I’m regularly dismayed by how many people — particularly women — tell me they’ve gone their entire careers without ever asking for a raise. They haven’t done it because they feel awkward bringing it up, or aren’t sure how to find an opening to do it, or because they’re afraid they’ll sound greedy or like they’re overestimating their own worth. Instead, they wait for their employers to offer them salary increases at whatever intervals their company choose to do that, if ever — a strategy that generally leaves people earning far less than if they had overcome their fears and spoken up.
So I am here to tell you: Asking for a raise is a totally normal part of having a job! As long as you follow the guidelines below, you will not look selfish, entitled, or presumptuous (assuming you’re working for a reasonably functional employer) … and you might end up earning significantly more money just by having a conversation that could be as short as five minutes long.
Here’s how to do it.
When to ask for a raise
First, know that asking for a raise is normal.
While you might feel nervous about asking for a raise, keep in mind that it’s a much less fraught conversation for your boss. Managers deal with salaries all the time, so the subject isn’t going to feel nearly as momentous to her as it does to you.
Assuming your manager is at least a little bit reasonable or has any previous experience managing people, she will already know that discussing salary is commonplace and when you raise the topic, she’s highly unlikely to think, What a gauche request! or I guess Jane is just in this for the money. Unless your workplace is unusually dysfunctional, your employer realizes that you work for money and that periodically revisiting your compensation is a routine part of doing business.
Even if your manager doesn’t ultimately grant the raise, you’re not risking damaging your relationship by making the request, as long as (a) you’re not asking for an amount that’s wildly out of sync with the market for your work, and (b) you have a track record of delivering results. You aren’t likely to fall out of favor simply because you asked to revisit your compensation.
Think of it this way: A raise is recognition that you’re now contributing at a higher level than when your salary was last set. A raise isn’t a favor or a gift; it’s a way for employers to pay fair market value for your work and to keep you around, because otherwise you’re eventually going to want to find a different job that does pay you competitively. That means it’s in your manager’s best interest to know when you’ve begun to think your work is worth more.
Be thoughtful about timing.
Since your manager is a human with normal human emotions, it makes sense to be thoughtful about when you approach them. You’re less likely to get good results if you try to initiate the discussion when she’s especially harried or having a bad day or nervous about impending budget cuts. Conversely, though, if you’ve just saved the day with an important client or garnered rave reviews for a high-profile project, or if your boss has seemed especially pleased with your work lately, now might be a particularly good time to make the request. So pay attention to what’s happening with your work, your manager’s mood, and the company generally.
If you’ve been doing excellent work for a year since your salary was last set, it might be time to ask.
Some companies will initiate a salary review every year as a rule, often in conjunction with performance evaluations. But a surprising number of employers won’t, in which case you’ll need to figure out when to broach it yourself.
If it’s been a year or more since your salary was last set, and if you’ve been doing excellent work during that time, it’s reasonable to ask to revisit your pay.
But if your salary was already increased sometime in the last 12 months, expecting another raise before a year is up generally isn’t realistic and risks coming across as out of touch. The same is true if you haven’t been in the job for a year yet. There can be some exceptions to this, like if the job turned out to be wildly different than what was discussed when you were hired, or if your boss suddenly asks you to travel 75 percent of the time when you’d signed on for a role with little to no travel. But in most situations, expect to wait a year from the last time your salary was set before asking for it to be considered.
And of course, the “excellent work” part of this matters. If you’ve been making a lot of mistakes or your boss hasn’t seemed pleased with your work, a request for a raise isn’t likely to go over well, and you risk seeming like you’re not capable of assessing your own performance accurately.
Know your company’s raise and budget cycles.
If your employer generally gives raises once a year, pay attention to when that normally happens (or ask your manager or HR if you’re not sure). In some companies, it will be around the anniversary of your start date. Others will assess everyone’s salary at the same time, often tied to your employer’s fiscal year and budget process. Once you know when that happens, plan to initiate the conversation with your boss at least a month or two before that formal process begins. If you wait until decisions have already been made, you might be stuck waiting another year.
Before the meeting: how to prepare
Know what your work is worth.
Ideally, you won’t go into salary discussions without knowing the salary landscape for the type of work you do and the geographic area you do it in (since there can be big variations by region). If you find out that you’re underpaid for the market, that can be a compelling point you use when you ask for more. Or, if it’s revealed that you’re already being paid at the top of the market, you’d want to factor that in as you’re thinking about what kind of raise would be reasonable.
One thing that can be really helpful and give you surprisingly good data is simply talking to people in your field. Not everyone loves being asked, “What do you earn?” but will often be pretty candid if you phrase it as, “What would you expect a job like X at a company like Y to pay?” You can also try talking to recruiters and see if any professional organizations in your field keep salary data (many do).
Factor in your company’s salary structure.
Once you have a good idea of the going rate for your work, factor in your understanding of your own employer’s salary structure, too. Some employers adhere to rigid policies around how large a pay increase anyone can get at one time, or rarely give anyone more than a 5 percent raise. Others have been known to be much more generous. It’s useful to know how your company generally handles raises so that you know what’s possible.
Speaking of your employer’s salary structure: If, in the course of doing this research, you find out that men in your office are earning more than women for the same work, you have a different issue on your hands — one that moves us out of normal “how to ask for a raise” advice and into “how to address a gender pay gap” territory, which you can read about here. That’s also a good reason to be sure you’re getting data from both men and women.
During the meeting
What to say when you ask for a raise.
Often when I coach people on how to ask for a raise, I discover that they assume they’ll need to make a detailed presentation about why they deserve more money. They’re always surprised — and relieved — when I tell them they probably won’t need to do that at all. Most of the time, a request for a raise can be fairly brief. You need a short explanation of why you’ve earned an increase — i.e., how your contributions have grown — but you don’t need to walk in with a PowerPoint and pages of notes. Usually, something like this is sufficient:
“I really appreciate the opportunities you’ve given me to increase my responsibilities, like X and Y. I’ve been getting great results in those areas over the last year and have exceeded the goals we’d created. Could we talk about adjusting my salary to reflect this higher level of contribution?”
“I’m hoping we can talk about my salary. It’s been a year since my last raise, and I’ve taken on a number of new responsibilities since then. I’m managing all our copywriters and was even able to smooth out that long-running issue with the design team, which ended up saving us a ton of time in the last few months. I think things are going really well, and I’d like to talk about increasing my pay to reflect this new work.”
If you have a specific dollar figure in mind, it’s fine to name it (as in, “I’m hoping we can raise my salary to $X”). But it’s also okay not to start with a specific figure, although you should be prepared to be asked what you’re hoping for.
One tip: If you know your boss will need to get your raise approved by someone above her, like her own manager or HR, you can make it easier for her to do that by leaving her with a list of key points in your favor. Keep this short, though — no more than one page, with some quick bullet points that highlight your most significant new responsibilities or accomplishments. If you have compelling data about competitive salaries, you could include that too.
Know what to say if the answer is “no” or “maybe.”
If your boss doesn’t give you a firm yes and instead says she’ll think about it or will get back to you, don’t be disappointed. Lots of managers can’t or won’t say yes on the spot. But if you get a “maybe,” make sure you’re clear on what next steps are. Be prepared to ask something like, “Could I plan to check back with you when we meet on the 20th?” Alternately, if your boss is generally reliable about following up on things, you might just go with a simple, “Thanks! I appreciate it.”
And if the answer is no, this is a perfect opportunity to ask, “Can you tell me what you think it would take for me to earn a raise in the future?” A decent manager should be able to explain what you’d need to do to earn more — which could be anything from “manage your work more autonomously” to “stop alienating all your co-workers” to “you’re at the top of the range for your position, so you’d have to be promoted to earn more money here.”
You can then judge whether you’re able and willing to follow the path your manager lays out (or whether a realistic path exists at all). And if your manager isn’t able to give you specifics about how you can earn a raise in the future, that’s a signal that you might need to leave in order to get more money somewhere else.