HOW TO ASK FOR (AND GET) A RAISE

You've been working hard and producing great results, and now you want to be rewarded for it. Here are some tips to ask in the right way to maximize your chances of success.

Know Thyself

Your argument will be more convincing the  more objective it is. The first step is to take a step back and analyze why you are asking for a raise. Is it because you have taken on more responsibility? Have your skills improved, allowing you to get more done or produce better results? These are the most credible reasons to ask for a raise.

Unfortunately, people often base their requests on less logical reasons, such as that they are getting married and have expenses coming up, their friend in an unrelated position makes more money than they do, or they are feeling inadequate or bored personally. These may all be valid feelings to have, but managers are under pressure to make salary decisions based on objective performance factors so they aren't accused of favoritism. If your request is based on personal reasons, try setting some practical goals to increase your value to the company, and revisit after you've demonstrated that commitment.

It's also important to carefully consider if money is the true issue. Many people chase a higher salary believing it will make them feel better, only to achieve it and still be dissatisfied. In some cases, what a person actually want is to feel more valued or noticed. If you're craving more feedback or recognition or are feeling under-appreciated, consider talking to your boss about your need for more positive reinforcement.

NOTE: I have in certain instances loaned employees money when they were having short-term financial crises. If you need the money right now, but know it's not really justified as a raise, consider just telling your boss what's going on. Not every boss is willing or able to help in these situations, but the honesty is likely to get you farther than submitting a less than compelling request for a raise. Of course it goes without saying that if you do this, the reason needs to be legitimate. Tax bills count -- that new convertible doesn't.

Timing

Timing is, as they say, everything. If your company has a particular review/raise schedule, take a look at when your next opportunity would fall. Annual and quarterly reviews are the most common. A year is a long time, so if you are on an annual schedule and your next review won't be for 6 months or more, it's fine to ask for a meeting to revisit things.

If it's coming up in the near term (say 3-4 months), one approach would be to ask your boss what specific things you can do to give yourself an opportunity to advance at your next review. This signals that you understand that compensation is a result of your actions and that you're willing to work for it. It also gives you specific information to understand how your manager makes decisions.

If you are within two months before or after your review, asking for another review could be seen as greedy and a waste of your manager's time. If your review has passed and you didn't get the result you hoped for, ideally you've received actionable feedback on what you can change. If you didn't receive that feedback or didn't understand it, asking your manager to discuss concrete steps for how you can improve is perfectly reasonable and can work in your favor. Just be sure you understand it's feedback, not an opportunity to argue your case. Making your case will come after you've implemented changes. Say something like "I've been thinking about what you said at my last review and really want to make a difference here. Can we talk about some specific ways I can contribute more?" Then listen and take action. 

Also, it's good practice to avoid times when your manager is especially stressed out and favor times when you have looked especially good. Right before a big deadline or end of quarter should be avoided. The calm after the storm has passed is much more favorable for these types of discussions.

Finally, it's a good idea to check your employee handbook. If the company is strict on when reviews can occur, it's best to stick with the protocol unless there are extremely unusual circumstances.

Making Your Case

This isn't a good time to wing it. You want to carefully prepare so you can make a coherent case and give yourself the best chance for success. 

Raises are usually based on business goals. The business can afford to pay you more as long as you are producing more. In some cases, the organization may have a system set up to measure your productivity. Learn how this system works and be sure to do your part to make sure your contributions are reflected accurately. Being lazy about recording your hours, for example, and then asking for a raise claiming you did a lot more than what's reflected on the timesheet is not going to get you very far.

One way to think about making your case is "How have I exceeded the expectations for my current salary, or gone above and beyond?" This can be a hard mental leap for some employees to make when raises appear to just happen because you've been there longer, but in reality it's always based on some sort of belief that you're producing more. The more you can back this up with fact, the stronger your case.

If your organization doesn't have an official measurement system, you have to take matters into your own hands. Keep a journal of times you do something extra and the result. Also, if you're going above and beyond, don't be afraid to let your boss know. When I worked for someone else I would always find a reason to send my manager an update email if I was working at 10 PM. Today as a manager, I appreciate this kind of thing as long as it's done tactfully. I do want to know who's taking extra responsibility and sometimes that's easy to miss if the person is too quiet about it.

How Much To Ask For

Whether you should ask for a specific amount, and if so how much, is a controversial topic. Asking for too much risks making you look out of touch and entitled, but if you ask for too little you could leave money on the table. In most cases, I think it's to your benefit as the employee not to show your hand first. Make your case, then let the employer make an offer. They may pleasantly surprise you.

If you are forced to give a number, go back to the data you collected. Is any of it measurable? Do you have an idea of the actual bottom line impact? This is important because just because you brought in a 100K sale doesn't mean the company made 100K - it may only be 10K in some companies and asking for an unrealistic amount doesn't exactly scream leadership potential. If you have measurable data on the bottom line impact, try going for a portion of the increase (typically less than half because the company needs to make money too).

If you have no way of measuring anything, it's a little tougher. Inflation varies but typically the cost of living index is around 2-3% per year. Asking for 5-7% is enough to be impactful without freaking out your employer.

There are also a few situations when I think the employee should definitely shoot first:

  1. If you think you have earned a large raise (say more than 15% of your current salary), you need to give your employer some kind of heads-up that this is not the typical raise request or you risk an awkward misunderstanding. Typically a raise that large is associated with a change in title or responsibilities -- if not, reconsider whether it's truly justified. (An initial salary that was below market would be one reason this could be the case).
  2. If you have a specific number in your head that you will walk away if it's not met. This is almost always because you have another opportunity (more on that later). In this case it's best to be honest about what you need so you can have the conversation that will allow everyone to make a decision and move forward. However, carefully consider whether you truly mean you will walk away - most people don't like ultimatums and it could irreparably damage the relationship. If you really want to stay, trying wording more like "I have an offer for x, but I'd really like to stay, so I'd like to see what we can do to increase my earning power here."

The Competition Card

If you've been interviewing, or have received interest from other companies, you likely have some idea of what your market value is. If your current company isn't meeting that but you're happy otherwise, it makes sense to give them an opportunity to correct the situation. However, it's also a minefield because interviewing can be seen as disloyal or a sign that you're not a long-term prospect. 

Some tips for navigating:

  1. Be honest with yourself. If you have no intention of leaving, but are just looking for leverage on your current employer to get a raise, don't interview. You're wasting everyone's time and setting a bad tone for your relationship. If you don't trust that your employer will give you a raise just based on evidence that it's deserved, it may not be the right fit anyway. It could also hurt your future chances with the interviewing company. As a prospective employer who has offered candidates the job who later indicated they were staying put, I can say that the chances of us interviewing that candidate again in the future are pretty slim. 
  2. Don't fall for "greener grass syndrome". Be sure you're comparing apples to apples in terms of environment, time commitment, salary, benefits, responsibilities, opportunity for advancement, culture, and more. There tends to be a reasonable degree of parity among employers when all factors are considered, so if a new opportunity sounds too good to be true compared with the current situation, keep asking questions to make sure you truly understand. For example, just because an employer offers health insurance doesn't mean the plans are equivalent. 
  3. Be direct with your current employer. If you were actively seeking other employment because you are dissatisfied at your current job, but now aren't sure you want to leave, you need to have a conversation with your employer about this. Often there are deeper issues afoot than just money. Be aware that the employer is going to be hesitant to invest too much in you because you've already indicated you're a flight risk, so having the discussion earlier in the process would have been better. Now that you're here though, be as straightforward as possible with your complaints and give your employer a chance to respond. If you weren't out actively looking, but an opportunity fell into your lap, say that as well. Your employer is likely to be more sympathetic to this scenario because they'll see it as less likely that you'll just take the raise and leave in 6 months. If you've already made up your mind and there's nothing the employer can do to change it, just say that. 
  4. Don't drag it out. While it can be an ego booster to have two companies "fighting" over you, you have to keep in mind that you want to preserve a long-term relationship with at least one of these firms and perhaps both. Pitting them against each other for multiple rounds to get another 5K is not going to be to your benefit in the long run. 

The Aftermath

There are three basic scenarios once you've had your meeting and asked for a raise: you may be turned down completely, given a raise but it may be less than you'd hoped for, or get everything you wanted and your own parking space. Although emotions can be running high, how you handle this response is crucial to your long-term success with the company.

  1. If you are turned down completely: It's fair to ask why (and most employers will volunteer this information). If it's because of external factors such as budget cuts or lack of profitability, and you are otherwise happy with your position, try asking if there's anything you can do to make an impact. In a large organization, the answer may be no, but you're at least showing initiative and an understanding of business. If it's because the employer doesn't believe your performance has warranted a raise, it's self-examination time. Take a deep breath and try to put yourself in their shoes. Can you see any validity to what they are saying? If so, ask what you can do to contribute in a more meaningful way. If after an honest assessment, you completely disagree or are not willing to make the changes they are asking for, you may want to look elsewhere.
  2. If you are given a raise, but not as much as you wanted: This is stickier as the employer may not realize they have disappointed you, and also may not provide much explanation as they'll assume you're happy. It's easy to jump to conclusions but remember that they are making a business decision they feel is in the best interests of the company, not necessarily a comment on you as a person. Try saying something like "Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss this, and for rewarding me. It means a lot to me that you recognize my contributions. When you have a chance, I'd be interested to know more about how you arrived at that number so I know where I'm adding value. Also, my long-term goal is x and y, so perhaps in a few months we can meet again to discuss how I can earn that." Ideally x should be a type of responsibility or non-monetary goal and y could be a specific dollar amount. Some people may have the urge to counter in this situation. I don't recommend that unless you're ready to walk out (see above on Competition). Remember this is a long-term relationship and there's give and take - you don't have to get everything on the first try.
  3. If you are given a raise and it's as much as you wanted (or more): Great! This is the best possible outcome. Be sure to express gratitude, but also be sure to ask for the same type of feedback you would have if you didn't get the result you were hoping for. This likely won't be the last time the topic of a raise comes up, so you want to have an understanding of what types of contributions are most meaningful to your employer.

Those are my tips. The most important thing to keep in mind throughout the process is that employment is a long-term relationship. Work to align goals for mutual success and you'll win in the long run.