How NOT to Ask for a Raise

To close out my year-end thoughts on salary and raises, let’s cover some anti-patterns in asking for a raise.  These are frequently occurring ill-advised behaviors that tend to drive managers crazy even if they don’t tell you they do.

  1. Benchmarking yourself against someone else.  This is usually some form of “Bob gets paid x and I’m at least as good as Bob, so I deserve x (or x+)”.  I’ll admit, the logic is solid – the problem is that the information is flawed.  It all comes down to “you’re not Bob” or, more specifically, “You have so little actual information about how you and Bob both fit into the organization that your comparison betrays your naïveté”.  This is one to never, ever do.  At best, you look naive.  At worst, you look like you can’t stand on your own merits.  Focus attention on your value – that’s what you’re selling.
  2. Benchmarking yourself against “the market”.  This one is an all-time favorite of mine.  It’s less awkward than targeting an individual within the organization, like Bob, and so it’s very tempting. What you’re saying (intentionally or not) is that you view the organization as a commodity which can be easily replaced based purely on the dollar figure.  My knee-jerk reaction to this line of reasoning is usually, “Right back at ya, brother” (since I’ve only ever had guys be this ham-handed about it).  So, you’d like to play the game of maximizing economic efficiency without regard to any other factor?  Keep in mind that that was my life/job as a crappy manager at the beginning of my career since most managers make that mistake early, lose someone valuable, and reflect upon it every time they argue for “overpaying” a force-multiplier employee.  I get it, you see ads on Dice, or Monster, or Stack Overflow, and think “Wow, that could be me”.  Perhaps it could be and, if that’s what you want, I’ll help you get there.  I would rather have someone work somewhere else and be happy than feel like they’re trapped on my team.  Keep in mind that someone else’s willingness and ability to pay more money isn’t an obligation for your organization to pay you more.  In other words, the two are independent variables as far as your request for a raise is concerned.  Yes, your manager should be aware of what “the market” is offering and should factor that into your pay or risk losing you – but suggesting that you deserve a raise because you feel you could make more somewhere else once again reveals a lack of understanding of what you have to offer.
  3. Suggesting you deserve a raise because of what you’ve done this year. This is where we start to get into a tricky area and one that trips up a lot of employees.  Let’s say you busted your ass all year long and, at the end, you feel unappreciated with a smaller than expected raise.  What happened?  Well, it could be any number of things.  Maybe you busted your ass in Q4 and that erased your memory of coasting through Qs 1, 2, and 3.  Maybe you busted your ass on the wrong things.  Maybe you felt like you busted your ass, but really you were just keeping up.  There are so many possibilities, most of which boil down to “you didn’t work with your manager to ensure that your actions were aligned with the organization”.  Lastly, a raise should be for future work – a bonus should be for past work.  Just like a Franklin Mint plate, past performance is no guarantee of future returns (although some plates have gone up in value).  This is especially true if you were at all vocal about your extra work.  Now, the pseudo-exception to this is if you took on extra work which shows that you can provide additional value on an on-going basis.  For example, if you took over part of someone else’s work because their workload has increased and you’re able to continue to do so rather than triggering another hire, then that’s legitimate value. Even in this case, however, the previous work should only be used as evidence of success going forward – always focus on the future.

These certainly aren’t the only mistakes made during “the ask”, but they are the ones I’ve seen enough to rattle off from the top of my head.  If you’ve seen another mistake or, even better, if you’ve seen something you think might be a mistake then please leave it in the comments as a service to those who face this in the future.

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