5 Ways to Ask for that Raise in a Recession

I usually post to business owners, but this one is for you mid-line managers out there and members of the unwashed rank and file who cannot make your own pay–or can you?  Even in a recession people who know the secrets are asking for, and getting, the raises they deserve.  I’ll start you with a little story that is absolutely true.  I wouldn’t lie to you.

I’m walking through the grocery store the other day with my buddy Wayne.  Wayne is looking distraught—gloomy even.  I ask Wayne what the problem is, wearing a concerned look on my face.

“Oh nothing, I guess. (here it comes)  It’s just that I’ve been working at the firm for seventeen years now, pouring my soul into my job, you know?  You’d think my boss would have noticed the hard work and offered me a raise, wouldn’t you?”

I could hear the violin musak ringing in my ears as we entered the frozen fish department.  I reached into the ice and grabbed a half-pound mackerel and cold-cocked Wayne in the back of the head.

“Ouch!” He exclaimed, while staggering into some canned goods.  “What the heck did you do that for?!”

“Well, pal, as long as you’re dreaming, pretend this fish isn’t real.”

He didn’t know what I was talking about.  Clearly Wayne’s mental wheel was spinning, but his hamster had long since perished.

“Look.  You’ve got two chances of your boss offering you the raise you want—slim and none, and slim is buried up to his neck next to a fire ant colony with honey smeared on his face.”  I inwardly chuckled at my own humor.  “You’ve got to ask for what you want and negotiate that raise.”

That brings us to the topic of this article—negotiating a raise.  Let’s start with a few key assumptions:

  1. You provide value to your company.
  2. The company is doing reasonably well financially.
  3. Re-read assumption #1.

Here are five things that you absolutely must know before knocking on the office door and asking for that raise:

  • They won’t offer.
  • Know what you want.
  • They don’t care about what you need.
  • Talk contribution, not experience.
  • Quantify your value.

They won’t offer

Many moons ago when I was just a little tyke, cementing my Lego blocks together with play-dough, my daddy gave me a sage, albeit tainted, piece of wisdom.  “Son, the more you do, the more the boss will give you to do without increasing your pay.  Don’t take on too much or you’ll end up a sorry so and so” he stated as he kicked our dog.

“Goo goo, gahhh!” I replied.  I didn’t understand it at the time, but old dad was trying to tell me, in fact anyone who would listen, that the boss never rewards what you do.  His solution was to do less than he was capable of.  Well that just goes against my Tony Robbins-esque audio training, but the point sunk in.  You have to ask for what you want.  Most of the time, the boss does notice what you do, but she’s under pressure every day to reduce costs and return more to the company bottom line.  If you’re willing to work for X, management will not offer you X+$2,000 (arbitrary number here).  Don’t fall into the trap that Wayne did.  Resolve that you must approach the boss, as difficult as that is to do, and ask for the increase.

Know what you want

Ever got up the nerve to ask for a raise, and as you stood their squirming, the big guy said, “Sure.”  You breathe a sigh of relief.  That wasn’t so bad.  “Starting next week you’ll see an extra nickel an hour in your check, and for you, I’ll make it retroactive to the beginning of the month.”  You’re understandably upset.  How dare that guy offer me only a nickel an hour increase!  But you take it, even saying thanks, because you shot your wad of courage just to make the request.  You leave humbled, defeated, a broken person.  No vacation this year.  Grandma’s going to have to wait for that liver transplant.

The problem was you didn’t know what you wanted and didn’t have an idea what you may have been worth.  The boss’ solution was to offer you a token to make you go away, and it worked.  You need to research what others of your job description are making in other companies.  If you make less, you’ve got some ammo.  If you make more and think you’re still deserving of an increase, maybe what you really need is a promotion.  Whatever your situation is, get a specific figure in mind to negotiate to.  I’m not suggesting that you go into the boss’ office and start blabbing about the figure you have in mind.  Just have that figure handy in case the big guy’s (or gal’s) offer is below what you expect—and be prepared to defend it.

They don’t care about what you need

So sorry, but true.  Assume that the boss doesn’t care about your slipped mortgage payments, or your kid’s need for braces, because she can’t afford to.  She’s got a dozen other employees crying the same song.  When I convinced Wayne to ask for an offer, he fell into this mistake too.  “I guess I should wear my oldest clothes, look really haggard and depressed, like I really need the money, right?” he pitifully proclaimed.  When I reached for the mackerel again he knew my answer.

You have to talk about your value to the company—plain and simple.  Unless you work for the government, you won’t get anywhere with the raise request based on need, and even that’s not a sure thing anymore.  What have you done to save the company money, or time, or heartache?  You’re making a sales pitch here, folks, and the product is you.  “But how?” you may be thinking.  Read on.

Talk contribution, not experience

Look, in today’s dog-eat-dog world of increasing business competition, you’re value is based directly on what you have contributed, and can contribute in the future to your company.  If you’ve worked twenty years for the same company, I applaud your loyalty and longevity, but guess what?  IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW LONG YOU’VE WORKED THERE!  Actually it may, indirectly, only insofar as it has provided the knowledge and skills necessary for you to contribute more.

Contribution can be measured by accomplishments, specific things that happened because of you that improved your company’s profit position.  Multiple-choice test coming up.  If you’re the boss and thinking about giving a raise to an employee, which of the following two statements will sway you more:

  1. “I’ve got twenty-two years working in the bindery department.”
  2. “My improvement projects in the bindery area have saved the company over $250,000 in the last five years alone.  Here is the documentation if you’d like to see it.”

If you said “b”, move to the front of the class.  Remember this—you are your value, your contribution, in the eyes of your employer.  Years on the job don’t mean you deserve anything.

Quantify your value

Notice something else about the multiple-choice test in the last section.  The correct answer had at its heart a specific figure of savings.  This is critical for you to have in your arsenal of business communication on the job.  It has to be reasonably accurate too, so you can back it up if asked to.  If you don’t document the bottom line improvements you cause for your company, shame on you.  Start today.  This is critical not only to asking for a raise, but for promotions, avoiding downsizing, and any other reason relating to your career path.

Maybe you’re thinking that, hey, some tasks are hard to put a value on because the payback is indirect.  Helping on the company strategic plan comes to mind.  Assign a value to your achievement anyway, backed up with some logic and circumstantial evidence, and leave it to your boss to tell you that you’re wrong.  At the very least, relate the value of the activity and say something like, “…and we both know how successful that was for the company.”

What you’ve done is to provide support for your sales pitch and put that support in terms that all management understands—dollars and cents.

If you want a pay increase and you really deserve one based on what you have done for the company, feel free to go ahead and ask.  Remember, they’ll rarely offer without you making the request, but if you demonstrate your value through specific contributions to the bottom line, you’re in a pretty good position to negotiate.  If the hapless Wayne can do it, what’s stopping you?

Go ahead, let the bullets fly people.  If you don’t think this works or think I am full of __it, tell me why.

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