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‘Should I Use a Job Offer to Get a Raise at My Current Job?’

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Dear Boss,

I’ve worked in development at a significant cultural institution for over a decade. I’m frequently told I’m an essential member of the team and that things would fall apart without me. Two years in a row now I’ve been told to expect a promotion, and then asked to wait until the following year for both a promotion and a raise. This past fiscal year, I was told to pass on the promotion for budgeting reasons; they said I should push it off a year in order to get a raise commensurate with what I deserve. Recently, I was told the same thing is true for this coming fiscal year — that I should wait until next year for my promotion and raise.

I assist in creating our budget, and I know that we’re having a rough couple of years and significant difficulties trying to hit the goals given to us. We’ll likely come in under our goals by about 10 percent this year, and everyone has had to tighten up our spending across the board. They’re even talking about not giving anyone raises this year.

But I feel like I’m being taken advantage of right now. I worry the organization thinks that because I’ve been in this department longer than almost anyone else, they can count on me to continue working here indefinitely. I believe that if I had a job offer somewhere else, they’d find the money in our multimillion-dollar budget to keep me. I feel like the fact that I haven’t gone out and found another job offer is allowing them to take advantage of me.

A job just opened up across town in a significant cultural institution whose mission I agree with. It’s within walking distance of my house, but it’s also an organization where I know things can be even more dysfunctional than at the organization where I work. I think I could get that job, but what I really want is for my interest in that job to give my current organization the incentive to fight for me and not take advantage of me anymore. I don’t know if this is even a valid hope.

Don’t do it.

It might work in the short-term, but it’s unlikely to keep you happy in the long-term.

There are so many reasons to not use an outside job offer to pressure your employer into giving you more money or a promotion.

First and foremost, it’s a problem that this is what it would take to get your employer to pay you what you’re worth and appropriately recognize your contributions and value. I hear you, that the organization is in tighter financial straits right now, but if you believe they’d find the money to keep you if you were about to leave, they should want to try to retain you before it gets to that point.

To be clear, if this were just about one financially precarious year, I’d give them a pass on that. But you’ve been told to turn down a promotion two years in a row now because they “can’t pay you what you deserve”? I’m not buying it. There are all kinds of creative ways to reward people even when money is tight — extra vacation days, anyone? — and your company isn’t even trying. They’re just leaving you where you are, two years after telling you that you deserved a promotion, and expecting you to be okay with that.

It’s not a good sign if the only way to get paid what you’re worth is to threaten to leave.

Moreover, lots of people who accept counteroffers find that their relationship with their employer changes afterward. You’re now the person who was actively looking to leave. While that shouldn’t matter, it often does change the way you’re viewed — and if, for example, your employer needs to do layoffs at some point in the future, it might be a lot easier for them to put you on that list.

It can also affect how they see your future compensation. If it takes a counteroffer to get a raise now, what’s going to happen later on when you want a raise again? It’s not unlikely that you’ll be told, “We just gave you that big raise a couple of years ago when you were thinking about leaving.”

An organization that makes you threaten them before they’ll pay you what you deserve isn’t likely to make it any easier the next time.

That’s not to say that accepting a counteroffer is a disaster 100 percent of the time. There are people who have accepted counteroffers and are happy in those jobs years later, and there are some fields where counteroffers are the only real way to get a raise. But they’re the exception, rather than the rule. And yes, it’s possible that you could be one of those exceptions. But if you look at this logically and think about what your employer is telling you with their actions, none of it is good.

But this doesn’t mean that your only options are this job or the dysfunctional one across town. You can do a broader job search and see what else is out there. And really, having been with your current organization for a decade, it’s not a bad idea to be looking around and seeing what other options are open to you anyway. Spending a decade in one place can create an enormous amount of inertia around leaving, but if you push past that, you might end up finding something that’s a far better match for you, even if your current employer did give you the raise.

An important caveat to all of the above: I’m assuming that you’ve tried asking for a raise. If you haven’t, everything above is premature. If you haven’t attempted that because you worry it would seem tone-deaf in light of the broader financial situation, you should ask. It does make sense to be sensitive to your organization’s financial realities — but it also makes sense for them to be sensitive to yours. People work for money, and if you’re underpaid — particularly when you’re being told you’re essential and things would fall apart without you — it’s a reasonable conversation to have. You can frame it as, “I know the budget is tight, but I also want to make sure that my compensation reflects the level of my contributions here. I haven’t had a raise in X years, and I’d like to revisit my salary in light of the work I’ve been doing in that time.”

Even if the answer is no, there’s value in opening up a conversation about what is and isn’t realistic to expect and on what timeline, so that you can make better decisions for yourself and make them with more confidence. And truly, a decent employer would want to know you’re unhappy with the current state of affairs so they have a chance to try to address it before you’re out there interviewing.

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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘Should I Use a Job Offer to Get a Raise at My Current Job?’