to make it confrontational. Remember that you still have to work with these people tomorrow, so don’t burn any bridges.
To begin with, don’t cold-call your own boss. Set the stage before having the conversation; a brief email outlining your desire for a review of your compensation along with a list of your achievements and reasons for asking for a raise is sufficient. If you can, schedule the actual meeting to ask for a raise around 10 a.m. or just after lunch on a quiet day, ideally somewhere around the middle of a budget cycle. While some research on this topic has been debunked, it’s intuitively clear that people are in a better, more receptive mood at certain times of day.
Aside from this, negotiating with the right attitude will get you far: don’t be a doormat, but don’t get too cocky either. Even if you’re a truly great employee, you should be prepared for some criticism when asking for a raise at work. Ideally, any such discussion will involve an open and constructive review of your goals and plans for personal improvement. One of the traits many top performers share is the willingness to improve, so remember that talking about how much you’re worth to the company can be a two-way street. You may be disappointed in how they see you and have to accept less than you hoped for – at least for now. Remember: pigs get fed, but hogs get slaughtered.
You can, in fact, often get a better outcome by seeming to be more willing to meet your employer halfway. It’s a good idea, for example, to specify a salary range rather than committing to a single number. If you’re hoping for $70,000, you may phrase that as “between $67,500 and $75,000”. This gives your employer more wiggle room and often results in a higher final figure roughly in the middle of what you asked for.
Finally, understand that even having all your ducks in a row doesn’t guarantee success. A straight-up increase in your base pay may simply be out of the question right now, but other benefits you’d like could be on the table. If you work in a highly seasonal industry, with predictable busy and slow periods, you can ask for more paid time off. Alternatively, your boss may be willing to give you a stipend to attend an online course related to your job – this will benefit both of you and comes out of a different budget.
Avoid the Title Trap
Having the respect of your coworkers is important. However, in my own experience, what the plaque on your desk says doesn’t mean all that much in this regard: a competent, helpful colleague gets much more deference than a clueless, arrogant one regardless of their job titles.
However hollow a promotion may be, some companies will still try to offer you one in lieu of actual cash when asking for a raise at work. This may be a legitimate attempt to reward you for doing a good job, but needs to be examined a little:
- How is the ratio of work to remuneration going to change for you? More responsibility for the same pay is obviously a bad deal, while a new title slapped onto your current role is just a matter of semantics. You may even end up worse off: in some companies, for instance, “managers” aren’t eligible for overtime pay.
- Not everybody wants to move up from their current job. A good salesman, for instance, may make for a lousy team leader and will only be unhappy in such a role.
- A fancy title may give you more negotiating leverage when applying for a new job, but this isn’t set in stone. At Facebook, for instance, new employees typically get a job description one level below their previous one, while every programmer at Netflix is referred to as a “senior software engineer”.
- Does the promotion involve a new trial period? There is, unfortunately, a chance that the company will use this as an excuse to fire you without any legal ramifications.
Often, as part of company policy, a raise has to be accompanied by a promotion or vice versa. A promotion that doesn’t let you earn much more money now may also pave the way and count in your favor when asking for a raise later on. Remember, however, that printing business cards is cheap, and being called a “manager” instead of “supervisor” neither helps you with the bills nor will necessarily make your colleagues listen to you more attentively.
Quick Bonus Tips About Asking for a Raise at Work
- Talk about the contribution you make instead of your needs. If you’re struggling because of medical bills or a hefty mortgage, your boss may be sympathetic but they are unlikely to let that influence their decision regarding your raise. There’s a big difference between needing and deserving more money – guess which is more persuasive.
- Even if you have a competing offer from another company, be careful about how and whether you use it as leverage. Threatening to quit unless your current employer matches it will almost certainly damage your relationships there, even if you do get the raise. A better way to start the conversation is something like: “You know, I really like working here at XYZ Company, but I was wondering if there might be some extra money in the budget…”
- Showing that you care about the company and your future with them will improve your chances considerably. Ideally, you and your boss will be able to agree on a kind of roadmap for your career as part of discussing your salary. This means that you should be willing to listen as well as speak.
- There is some truth to that cliché about dressing for the job you want. Taking special care with your appearance in the months leading up to your performance review may pay some dividends.
- Many managers don’t really know anything about what the people under them do on a daily basis. If you’re an IT administrator reporting to an accountant, for instance, you should try to keep the jargon to a minimum and make a special effort to explain the challenges of your job and how you contribute to the company’s success.
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Being good at your job is a prerequisite when planning on asking for a raise at work, but it is not enough by itself. You may also have to increase your visibility within the organization. You don’t have to blow your own trumpet every hour of the day, but make sure that the people who matter know what you’re busy with, what you’re good at, and how you add value to the company. Don’t be a wallflower until your performance review comes up.
Once you’ve gotten into this habit, asking for a raise at work will be much simpler. Much of what remains is just making sure you’re prepared for this somewhat intimidating meeting, with as many facts and figures as you can muster. Keep your head, remain polite and respectful, be willing to listen as well as talk, and try to find a middle ground between your and your boss’s interests – money is generally not the only thing at stake for either of you. Finally, remember that no matter how stressful asking for a raise can be, the potential downside for you is really quite limited. Usually, the worst they can do is say “not right now”.