Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
With many bosses deciding who gets a year-end raise this month, now is a good time to ask for one. But will you?
I’ve been shocked—horrified, really—by how many people write me admitting they never ask for raises. Some people just take what they’re offered rather than ever requesting more. Others work at companies that don’t even do regular salary reviews and thus go on for years at the same salary rather than broach the issue.
And sure, asking for a raise is nerve-wracking! Few people enjoy doing it; it’s stressful to ask, it may be tricky to create a compelling justification, and it can feel awkward to find out that your company’s assessment of your value may not line up with your own.
Here’s one person who wrote to me explaining why they don’t ask for raises:
I don’t think I’ve ever asked for a raise. I have left jobs where I thought I was being underpaid. In hindsight, even if I’d known I could have resolved this by asking, I probably still would have left. The thought of asking and being told “nope, not in the budget” or “nope, you’re not deserving” would have been too great a fear to overcome.
That person’s not alone. Here’s another who feels similarly:
I would sooner crawl over broken glass than ASK for a raise. Am I a good worker? Sure, I think I am. I’ve been promoted and given raises often in my career. … But take the initiative to book a 1:1 with you, put together metrics of my performance, walk to your office and slap it on your desk, and tell you I deserve a raise, when it isn’t even performance review time? Nopeing right out of that. How ’bout a nice root canal instead?
But people who don’t ask are leaving huge amounts of money on the table, to the tune of thousands of dollars a year. And as this person points out, the effects of not advocating for yourself compound over time—so that initial loss of a few thousand dollars a year can eventually become tens of thousands of dollars a year:
As a 30-something woman with a white collar office job who comes from a blue collar family, I was taught growing up that a job was something you should be thankful to be offered and that negotiating would make me look ungrateful. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realized I should be negotiating. I have negotiated since, but that means I set a low salary bar for myself early on and [miss] out on earning potential.
Of course, the fact that some people don’t ask for raises doesn’t absolve employers of the obligation to pay them fairly. Employers should regularly review employees’ salaries, assessing them against the market and for internal equity with what colleagues are earning. Too often, though, they don’t—which is terrible management in the long run, because underpaid people eventually get frustrated and leave:
I was eventually doing three times the output of coworkers with the same title and was still paid half of everyone in the department. I waited four years for them to fix my salary, thinking they were not paying me more simply because I technically didn’t have as many years of experience of the job as others. After four years, I picked up enough about others’ salaries that I realized I was being taken advantage of. I was ready to quit. I finally talked to a manager about a pay raise to the standard rate of my job. They gave me it, but by that point I was a changed worker. Seeing how they were not willing to make things fair without me demanding it, I no longer had much interest in doing things above and beyond for the company. I did exactly what I was paid to do and had no motivation to do more. … I refused to miss a break or cut my lunch short. After one year working with such low motivation, I quit. They ended up having to hire three people to replace me, all with starting wages higher than what I ended with.
Even when companies do offer regularly scheduled merit raises, people who ask for more often end up with it, while people who don’t are left behind:
My ex-company gave me a 3% “merit” increase last year after bringing in $260+ million dollars the year before, told me they knew it was small, but “there’s no money in the budget for anything more.” I found out they gave higher increases and promotions to a couple of people in my division who had less tenure than I did and did less work—one of the guys who got promoted had only been with us four weeks! But they apparently asked for it and I didn’t, so they got it. Never mind the fact that my performance review was glowing, and the whole year before they kept singing my praises about how I was one of their best employees. I dusted off my resume, found a better paying job with better (and cheaper) insurance, and I will not look back.
So, truly, if it’s been a year or more since your salary was last set, consider asking for a raise. If your company offers you a raise on its own and you think your work warrants more, ask for more. If you find it anxiety-inducing, welcome to the club—but that’s not a reason not to do it.
One secret many people don’t know about asking for a raise is that you don’t need to put together an elaborate presentation, full of persuasive evidence and metrics and PowerPoint slides. In most cases, your request can be brief. You’ll need a sentence or two about why your compensation should be revisited (for example, your responsibilities have changed or you’re now contributing at a higher level in some way), but you don’t need to put together pages of notes or reams of statistics. Most of the time, you can briefly reference a few specifics of the good work you’ve been doing and then say, “Could we talk about increasing my salary to reflect that?” or (if you have a dollar figure in mind) “I’m hoping we can raise my salary to $X to reflect that.”
That’s often all it takes. And if it helps, remember, too, that paying you fairly is also good for your employer. It’s not a favor they’re doing you—it’s a way for them to keep you longer and not lose you to a better-paying competitor.