my two cents

How Can I Get My Employer to Pay Me More?

Photo: Stockbyte/Getty Images

I recently asked for a raise at the real-estate company where I work. Since I was hired, I’ve been doing way more than the scope of my job description, and I think I contribute a lot. I generally like my company, my co-workers, and most of what I actually do, but the volume of work is starting to get overwhelming and make me feel unappreciated. More money would change that, I think. 

When I made the case for a raise, my boss seemed to take me seriously, but then the higher-ups said they couldn’t pay me more until the next raise cycle, which isn’t until the end of the year — “company policy,” no exceptions. When I pointed out how much extra time I’d been putting in, they said they were planning to hire an extra person in my department to help carry some of the load. Which is great, but doesn’t change the fact that I’m currently being undercompensated. Now I’m frustrated that I’ve been working so hard for nothing. (And that’s on good days — on bad ones, I question if I’m even worth that much to them at all.) But the thing is, I don’t want to leave — my company is one of the best in the city, and I hope to have a future here. How can I stick it out?

A popular myth persists that if you just ask for an appropriate raise in the appropriate way, and point out all the appropriate reasons you deserve it, your company will just roll over and give it up. It runs especially rampant among women, who are often told they’re paid less simply because they haven’t plucked up the nerve to ask for more. To be fair, this is true in some cases. But more often, it can make employees feel like it’s their fault when they’re underpaid, even when the real culprit is much larger and systemic.

Let me be clear: I’m thrilled you asked for a raise, and it sounds like you were right to. I’m sorry that your company isn’t compensating you properly. Employees like you — ambitious, loyal people who enjoy what they do and who they do it with — are ones they should fight to keep. And that fight usually looks like money.

So, it’s time to get wiley. When I was in a similar situation a few years ago — I hadn’t yet asked for a raise, but I suspected I was being underpaid and quietly stewing about it — I discreetly conferred with my closest co-worker about the best way to approach our boss. (By which I mean, I asked her on Gchat, which may not have been the most professional move.) “Oh, you should definitely be paid more,” she said. “But the best way to do it is to get an offer from someplace else. In my experience, it’s the only way anyone gets a raise around here.”

This tactic isn’t always the best one, depending on your company culture. It’s also a backward, annoying, time-consuming way to squeeze your employer into giving you more money (that you should probably be getting anyway). But in my case, it worked, and I got a raise and a promotion out of it. And since you’ve already taken the more diplomatic route, a blunter strategy may be in order. “It’s just like dating — you become more attractive to your employer when someone else is courting you,” says Manisha Thakor, the vice-president of financial wellbeing at Brighton Jones, a wealth-management firm. “Even if you don’t actually want to leave, and it’s annoying to go out and interview, a competing offer gives you more negotiating power.”

Shopping around will also give you a more nuanced idea of what your raise should look like. Maybe you’ve already looked on websites like Glassdoor to see what someone in a comparable position would be making elsewhere, but there’s nothing quite like sitting across from someone at a conference table and finding out for yourself. “Your employer probably knows the industry data,” says Thakor. “If they’re not willing to pay you what you think your market value is, then it’s worth double-checking the market.” It could be that you’re basing your salary expectations on misleading terms — every company has different payment and organizational structures, so just because someone with your same title is making more at another firm doesn’t mean that you automatically should, too.

Thakor also recommends poking around for ballpark salaries within your company, especially among people who are slightly senior to you. “Diplomatically and patiently, find people you trust who are two or three years ahead of where you are now, and try to figure out what they make,” she says. “Then, pick somebody five years down the same path you want to go — what do you think they make? Trying to get some scuttlebutt about your potential trajectory will help you see how far behind you are. If you’re making 80 percent less than someone a little bit senior to you, then okay, you should be outraged. But if you’re only 10 percent behind them, then that’s valuable context.”

If, armed with a competing offer and/or more information, you go back to your bosses and they still say it’s against policy (“we just don’t have the funds allocated in our budget” or some such excuse), one more possibility could be to ask for a “spot bonus” — a one-time bonus that occurs off-cycle. “If you’ve gone above and beyond your job description, and it’s the right kind of environment and people notice it, then this could be an option,” Thakor says.

But if they really won’t budge until 2021, aim to get something in writing. “It may be that, because of company culture or budgets, you just can’t get an exception,” says Thakor. “In that case, you can say, ‘What are the targets or deliverables that I would need to hit in order for me to earn X at the next normal review cycle?’ That way, you’re telling them exactly what you want, and forcing them to give you a tangible metric to hit in order to get it.”

If that metric is verbal — i.e. not presented to you in an email that you can refer back to — then create a paper trail by writing a follow-up email. (You could say something like, “Thanks so much for meeting with me. To recap, we discussed the deliverables that I would need to hit in order to earn X by the next review cycle. Can you confirm that these are the targets you mentioned?” Then list them, and ask if you’ve missed anything so that you can get an acknowledgment of receipt (“Nope, looks good!” Or, “Yeah, don’t forget X thing we talked about”). Having concrete goals could also help bolster your motivation, which may be flagging (understandably) now that you feel stiffed and unappreciated.

And finally, don’t be discouraged if this whole process does make you want to look for other jobs after all. Sometimes the best way to advance in your career is to quit your dream company for a better position at a lesser-known one. (I’ve done that, and a lot of my colleagues have too.) Your employer may be one of the biggest names in the industry, but if it doesn’t have enough room for your ambition, take that work ethic someplace else.

‘I Like My Job, But I Don’t Get Paid Enough’