A reader writes:
Last month, I had my first performance review at my first job out of college.
Despite overwhelmingly positive feedback (98/100 points) and that fact that the company boasted their “best year to date,” I got a pretty abysmal raise of just 0.5%. But the worst part was the way my manager conveyed it, with an enthusiastic “congratulations!” and saying this is the best raise he’s ever given to someone “at my level.” I responded with “do you think I’m stupid?” I pointed out that this hardly even adjusts my salary for inflation and I said that I deserve to know if my work performance is subpar in any way.
Since then, my relationship with my boss has completely deteriorated. During my review, he called me “disrespectful and ungrateful.” Since then, he’s cancelled all of our 1:1 meetings and is very unresponsive to my questions, emails, etc.
First of all, let me admit that my response could have been much, much better. I own that and I’ve apologized several times to my boss for this incident.
And just to be clear, this is a lousy raise, right? Especially considering that I accepted a below-average starting salary to get my foot in the door at this company? I get the impression that my boss took me for inexperienced and naive, tried to pull one over on me, and is angry that it didn’t work. Is there any other reason I could be getting such a bad raise (besides poor performance that my boss won’t tell me about)? How could I have stood up for myself in a more professional way?
Is there any way to salvage my relationship with my boss? I’ve been satisfied with this job other than this incident.
Ooof. “Do you think I’m stupid?” is such an adversarial response to a raise — to anything at work, really — that it’s hard for me to imagine someone coming back from that.
It’s one thing to be dissatisfied with a raise and advocate for more; that’s fine and reasonable. But what you did was more like tossing a bomb into the relationship. You basically said that you see your manager as an adversary who’s trying to screw you over … and that you think that perspective is a normal enough thing that you were willing to immediately move to the hostile language of adversaries. It’s very hard to work with someone who operates that way, and few managers will choose to.
If I were your boss, this conversation would have left me with grave concerns about your judgment and professionalism. I wouldn’t be canceling your 1:1s or ignoring your questions, but I would have had a very serious “whoa, we seem to be on very different pages about how to operate here” conversation with you, and part of that would have been serious reconsideration whether you were the right person to have on my team.
To answer your question about whether or not it’s a bad raise: It depends on factors I don’t know, like how what you’re earning compares to the market rate for the work in your area, how long you’ve been in the job (if it’s been less than a year, this could be perfectly reasonable), and how the company normally handles raises. It’s definitely lower than average (the average annual raise is around 3%), but without knowing what factors went into it, there’s no way to say whether you should be outraged, disappointed, pleased, or something else. The fact that your manager said that it’s the best raise he’s ever given to someone at your level is interesting data, although it may just mean that the company gives out really stingy raises — who knows.
But for what it’s worth, your employer never owes you a raise. You’re in a business relationship, where you get to (professionally) advocate for what you think is reasonable, and if your employer doesn’t agree to it, you get to decide if it’s a deal-breaker for you or not. (And if you decide that it is, you find another position and then give notice.)
I very much doubt that your boss tried to pull one over on you and is now angry that it didn’t work. I mean, I suppose that’s possible, but it’s far more likely that he’s just totally taken aback by your response and is trying to figure out how and whether to move forward, as any manager — good or bad — would be.
As for what to do from here … You said that you’ve apologized several times to your boss. What exactly did that sound like? Ideally it needs to be something like, “I’m mortified by my reaction when you told me about my raise. I was surprised because I was hoping for something in the range of $X, but my reaction was completely out of line. I realize I’ve damaged our relationship, but I also hope that my performance and professionalism up until now will carry some weight with you too, and that we can work to repair this. Do you think that’s possible?” If the earlier apologies didn’t sound like that and/or didn’t include that ending bit, that’s what you need to do now.
If you can’t stomach the thought of that, then I think that reaction is probably telling you that you and your boss are on such different pages that it may indeed be time to move on.