Thursday, February 02, 2006

How to Ask for a Raise

I think a lot of women find asking for a raise really difficult, and I am no exception. We worry about seeming pushy or over-confident, and aren't always sure of our worth. Sometimes we just want to be recognized for our abilities without having to ask. Sometimes we're trying to be team players in an atmosphere of company belt-tightening, and sometimes we're just chicken, I don't know... but in books I've read and people I've spoken to, I've never heard of a woman who didn't have at least some pang of discomfort at the prospect of asking for more money. (I'm sure many men don't find it easy either, but for whatever reason, it seems to be harder for women.)
I work in publishing, which is an industry where people jump around from one company to another a lot-- often this is how you get a raise or a promotion, by starting fresh with a new employer! I've done a bit of that myself, but I have also been at a couple of jobs long enough to have negotiated raises.

So how did I do it? The first time was several years ago. The job I was in was a real step up for me, at a small company where I had quite broad responsibilities and a lot of independence. When I was hired I was on a straight salary, and was told they couldn't start me at much more than my previous job at a larger corporate publishing house. After I'd been there over a year and had gotten one cost of living raise, I noticed that two assistants who partially reported to me had been given large raises by my boss. So I thought, what the hell! I understand that they want to keep smart young people in the company, but what happened to all that talk about how tight the payroll budget was? I am smart and young too, and I need the money!
I went in and asked my boss if I could speak to her privately. I kind of started off on the wrong foot, telling her I was a little disgruntled that other people had gotten raises bigger than mine, both in percentage and actual dollars. My boss, who I got along well with and is still a friend, looked a little amused. She actually started to kind of steer me in a direction that was more politic, pointing out that what anyone else was making really was irrelevant. I countered that I knew that was true, but that it was relevant to what kind of raises were available and what the company's financial situation was. And besides, I said, I had recently broken up with someone, as she knew, and had moved and had higher expenses now, and though I knew that was not her problem... again, she kind of steered me a bit: "You mean, you have recently had reason to be more aware of the cost of living in NYC, and reason to prioritize salary more highly, rather than the desire for a good working environment and potential for advancement you were most concerned about when you started here?" Yeah, that! And also, I said, I've been selling to an account whose business has increased dramatically, and I'm not on a bonus plan and I think my hard work should be recognized. My boss pointed out that there were no hard rules about bonus vs. straight salary and that many people chose the security of a slightly higher salary instead of a lower salary plus a variable bonus. I then talked about my performance review and how positive it had been, and how I enjoyed my job and valued what I was learning there, but believed I was a strong asset to the company and just wanted my pay to reflect my value in the industry so that I would continue to be happy there rather than being tempted to look elsewhere.
The end result was that I didn't get an immediate salary increase, but was put on a nice bonus plan that significantly increased my income at the end of that year. I had a new respect for my boss because of the way she gently prodded me to say the right things, and I think she was pleased that I had brought up the issue instead of just stewing about it.

A couple of years later, I was working at a different job. I had gotten one really good performance review with a moderate cost of living raise. The next year, I knew I wanted to ask for more, especially since I'd always felt that I'd shot a little low when I negotiated my initial salary. A few things came together in the months right before my performance review was due. First of all, Publisher's Weekly did their annual salary survey. Its usefulness is probably limited, as the categories they survey are too broad and they lump Managers and Directors together when they calculate average salaries. Since job titles can mean such different things at different places anyway, it's all kind of meaningless. But it does give you something to compare your own salary to. The other thing that happened was that I got a call from a head hunter, which happens to me occasionally. I wasn't interested in the job she described and didn't even interview for it, but she mentioned a salary that was quite a bit higher than what I was making. Head hunters are always dangling that kind of carrot, but again, it was ammunition.
I thought about all this and came up with a number that I wanted to ask for, and then I settled in to wait for my review. At that point, of course I had some moments of doubt, thinking of ways my performance could be better, wondering if I would be seen as having delusions of grandeur if I asked for too much. But I just tried to calm myself down and wait to see what the review would be like. When it happened, once again I was told everything was going great and that I had accomplished a lot and was well-liked and respected by everyone including the CEO, etc etc. So that charged me up and when my boss said she had put me down for a skimpy cost-of-living raise, I was ready to come out swinging.
I kept it all positive, which was easy to do, because again, I had a good relationship with my boss. I said I was really happy with the review, enjoyed the job and really looked forward to continuing my career within the company, but that I had concerns about my salary. I understood that they hadn't wanted to start me at a higher level because of my past experience but that I'd obviously proven myself in the job if they'd given me 2 stellar reviews. I also mentioned the PW salary survey and said that though that couldn't be used to give a pay scale for a particular job, it gave a general sense of the range for a company of our size and my kind of position, and that if my performance was as good as she said, I should be paid at a top-of-market rate rather than a barely-average rate. I also mentioned the headhunter's call and the salary I'd been quoted, and suggested that I often heard about open positions from my many friends and contacts from the various places I'd worked. I was careful, however, to make clear that I wasn't saying I had an offer, and didn't want to interview elsewhere.
My boss countered with a few arguments about our company's performance and what our pay scales were for people with my title. I came back to my own performance and that I was willing to take on more responsibility. It was all very friendly and upbeat, and it worked. They counter-offered a little bit less than I asked for, but they still more than doubled the amount of my raise.
I think these are some key things to remember:

  • go in with ammunition: stay informed about average salaries in your industry & city
  • be positive and focus on your own strengths
  • keep the discussion relevant to your work, rather than why you need the money
  • time your request so it ties in with a performance review (and hope it's a good one!)
  • position yourself as someone who actively networks and is known in the industry
  • don't lie about getting other job offers
  • you won't get what you want if you don't ask for it, specifically
  • if you follow the rules above, the worst that can happen is that your boss will say no.
Some people might argue that I could have been even more aggressive in how I negotiated, and say that I should have asked for a bigger raise yet again the following year when I just got another cost of living increase. Perhaps-- but I did what felt right for me, trying to make a firm, reasonable request with solid arguments behind it rather than venturing onto shakier ground. We'll see how it goes next time-- I'll be due for another one of these conversations within the next year, I think!


Frank said...

That's great advice. While I'm in no position to do that right now, I'll tuck it in the back of my mind for later on in life. Thanks :)

Anonymous said...

"I also mentioned the headhunter's call and the salary I'd been quoted, and suggested that I often heard about open positions from my many friends and contacts from the various places I'd worked."

Bad advice. They know headhunters call. To admit you take them puts them on notice of your intentions. They may appease you with a few dollars, but they have you pegged as a jumper. NEVER admit contact with headhunters with a current employer (unless of course you dont give a rats ass and can leave at will). It serves no purpose other than to tell them you are looking to leave. i know you'll say "well it worked for me". (a) maybe it did, maybe it didnt. they may have you marked. (b) maybe they give you more if you dont mention the headhunter thing (again, why throw money at someone who is a headhunter magnet.
Everything else you mentioned is fine.

Caitlin said...

Can't say I agree with anonymous because it sounds like you worded it just told the truth (we can't all "refuse" a head hunter's call if they call us directly etc) and it was just one very small data point in your arsenal.

I think it was all very good advice

Madame X said...

anon-- you have a point, but it probably depends on the situation. In my case I don't think it was a big deal-- everyone knows headhunters just randomly call people and to pretend you would just hang up on them would make you look like a chump. I don't think they have me pegged as a jumper-- I made very clear that I was not looking to leave, and had turned down the opportunity to interview, but saw the quoted salary as another piece of comparative data about the industry, not an ultimatum that they had to match that salary or I'd leave.

Anonymous said...

worked for you. in my field, if i mentioned my headhunter calls, they'd be pissed and probably tell me to take them--but i'm paid on a scale method for the first 8 years.

. said...

Madame X, I appreciate the two detailed examples you provided. I think this is fantastic advice for anybody who wants to ask for a raise!

Madame X said...

anon, just curious what field you work in and what you mean by being paid on scale method?
I would guess that some fields are more sensitive about employees going to competing companies, eg. high-tech or creative jobs or something where retaining a client base is crucial.
In publishing, people tend to move around a lot and it's a relatively small industry, concentrated largely in one city. No one wants to lose good talent, especially a star editor with lots of good authors who might go with them. But in other respects, everyone benefits from employees having exposure to other companies, so I don't think anyone sweats it too much. People go around and come back around.
So yes, worked for me but might not for others.

Anonymous said...

attorney at large law firm in new york city. large ones start at 125 for first year, then 135, 150, 170, 185/190, 205, 215, 220/225. Currently there is another salary war starting which will push up the aforementioned another 20K. This is without bonus, which starts at 30-35K up to 60-65K guaranteed.

in the legal industry (at least at big law firms, 5-6 years back, all firms began complying with lockstep payment methods (at least the big ones did). thus, it is a "scale" or "lockstep" salary calculation.

Madame X said...

Interesting, I didn't realize the salary levels were so fixed. So your incentive to perform well is just to make partner and/or not get fired! And your incentive to want to move to another firm would be the supposed better "lifestyle" offered by some, but not money.

Anonymous said...

"lifestyle" and/or "prestige" (i.e. bigger firm, better rep), but money usually substanitally similar, if not the same. However, some of the tippy top firms sometimes payout "boom-year" bonuses above the regular salary and bonus.

Anonymous said...

revision-- NYC law firm salaries now stand at:
1st year- $145K
2nd year- $155K
3rd year- $170K
4th year- $190K
5th year- $205K
6th year- $215K
7th year- $225K
8th year- $235K

Anonymous said...

And the NYC law firm pay scale now starts at 160K.

Revanche said...

I'm about to take a heavy dose of your advice today, wish me luck!

Anonymous said...

Powerful story. As a young professional I thoroughly appreciate you sharing this.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me, that you gave an ultimatum to your boss. If nothing else works, than this is OK too. But there are other, "softer" types of salary negotiations.
Your kind of negotiation can be dangerous for an employee. Why take that risk?

allister said...

Great post! I'll get back to this post when I'm about to ask for a raise :-)