When (and How) to Ask for a Raise

The first time I asked for a raise, things went so badly that the boss took a sincere dislike to me. I wound up leaving the company soon after this failed bid for more bucks.

The next time I negotiated salary, I got a 35% increase along with a four-day workweek.

What did I do differently? Everything. But first I talked to industry experts as well as successful rainmakers. They helped me come up with a four-step plan that cracked open my employer’s wallet. Here’s what they said:

First, make sure you give an employer excellent service. Companies are profit-making machines that generally award raises only to superior workers. You already are doing the job for a previously agreed-upon pay rate. The only way to change the current arrangement is to offer up more and better goodies than co-workers.

In fact, if you’re not giving 110 percent at work, it’s pointless to show up for another day, says Mary Ann Rust, Ph.D., a Los Angeles psychologist who developed “Blueprint for Career Success,” a job-targeting program used nationwide.

“If you are daydreaming or going slow, or feel resentful, you’re in the wrong job,” Rust points out. “This is a faulty attitude, and you end up learning bad habits that will slop over into your private life, from your tennis game to everything else.”

She encourages clients to view their workplace as a canvas upon which they paint a vividly unique picture of themselves.

“Share your special skills with others. Keep training yourself. Celebrate yourself in work, because the object is to grow as a person, and to use your work as an object of self-development,” Rust urges. Your on-the-job stock will rise accordingly, she adds.

Former Washington, D.C. lobbyist Barbara Hirsch agrees. Hirsch found salary talks went especially well when she tied a raise request to an expanded job description.

“I was always doing things I wasn’t hired to do, and then I would go to my boss and say, ‘We need a new job description for me, and we need to talk about new compensation based on the higher salary range that goes along with the re-written job description,'” explains Hirsch.

Now a publisher, Hirsch makes personnel decisions based on the answer to this question: “Is this person a revenue maker for me?”

“If they are making me more money, then they should make more money,” she adds.

Second, smart money-seekers put themselves in their bosses’ shoes before asking for a raise, says Bruce Loveland, executive vice president for client services at the New York City office of Bernard Haldane Associates, a national career consulting firm.

Before opening the discussion, ask yourself what the boss has to justify internally to make a salary increase happen, suggests Loveland.

If it’s a privately owned company, the first thought likely will be, “This will come out of my pocket, and do I want to take this money out of my pocket?” he says. Public company managers know raises will come out of their annual budget, or the corporate pocket, so their reasoning is similar.

“Basically, the employer asks, ‘What is my return on this proposed investment?'” Loveland continues. Then the boss must decide specifically how much to jack the salary, based on the worker’s perceived worth.

The third step to nailing a snazzy raise is determining how much to ask for. Pre-recession, the average raise ran about 3-5% annually, statistics indicate.

But instead of asking for a generic 4%, base your request on the pay range for a comparable person in your industry with similar skills and experience, says Jacqueline Threadgill, a health-care consultant in Philadelphia.

“It is good – especially for a woman – to make sure there is a policy written on how raises are implemented” before opening salary talks, says Threadgill. “If there is a salary band or range, you need to know where you fall with your current pay.”

Doing this pre-meeting research helped Threadgill get the raise, but first, she recalls, she had to state her case in strong terms.

“Make sure you’ve checked with your resources, are informed of what you need to know, and then have the strength to disagree or debate if necessary about why this is reasonable,” Threadgill says.

Keep in mind, though, that the same job pays differently from one part of the country to another, so a $60,000-a-year job in Phoenix may pay just $53,000 in Nashville – or $74,000 in New York City.

Now it’s time for the main event: what I call the “This is what I’ve done for you; This is what I’ll do for you” memo. It’s the single most important thing you can do to convince the boss that you’re worth more greenbacks.

Start by setting up a meeting during a non-stressful time of the week. If asked, you can say, “I’d like to discuss my future with the company, and some ideas I have along those lines,” prompts Bill Frank, president of Denver-based Career Lab.

Then spend a few hours drafting a hard-hitting memo that details what you’ve done in the last twelve months. Without exaggerating your role, be specific and use punchy language for maximum impact.

For instance, rather than saying you “participated in an important sales project,” say, “I was the lead producer in Target ’14, the company’s major revenue vehicle, bringing in 12% more new business than my peers.”

“Since salary is determined by performance, list your work ‘home runs’ that document your accomplishments and achievements in the memo,” Frank advises. “You’re not being a brown-noser, you’re informing him or her about what you really do for the company.”

In part two of the memo, list several bulleted items about what you plan to do for the company in the coming year. This is a teaser, of sorts, that you tailor to the boss’ agenda and the company’s stated goals. Part two cues the boss as to what he or she may be able to boast about – production-wise – in a year, thanks to you.

Don’t expect an immediate answer. Most supervisors need time to check the budget and mull over your contribution to the company. It’s not unusual to wait a week or even a month before getting an answer to your raise request.

Stay calm, and through it all, advises Rust, remember her mantra: “Work done in love has the breath of life to it.”

Delve Deeper

When NOT ask for a raise

There are times when it’s best to defer asking for a salary increase, no matter how stellar your performance, says Bill Frank, president of Denver-based Career Lab, a career consulting and human-resource firm.

“Raises are always determined by business conditions, most important of which is, ‘Is this business profitable?’ More particularly, is your own particular job a profit center for the employer?” Frank explains.

  • Do not ask for a raise when the business is doing badly, or when you’re not generating more revenue than you’re costing. Wait until things improve, or move on.
  • Avoid hitting the boss up for more money when he or she is doing badly emotionally. “Don’t go in there the day before your boss is going to divorce court,” Frank says.
  • Throw it into reverse if the first mention of a salary increase seems to inflame a normally steady employer. You may have pushed his or her button during some unknown-to-you crisis. Simply say, “I seem to have raised this at a bad time. When would be a good time?”

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