This week I found out I was getting a 9% pay rise, compared to the usual 2% I’ve automatically received each year. Why did I get more this year? Because I asked. This was the first time I had ever asked for one so I learnt a lot in the process. In this post I will share what I did this time, and what helped me overcome the fear factor that has held me back in previous years.
Getting over the fear
Firstly, a bit of context. I used to work in professional services where there was a clear and transparent pay progression scale as you moved from one role to the next. As long as you focussed on getting promoted, you would automatically earn more, with promotions to be expected every year at first and then every few years.
Since moving to another type of company almost four years ago, I had only received the usual 2% pay rise each year. The first two years, I didn’t ask for a pay risk because I was about to (and then had returned from) maternity leave. I felt bad about going on mat leave so quickly, so I didn’t dare ask. The third year, there were significant changes happening and I had been moved to a new role, which on paper looked like a demotion, so I felt lucky to still have a job, and again, I didn’t dare to ask. Finally approaching the fourth year, I had started to feel more confident and settled in my new role, so decided to take the plunge.
I’m not saying it was right of me to feel ashamed and to let that stop me asking. Because I didn’t have the mindset that asking for a pay rise regularly was normal, it was easy for me to find reasons not to do it.
At this point I was (am) a few years into my financial independence journey and have put a lot of energy into exploring and developing other income streams. This isn’t always easy or profitable, which has motivated me to optimise my main stream of income and make better use of the time I am already spending working. In reality, the “work” it takes to ask for a pay rise is much less than setting up a new income stream. Thinking about it in that way made me feel like I owed it to myself to get over the discomfort, and figure out how I could do it.
As Tim Ferriss wrote (and thousands of people highlighted) in his book The 4-hour Work Week:
“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.”
I realised that there were many people who routinely ask for a pay rise every year, and that it was a normal part of a line manager’s role to deal with it. I saw it as a win-win too, because my other option for earning more is to find a new role, which would cause the company a lot of expense recruiting a new person, who may well want to come in at a salary anyway.
Preparing to ask for a pay rise for the first time
The following steps helped me feel prepared to ask for a pay rise – and I hope they help you too:
- Getting the timing right – At most companies changes to pay are discussed at the same time as performance appraisals. So, if you are raising the subject for the first time with your line manager then make sure you do it at least a few months before your appraisal and bonus is usually announced so that they have time to have the discussion with HR. If your company has an end-of-year performance discussion that precedes the appraisal feedback, then this can be a good time.
- Researching the market – One of the reasons that I felt justified to ask was that I suspected I was being underpaid. To check if this was true I did research on Glassdoor and also signed up to a free trial subscription to LinkedIn Premium so that I could research salaries for similar roles at other companies of similar types (industry, size). I also had some insights from recruiters on ranges for other roles. This helped to give me a range in mind for when I requested the raise.
- Quantifying the value you bring – I’m not in a sales role, so I can’t link my reimbursement to winning new business. I can however think about how much my company is investing in the projects I’m responsible for delivering. Or, if I were responsible for making savings, I would have quantified these. I found that thinking about my contribution in that way helped to put the amount that I was asking for into perspective. I then had two good reasons to support the request: I was being paid less than they would need to pay someone new with my skills and experience in this role, and they were trusting me to deliver projects that they were already spending a significant amount on.
Building confidence and “your brand”
- Protecting your capacity to make an impact – One of the reasons that I felt ready to ask for the raise this time was that I had some successes under my belt, was meeting my objectives and had taken on more responsibility over the previous year. I had done this at the same time as moving down from working five to working four days a week.
Achieving this alongside a cut in hours had forced me to change the way that I worked. There were some responsibilities that I had to pass on completely. These were the ones where I didn’t see much room for growth and didn’t feel I was adding much value. I also gave up doing a few “extra-curricular” projects at work that were not really appreciated by the wider company or seen as being impactful. In one case I had been doing something as a favour temporarily for somebody who then left permanently. By pulling out of it, it meant that the activity no longer happened, which turned out not to be a big deal.
I always ask myself whether something is important, or urgent. I then ask myself if it’s important for me, or somebody else, and try to balance my time across these three areas (important to me, important to someone else, urgent). Plotting out activities on the graph below has also been helpful for filtering out priorities.
- Embracing good enough – One of the things that I’ve realised as a parent is that you can only ever be good enough. This idea may not fit neatly into traditional corporate wisdom, particularly if you have perfectionist tendencies. However, the workplace is just made up of human beings who make mistakes. If you focus too much on the few things you haven’t done perfectly, and don’t appreciate and share everything you are doing well, you will struggle to advocate for yourself in the areas that matter (opportunities, compensation and development). Of course, this comes with the caveat that you need to believe that you are, most of the time, doing your best, even if it’s not perfect. If you are consistently ending the day knowing you could have done a lot better, that’s going to erode your self-belief.
- Building “your brand” – I cringe as I type this, but this is just a reminder that in most cases your line manager won’t be the only one signing off on a pay rise or influencing the decision. It’s important to manage your relationships with the other people who would be involved. This might be your boss’s boss or other members of leadership. Do they know what you are doing and is it supporting their function or the company’s strategic objectives? Who else can you have career conversations with, or build relationships with?
Having the discussion
- Making the plan, doing the plan – In an ideal world, each time you set objectives you should have a shared understanding with your line manager of what new responsibilities qualify as a progression, and what that means from a compensation perspective. However, you might have objectives but no idea whether what will happen when you achieve them in terms of your salary, just that it will affect your one-off bonus.
If this is the case, you can still have the conversation – particularly if you feel you are underpaid compared to the market, but it might take more discussions for your line manager with HR to calibrate your new salary.
- Highlighting how it benefits others – If you can link the proposed pay rise to taking on increased responsibility and then make it clear how this benefits your line manager, or other members of the team, then you are on to a winner. What are you doing, or what can you do, that would be usually part of your line manager’s role?
- Watch out for tone – You’ll know your manager best and what approach resonates with them, but I’d recommend focussing on the positive rather than verging into threats or ultimatums, such as overtly suggesting you’ll leave if you don’t get a pay rise. I found it helpful to talk in terms of opportunities, for example: “I’ve appreciated the opportunity to work on such high-value and strategic projects for the company. I feel that I’ve applied learnings from previous projects and developed significantly in this role. I believe that based on the impact I’m having on the organisation my current salary is lower than the normal range in the market for someone with my skills and experience. I really enjoy working here and would love the opportunity to have a greater impact. I’d appreciate it if you could review my salary to ensure that it reflects how I am developing and the value I’m bringing.”
Getting your feedback
If, like me, you have broached this topic for the first time, then use the meeting where you hear your feedback (and are told whether you are getting a pay rise) as the beginning of another conversation about your next jump.
If you don’t get a pay rise, or don’t get as much as you expected, then this is an opportunity to understand why. What do you need to do that you are not already doing? Inevitably, you might conclude that it’s not you, it’s them, and it might be time to start or ramp up your search for other opportunities.
Even if you are happy with the offer, it’s important to start looking ahead. When you set your objectives going forward, you can focus more on choosing goals that will genuinely move you forward in terms of skills and responsibilities, and position you at the next level.
Take the best and leave the rest
This post is very much based on my situation and my personality. They are the steps that I felt able to take and that made sense in my company. This may well be different for you, but I hope there is something here that you can take action on to help with your next request for a pay rise.
It’s not an easy process and it can be daunting, but in my experience it can only be a positive thing. In the best case, you will feel more appreciated if you are compensated better. Another positive side effect is that if you feel less need to build income streams outside of your main role, you may have more energy for “the day job” and perform even better – a virtuous cycle.
At the least, you will show your employee that you value your time and believe in yourself. You may gain more clarity on whether this workplace is right for you, and if you are not successful, it may end up being the push you need to move on.