After 15 months of developing my skills — and value — at a 12-employee startup company, I was ready to ask for a raise. Unfortunately, we had no human resources department, recurring performance reviews, or routine pay bumps and bonuses.
Our founders were extremely generous, but if you wanted something, you had to ask for it.
I spent a whole week planning what I’d present in a single conversation. It got me the $10,000 pay bump I was seeking, plus I learned how to get a raise on my own — especially when no one in HR is paving the way.
1. Who and when to ask for a raise
I was an associate editor who no longer felt I was doing associate-level work. I wanted compensation that fit my growing skills and experience level.
But I also understood the importance of timing. The company was growing, and I had a hunch there was some breathing room in our budget.
So I wrote up a four-page document explaining why I deserved a raise. I addressed that letter to my company’s founders, but shared it only with the one I reported to regularly. Allowing him to include others in the conversation was the respectful way to go. It also empowered him.
Nevertheless, I was asking for a 20 percent pay increase at a time when salary budgets nationwide were increasing by just 3 percent. I had to make a strong case, and I needed to do it in person. I fleshed out my more formal letter and attached it to a calendar invite where I’d present it in person.
2. How to ask for a raise
The first thing many people worry about when asking for a raise is that they’ll come off as self-interested, even petty. That money matters most of all.
I clarified that this wasn’t the case in my letter, offering genuine appreciation for all the benefits I received for being an employee. There were financial rewards (401(k) matching) and other perks (working with smart colleagues). I also expressed my desire to stay with the company long-term.
“I do fear, however, that I’m working off of an outdated job description and salary,” I wrote. Then I got to the meat of my argument.
- Job description: I listed nine initial responsibilities I had when I was hired, and compared them with the eight I had added. In my case, I had moved from writing to editing and publishing. I had also gone from working only with in-office colleagues to developing a freelance contributor program. Tracking the evolution of your own job description is imperative to demonstrating personal growth and its effects on your company.
- Achievements: I rattled off nine personal and team successes, some of which were beyond the scope of my role. I gave credit where it was due, like giving a shout out to a colleague who taught me the ins and outs of content marketing. I also mentioned what I’d learned from failures (a project that wasn’t executed, for example). The more big wins you can share with your boss, the more leverage you gain.
- Opportunities for growth: Because I was essentially asking for a promotion, I also outlined six growth areas and specific endeavors I wanted to take on. For me, that was becoming a savvier social media marketer and building a better team-wide editorial calendar. Talking about what you haven’t accomplished yet is worthwhile. It shows what kind of return on investment your company can expect.
3. What to ask for
When it comes to negotiating a new salary, many career experts say that being the first person to say a specific number puts the employee at a disadvantage. But I knew my superiors appreciated organized data, so I included some math.
I charted my salary at every job I’d held since 2011. That showed that my proposed increase was in line with my earning history.
I also consulted online resources such as PayScale and Salary.com to compare my earnings to the average salary of my peers. Each crowed-sourced website offered a different takeaway, so don’t rely on a single source in your comparison research.
There are other valuable metrics to increase the validity of your case. If you have the kind of gig where it’s easy to connect your output to the company’s profit, don’t be shy. There’s nothing like putting a specific dollar value on your contributions.
While you’re at it, balance the quantitative data with qualitative. I encouraged my boss to ask my colleagues about my work. You can even go a step further by already providing testimonial quotes in your written request.
4. Be prepared for every outcome
It’s one thing to ask for and defend a specific salary request; it’s another to be happy with the outcome. That’s why it’s important to plan for fallout.
In my case, I knew I was staying with the company no matter how the conversation played out. I liked working there and was still learning every day. I certainly didn’t have enough reasons to quit my job.
Being honest and open about your situation is important. I wrote in plain, 12-point font (and said in person) that I wanted to continue maturing with my colleagues.
Other situations can be more complicated. Would you feel comfortable working in an environment where a raise proposal was rejected? If you had another job offer on the table, would you turn it down if your current company met your demands?
Have answers prepared before these questions are posed. In my experience, having everything spelled out in written form made the actual conversation an easy one. I’d already done my homework, so leading a discussion about it came naturally.
How to get a raise on your terms
My boss told me later the same day that I had been granted my requested raise. He asked me to take the same approach to growing my role as I had in the months prior. I expressed my gratitude and accepted the challenge — it was exactly what I wanted.
And that’s the key learning from seeking a change in pay or role in the workplace: Make sure it’s what you desire. If it is, put the same effort into your raise request as you do in your actual job.
If you want to learn new skills to make yourself more marketable for a promotion, see how you can get help paying for certificate programs.
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