Should You Ask Your Boss For a Raise?

Getting a raise feels great – but asking for one, on the other hand, usually doesn’t. Given that salary bumps are fairly infrequent, and increases that start out seeming significant tend to feel merely adequate over time, many people feel underpaid, undervalued, or under financial duress. They want a raise, but they worry that actually asking for one creates more downside than upside.

People hate bringing up compensation so much that they often do anything to plow around the topic, including taking another job rather than facing the prospect of seeking a raise.

But the good news is that most of the time you don’t actually need to initiate that conversation. Here are some guidelines on whether or not to ask for a raise based on the type of worker you are.

1. You’re a solid performer. Most of us create more value than we cost. This is why we have jobs. (Face it, if we’re not producing more than we cost, we should be let go.) For those who are producing a good return, any “ask” for a raise is best be made in the context of a review cycle that includes compensation reviews. Most of the time, most companies carefully check industry “comps” to make salary and bonus adjustments, so it’s best to fit within that cycle and within those guidelines. If you’re doing a good job and your company is following best practices, you shouldn’t ever need to actually ask for a raise.

2. You’re a low-profile contributor. If your work is obscure, indeterminate or simply under-recognized within your firm, you may well find yourself getting offers from outside. (Or you may simply realize your market value has increased in a way that won’t naturally be recognized within your organization.) While this may feel uncomfortable, it shouldn’t. In these instances, you owe it to your company to make known what you’re thinking. Asking for a raise is a lot easier when you’re convinced that it’s kinder to bring it up than it is to inform people you’ve taken a new job. Your company deserves a chance to respond to what you’re thinking.

Understanding that it’s generally not great for the enterprise if you take another job can help you turn an otherwise stressful conversation into an opportunity for joint problem-solving. One gracious way to do this is to let your boss know you’re not out looking for other positions, but you’re at a point where you need to understand your career path, income potential and opportunities for growth. Unless your boss is brain-dead, she’ll understand that this sort of context-setting is a thoughtful way to bring up the subject of compensation in a strategic, long-term, win-win way. And she should respond in kind – that is, if you’re as valuable as you think you are. If not, you should know it and be open to considering your options.

3. You’re an obvious star. This means you’ve already made the most articulate request possible for getting a raise – by deserving one in an incontrovertible way. The value you provide so far outstrips your cost that you can’t be replaced at anything close to the value you’re creating.

Here’s how to know if you’re hitting this mark: You complete every assignment ahead of time and budget. You come up with creative, game-changing ideas to cultivate valuable contacts, along the way delighting customers and teammates alike. You remove burdens from your boss. You take on the thorniest problems and solve them, and you create great team dynamics, spreading harmony wherever you go.

If I’ve just described you, your leaders will likely be looking for ways to reward you, to keep competitors from hiring you and to give you new challenges on your way to sainthood. Odds are, you’ll never have to verbalize a request for a salary adjustment or bonus payment as you secure major leadership assignments; your achievements will simply speak for you. Spectacular performance – including team dynamics and helping others to grow – is the most articulate way to seek a raise.

When I’m working with people who deserve raises – i.e. they’re underpaid for what they’re delivering – I find myself thinking about ways to keep them engaged and fairly compensated. Are they happy? Challenged? Paid enough? Learning? Working with the right people to develop their skills? Getting the right feedback? (Usually, this triggers thoughts beyond considerations of take-home pay.)

Keep in mind that there’s an even worse condition than being underpaid – and that’s being overpaid. If you’re in that boat, you’ll feel vulnerable to being replaced – and you probably should be. Business leaders are duty-bound by obligations to investors and shareholders to optimize all factors of production. And face it, you are a part of the cost structure. Your overcompensation has put a target on your back. Once you can be replaced for a lot less, it’s natural to wonder when the ax will fall. Consider, then, the opposite of asking for a raise. Suggest putting some of your comp on performance milestones or exploring ways to improve your skillset or contributions.

While asking for a raise may be a highest-stress conversation, being on the receiving end isn’t fun either. It’s your boss’s job to make it easy on you; but it’s up to you to take her up on the invitation. Either way, stay in close touch on how compensation is working, what the market is and what are all the other ways to increase the rewards of work. These should always include things like finding meaning, working with people you like and respect, learning new skills and growing personally by taking on responsibilities and earning long-term, equity-based rewards.

Don’t ever fear talking about what you want. You’re doing a service to the organization, and to yourself, to make sure things work for both of you. When they don’t, you’re not likely to do your best work, and your organization is not likely to deliver its best work environment, either.

By Joel Peterson