Talking Your Way into a Bigger Raise

Sharp negotiating skills are key to landing the salary bump you seek.

By Daniel Bortz September 4, 2019
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Good news: You could be in store for a bigger pay bump before the year is out. Data from HR consulting firm Mercer found that employers anticipate U.S. private-sector salaries for 2019, which includes merit and promotion-related pay increases, will rise by 3.4 percent on average, up from an average raise of 3.1 percent in 2018.

Shining stars, though, could earn significantly more money. Indeed, the average salary increase for top performers was 4.7 percent last year. 

Unfortunately, great performance doesn’t always speak for itself, says Robin Pinkley, a management professor at Southern Methodist University and co-author of Get Paid What You’re Worth (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003). And nearly two-thirds of people have never asked for a raise, according to a recent PayScale survey of more than 160,000 workers. That’s unfortunate, given that 70 percent of employees who have asked for a raise received one, and 39 percent of those who asked got the amount they requested.

Many bosses assume that human resources professionals know better than anyone how to ask for a raise. But, unless you specialize in negotiation strategies, you’re likely in the same boat as every other employee, which means you’ll need to firm up your negotiating skills to talk your way to a bigger bump. Here are 12 steps to help ease that path:

1. Time It Right

There’s no golden rule that says when to time your ask—it depends on the norms at your company, says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, whose research focuses on negotiating. “At some organizations, raise negotiations happen off-cycle, while at other companies, salary negotiation only happens during performance reviews,” he says. 

There are exceptions, though. “If your role has expanded but your salary has not been changed to reflect your new duties, that’s a great time to ask for a raise,” says career and salary negotiation coach Kathryn Meisner. Another factor to consider: “Generally, you want to ask for a raise before the fiscal year begins, so that your salary increase can be a line item on the coming year’s budget,” she says.

Also, think about your boss’s schedule. “You don’t want to hit your manager right when they get back from a long vacation,” Schweitzer says, “or when they’re in the midst of preparing a big quarterly report.”

2. Pinpoint a Raise You Can Justify

To demand a big raise, you have to know your market value, Schweitzer says. This measures how much money you should be earning based on your position, years of experience and location. (Typically, cities that have higher cost-of-living expenses tend to have higher salaries.) 

Online resources such as Glassdoor, PayScale and Salary.com collect compensation data that you can use to see how much you should be making. But don’t stop there—your co-workers can also be valuable sources of information. “We’ve found, in our research, that people are far more fearful than they should be of asking their peers how much money they make,” Schweitzer says. “Today, people are more open to sharing what their salary is than they were in the past.”

3. Ask for a Range, Not a Hard Number

Instead of requesting a specific hike, says Sheila Heen, a professor at Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, employees should ask for a new salary range, “with the top of the range still being something that’s justifiable.” 

Offering a range can also make you appear more flexible, Schweitzer says. The lower end, though, should be a big ask—that way, if your boss uses it as an anchor, you’ll still get a handsome bump.

4. Set Expectations 

You have to be direct when making an appointment with your boss to discuss your salary, Meisner says. In an e-mail to your manager, state: “I’d like to meet to discuss my compensation.” 

In addition, Meisner recommends sending your boss a “pitch deck” ahead of time that outlines why you deserve an above-average raise. “These will be your talking points during the actual conversation,” she says. Also, ask your manager whether she’d like you to send any additional materials before your meeting.

5. Lead with Your Raise Request, Then Defend It

Of course, how you steer the conversation is crucial. But you may be surprised by what experts say is your best approach. “In sales, people typically go in and try to sell you on the virtues of a product before giving you the price,” Pinkley says. “However, our research has shown, definitively, that it’s more productive to offer a numerical bid before explaining your value proposition when asking for a raise.”

According to Pinkley, it’s all about anchoring. “When managers hear you throw out a dollar amount first,” she explains, “they then look for information that justifies offering you that amount.”

6. Make It an Open Conversation

One mistake employees make, Heen says, is framing their raise request by asking a close-ended question (e.g., “I think I deserve a higher salary. Do you agree?”). As Heen puts it, “You certainly don’t want to ask a yes-or-no question, since it enables your boss to easily respond ‘no.’ ”

7. Use ‘We’ Language

Taking a collaborative tack is key, which is why Meisner recommends frequently weaving in the word “we” during raise negotiations. For instance, “I’m hoping we can achieve this raise together” or “Let’s figure out how we can have my pay fairly reflect what I’m worth to the organization.” This will make your manager more motivated to go to bat for you when she asks her boss to sign off on your raise.

8. Sometimes, Silence Is Golden

Chatty Cathys, listen up: Deploying a well-timed, 10-second pause can actually help you get the raise you deserve. “I’ve seen managers offer employees more money just because they wanted to fill an awkward silence,” Meisner says. Pausing also allows you to gather your thoughts and assess how the conversation is going in real time.

9. Quantify Your Achievements

Managers like metrics, says Rob Sullivan, author of Selling Yourself Without Bragging: A Simple, 4-Part Formula for Quantifying Your Accomplishments—Even When You Think You Can’t (CreateSpace, 2009). In other words, the best way to highlight your achievements is by offering data that measure your contributions. So let’s say you work on a big team, and you single-handedly recruited 10 of last year’s 12 hires—that’s compelling. You also want to point out any achievements that show how you improved your company’s bottom line (“By expanding our recruiting efforts through social media, I’ve lowered our department’s annual budget by 25 percent,” for example).

10. Restate Your Commitment to the Organization

Employers will go to great lengths to retain employees who are fully “engaged”—people who are actively involved in the organization and enthusiastic about their workplace—because research shows engaged employees perform better. Therefore, by reiterating to your boss that you’re committed to the company’s mission and aligned with its core values, you’ll be in a better position to ask for an above-average raise.

11. Can’t Get a Big Raise? Negotiate Other Incentives

If your boss doesn’t offer you the pay increase you deserve, you may be able to negotiate other forms of compensation or incentives, says Lydia Frank, vice president of content strategy at PayScale. Two-thirds of companies plan to use bonuses to retain top performers this year, according to PayScale’s annual Compensation Best Practices survey, which asked more than 7,000 employers about their trends and attitudes toward compensation, retention and employee engagement.

Companies are also offering other benefits and perks in lieu of raises. PayScale’s study found that 44 percent of employers plan to allow remote work, and 37 percent plan to offer flex time. Also, “Depending on your organization, additional vacation time may be more negotiable than a salary increase,” Schweitzer says. 

Still, Pinkley says it’s important to ask your boss straight up why you weren’t given the raise you asked for. “It may not be a reflection on you,” she says. “If your company isn’t doing well, or your boss has a cap on what size raise they can give employees, those are things you’d absolutely want to know.” 

12. Set a Time to Revisit Your Compensation

Finally, you’ll want to schedule a future date to meet and talk about your salary, says Meisner, who suggests using this prompt: “Thank you for having this conversation with me. I look forward to continuing to support the company through my role. I’d like to revisit the discussion in about six months’ time.”

“You could also ask for extra responsibilities that would lead you to a higher salary,” Schweitzer says. Just make sure you deliver strong results once you’re armed with that information—otherwise, that large raise you had in mind will only be a pipe dream.  

Daniel Bortz is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va. 

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