Getting a raise

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How to get a raise? It's not that hard, assuming you're actually worth more than you're getting paid, and if you're not, then you can learn to be worth more. (1) Reduce the risk to your company (2) be easy to work with (3) Manage expectations (4) Show your worth (5) Demand what you're worth (6) be prepared to leave (7) leave if you are worth more, and can find it somewhere else.

Pay is not always logical or fair. It is not just about work output. One of the things that is least fair in business is the trends from unionization. Unions basically says that your pay should be regulated based on time-in-job and not on ability, skill, effort, or success. You see this more in blue collar jobs, union shops or accademia. And there's a trend with more anti-descrimination laws and the like to normalize pay across the board; many HR (Human Resources) departments have pay scales for grade, and won't let people go beyond that in a title, or hire good people in, because it would "be unfair" to pay people what they are worth. But litigation is such that they'd rather lose people and be unfair rather than take the risk of being sued over being unfair. Ironically, unfair fixed pay-scales hold up well in court as being fair. Sad, because they are saying that you can work hard, and the only way you will get ahead is to leave. But you should focus on the things you have control of, and not the things you don't.

Pay is also based most often on two things; experience and risk. Companies are taking a risk when they hire you. Are you going to make more for them than it costs them to keep you on. Are you going to be a flake that is a torture to get rid of because of bad employment laws, or are you going to be one of the workers that is a true benefit to the organization? The more you can prove that you are a producer, and thus low risk, the better you do. Also the more you have made in prior jobs, and worked there for a while, then the more of an asset you've proven yourself in the past; thus the less of a risk you will be seen. We all know that experience isn't ability, and rate isn't output -- but both do mitigate the risks of those hiring you.

Companies also show appreciation most in a few ways. Benefits, promotions and salary. I value benefits, compliments, being given control and responsibility; and they do have value to me. But driving up my salary not only proves my worth to this company in the companies eye's, but it also does so for future companies that I might work at. When you switch jobs they aren't going to think you were valuable because you were really well liked, they're going to look at what you made; and relative to others in your field. So driving up your salary is a way to prove your worth to the company, yourself, and future organizations.


So what are other easy steps to getting a raise that everyone should know?

  • Facts matter. Before you go into any raise or salary negotiation do some research. Know what is comparable salaries in your industry, area, and for your title. There are many ways to get these numbers. Also have notes for what you've done for the company, and how much that is worth (when possible). If you can make a logical case for why you deserve a raise, it will increase your chances of success.
  • Avoid communication issues, especially in career goals. Go to your boss, 6 months before your review, and ask what is expected of you in your job (taking notes is a good idea). A few months before your review go in and ask for status on how your are achieving those goals, and what areas you need to work on. At your review redo the whole thing and make sure you achieved everything you were supposed to. Since you have clearly defined goals, which you achieved, it is hard for the boss to have wiggle room on you "not doing X", or for there being miscommunication about your job. If you are living up to everything the boss asked, and you still can't get ahead, then it is time to get a new boss, and politely and professionally let the company know why on your way out.
  • The cost of living. The cost of living increases may be 3% - 5%+ in most areas -- if you aren't getting that, then you aren't breaking even. Start negotiations by subtracting or adding that amount from any raise offer (or adding it on) and explaining why. If the boss says "5% raise" you say, "8% total is acceptable -- a 5% raise, and the 3% cost of living adjustment". If the boss says "4% Raise" you say, "but with cost of living this year is 5%, that means I am making less/same this year as last. Are you saying that I haven't added any value to the company over the previous year?".
  • Demand what you are worth. It doesn't matter (much) the status of the company, and the 3,000 other excuses for not giving you a raise -- what matters is that you improved your output (or your value to the company) by X, and the company should recognize that. If you are worth X+Y down the street, and the company will only pay X, you have to make it clear that you can't afford to give up Y. Don't bluff. But if you have to leave to move forward, then maybe it's time to leave.
  • Be prepared to leave.Companies are rarely loyal to employees. It is good to like where you are working and have some "loyalty" to your friends in the company (your team) -- but you have to balance that with loyalty to your family and yourself (and your career). Some companies will only offer raises to those that are willing to leave (or new people coming in). Sadly, you may have to change jobs to get what you are worth. I'm not saying you should be a complete job-whore, or that you shouldn't place a value on your friends and acquaintances at a job, and you certainly don't want to become a completely unstable job-jumper. But you do need to balance those things you value, and sometimes some companies force you to leave to get ahead.
  • Never threaten, and never bluff. Of course the other side of that is just because you are prepared to leave, doesn't mean you should threaten to do so. Just negotiate in good faith, communicate your goals (economically or rank) -- work to achieve them. If you can't achieve them, then you probably want to leave anyway. No animosity, no threats, and don't say anything that you aren't prepared to back up (if you are called on a bluff you will destroy your credibility). Just do what you have to.
  • Stay positive.If you think you can't get ahead in your company then you should probably leave. Your defeatist and negative attitude will not do you, the company, or your career any good. There are thousands of problems in every company I've ever been at, and as a consultant I've been at dozens. Keep trying to become someone that is trying to be part of the solution and not just whining about the problems. That doesn't mean you have to ignore the problems but just complaining about them without positives (solutions), and doing something about them, is less than useless and is counterproductive (since you waste listeners time, reduce their morale and motivation, as well as your own).
  • Socialization (fitting in) matters. Some people naively think that if they just do their job, that is enough. It is to stay there, and do OK. But realistically if you are a great, social person that gets along with everyone, and helps people, and you are friends with many, then you are more of an asset to that company. You help the company keep other employees happy and are more important to the good atmosphere of the company. So you have to keep a positive attitude, and be someone that others LIKE working with. I'm not saying sell your soul, kiss butt, or become what you are not -- but if you aren't fitting in, then you should find a job where you can. And when you can do a little bit (extend some effort) to fit in more, you should take those opportunities.
  • Take blame, share credit. People know what's what. If you do something wrong; just own it. Stupid companies will get rid of people they just trained the hard/expensive way. Smart let you learn from it. If you take blame of the actions of people below you, then you are demonstrating that you accept the problem, and since no one likes to take blame, you will remedy it. Sharing credit is the other side. You are building teams and giving credit where it is due. If someone does 5% of the work, and you do 95%, they contributed. Recognize that, and you make an ally out of them, and people will still understand who works hard. Glory hogs and finger pointers are almost always figured out. So are the opposite. Be the oppposite.
  • Back channel power and communication. This is sort of the politics of command. There is always the official channels for power/commands and unofficial (back-channel). As boss or employee you should know about both -- and realize both. If you are one of the long-standing wise employees that understands all and people look to, then you have to understand that and not be a threat or a gossip that harms the official power structure (but you can compliment or guide it a little). You have to understand who is where in both hierarchies to prevent tap-dancing in the political mine field (be aware of the boundaries). You don't have to become some political animal (presonally I'm not that good at that), but you do have to understand it enough to avoid the biggest traps.


There are many other techniques you can apply to get promoted or do well in companies. I've seen some of them work. But I don't perscribe to them. Learning to be a sychophant (yes-man), taking credit for others work (trechery), false compliments or subservience, willingness to go along with what is wrong, politicking or sleeping your way to the top, and so on. They are all tools and techniques that people can and do use towards success. And sadly, they do work. That is for individuals to decide for themselves. I think integrity, including professional integrity, is more important then career success, and I will do everything I can to stop such things when I find out about them; but to each his own.

Nothing is black and white, and no technique can work in some companies with their bureaucracy, situation or biases. If a company is struggling and going bankrupt, then your position for negotiating is weaker -- but then maybe it's time to find a better company. If the company has a policy and you're capped, or your role is maxed for what they think they think they need, then it's time to decide stay or go. So you have to look at the big picture, put yourself in your company and bosses position too. But if costs a lot to replace people: especially in tech, or assuming you have some skills. And if you aren't valuable enough, you need to figure out what they need that's worth more, and do that.

Hopefully this article has some value and given you some new ideas, or a new way of looking at the issue. I have been and am on both sides of the fence. I've hired people, and been hired. I've laid off and fired others. I've been laid off. I've given promotions and demotions, and received them. More than that, I've seen some of the racial, cultural and gender issues going on around me. Hopefully expressing what I've seen and learned will help others and give them a different insight that can help them in their careers.

Written 1999.03.08