How to Ask for a Raise, Without Alienating Your Boss Along the Way
Tips from psychologists, managers and people who have successfully asked what can feel like a very difficult question.
Stu Smith still remembers how brazen the ask was. He owned a branding company with 10 employees at the time and brought one into his office to have a difficult conversation. The person’s side projects, outside of his full-time work, had started to drag on his performance.
“Just double my salary, and I’ll quit doing all this work on the side,” Mr. Smith remembers his employee telling him. “I was like, ‘No, that’s not exactly how all this works.’”
To land a raise, most people would be advised to take the exact opposite approach. But unlike Mr. Smith’s bold employee, most people put off requesting even incremental increases, possibly losing out on significant compensation, to avoid an awkward conversation.
Here, we asked people who have been on the receiving end of these requests and those who have studied organizational dynamics and psychology of the workplace, to give their best tips on how to prepare for and face the conversation to get more money this year.
Asking to be paid more can make employees feel vulnerable — the “Will you go to prom with me?” of adult work life. The biggest mistake people make is putting off the conversation, deterred by the abstract possibility of rejection, according to Daniel Pink, the author of best-selling books on work and behavior, including his latest, “The Power of Regret.”
“They underestimate the chances of getting a yes, and they overstate the negative consequences of simply asking,” he said.
To get the confidence to start this conversation, Mr. Pink suggests pulling in a friend to rehearse. Find someone who can at least pretend to be tough to talk you through possible responses, including a “yes,” an “I’ll think about it,” and an antagonistic “no.”
A practice round answers the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” Usually, it’s that you go back to the status quo. If the worst that happens is that your boss throws a tantrum, then at least you know it’s time to look for a new job. Still, progress.
Mr. Pink said the second biggest mistake people tend to make revolves around the argument they present when they ask.
“They don’t think enough about the boss’s perspective or the decision-maker’s perspective,” he said. He recommends “really doing the hard work of getting in the head and the mind and the heart of the people who are making the decision.”
To do this, don’t just describe the employee you’ve been, but the employee you plan to be, said Alexandria Brown, a human resources consultant and founder of The HR Hacker, who has been involved with hundreds of hires over her career. She advises that right before you head into performance reviews, you give your boss a heads up that you want to talk about your career. Then, come to the meeting not only with a list of your contributions, but also a plan for what you want to work on over the next year.
“To me, this shows a sense of that employee’s emotional intelligence and their awareness,” Ms. Brown said. She has heard managers say they appreciate it when people are self-aware about what they can continue to work on. “It actually softens the ask for more money.”
This also builds the case for the manager to take the request to her boss. Your raise usually has to be sold at least twice — once to your boss and then by your boss.
“Give your manager the talking points,” Ms. Brown said. “It removes some of the stress the manager has going to their department head or their C.F.O. and making this ask.”
She suggests having the meeting face-to-face to make the most of nonverbal communication. Remain confident and positive, and keep the conversation about your work, not your personal life.
If there’s a reason you need to wait, use the principles laid out in the book “Pre-Suasion” by Robert Cialdini, a behavioral scientist who studies what leads people to say “yes” to requests.
He encourages you to imagine your message as a seed you want to plant. It has a better chance of thriving if you till the earth first. However, he says, people often wait until the moment of asking for a raise to start building their case.
“The moment’s too late, very often. You have to have done your cultivation of your case ahead of time, and cultivation of the way that your boss thinks of you, or perceives you, or views your value,” Mr. Cialdini said.
To generate a more positive view of your work — and yourself as a resource to the company — he suggests focusing on how your work is part of a bigger group effort. If your boss asks you to complete a task and then thanks you, don’t just say, “You’re welcome.” Instead, Mr. Cialdini suggests saying something like, “Of course. I was glad to do it. It’s what we do for one another here.”
“We say yes more often to people who we see as among our ‘we’ group,” Mr. Cialdini said.
Before a meeting to discuss compensation, experts advise setting yourself apart as something rare.
“People are more attracted to scarce, rare or uncommon opportunities,” Mr. Cialdini said. “So if you are that kind of opportunity for them to keep in the organization, they will be more likely to do it.”
To take advantage of scarcity, think about how you can differentiate yourself — working to be the employee who complains the least or the one who always turns in work a day early. (As Mr. Pink said, bosses divide people into two categories: people who make their lives easier and people who make their lives harder. Try to be the former.)
When you do have the conversation about compensation, Mr. Cialdini encourages workers to give their boss a reputation to live up to. “Begin by saying, ‘You know, I’ve always seen you as a fair person who is concerned about equity and concerned about making sure that the people you work with are properly treated,’” he said. “And I’m so glad that that’s the case, because I want to talk with you about my situation.’”
That kind of language might motivate a manager to be fair, Mr. Cialdini said, because people want to be consistent with their image in the community.
Mr. Pink agreed. He encouraged a focus on what is good for the boss, and what is fair — ideally, two things that overlap. “I think you need to establish some level of fairness, and the way that people evaluate fairness in compensation is internal equity and external equity,” he said.
Internal equity describes pay as fair when compared to compensation for the same work within an organization. External equity takes into account the general job market and region.
To establish what’s fair, look at sites such as Glassdoor.com or PayScale.com to find out what people with your experience in your area earn at jobs like yours. Then gather as much information as you can about what people at your level are being paid within your company. If you find out someone with your same tenure and same position earns more than you do, an argument can be made that it’s simply unfair.
“It’s hard for people to defend unfairness,” Mr. Pink said.
It’s just business, but of course business is conducted by humans. Remind yourself that your boss expects these conversations. If you’re someone whose compensation could be affected by persistent pay gaps based on gender or race, asking for more is one way to express your expectation that you’re paid fairly.
Jazmine Reed, a senior recruiter and career coach, has managed dozens of people and says that it’s usually women and introverts who she sees as least likely to ask for a raise.
“I think most managers — most, not all — but I think if they could wave a wand and give you more money, they would,” she said. She learned an important lesson once, when she was making $40,000 a year. She told a recruiter she wanted to come in at $45,000 for her next position. The recruiter misheard her to the tune of $10,000 and apologized that she could pay her only $55,000. The moment taught her it’s OK to ask for more money.
“At the end of the day, and this is fact, no one is ever going to overpay you,” she said. “So likely, almost every single person, in some respects, is being underpaid.”