how can we respond to an employee who won’t stop asking for a raise?

A reader writes:

I have an employee who has been with us since 2008 in our small municipality (read: no money) who is constantly dissatisfied with his salary. He has gone to his manager (who is now on maternity leave), his acting manager, and the manager of HR (behind his manager’s back) several times about a raise. I’m the HR assistant and now current acting HR manager.

We’re at the point now where his manager has gone above and beyond, and worked with our employee to explain some options for him – setting goals, learning new skills related to an Engineering Coordinator role (which we do not have staffed right now because of budget cuts), and upon the successful completion of these goals, a step increase within his range.

The employee however, is constantly compiling job ads from other private and public organizations, and requesting/demanding that his job be in a higher pay grid.

Trying to explain “total compensation” hasn’t worked – he just sees that other organizations are paying more than we are, and since we’re a small municipality, there isn’t any room to all of a sudden get a new pay range passed through our Council just because he thinks he’s underpaid.

The last straw was an email on Friday, where he emailed me asking for his job description, and that of the (vacant) Engineering Coordinator, and that “his job description needed to be revised to include some of the Engineering duties” – without any discussion or consent from his manager, and his role/experience does not have any of the requirements to be an Engineering Coordinator.

What do we do? I’m by myself in HR, all of his managers have had it with him, and I’ve said to him off the cuff that since he knows for sure that there will be no new salary range for his position, then he is more than welcome to go to another job which will pay him what he thinks he deserves.

His current manager has even offered to look into supporting the employee going back to school to get an Engineering designation, if he wants to become an Engineer, but his attitude is that he’s already doing the job, so why isn’t he getting paid for it?

He doesn’t get it, he wants to stay, but he’s causing stress and strife among his department, and is frankly, a pain in my ass. Do you have any advice on how to handle this?

Someone — ideally his manager — needs to sit down with him and say, “Bob, I’ve made it clear to you what your options are for getting a salary increase. Those are the only options. If you complete them successfully, we will consider a salary increase. We will not consider one otherwise. I need you to hear me on this, because you have continued to raise this despite clear answers, and it’s become a distraction from our work. This is what we are willing to pay you. It is your prerogative to choose not to accept that salary and to look elsewhere, but we will not be having this conversation over and over anymore. If you decide this salary isn’t acceptable, let me know and we’ll talk about your transition out of the role.”

You say that you’ve said this to him off the cuff. Someone needs to say it more formally, with explicit direction that it can’t continue.

I want to be clear, of course, that I’m not saying that employees asking about salary should be routinely shut down. The issue here is not that the guy has pushed for a higher salary — it’s that he’s been given an answer, repeatedly, and is just refusing to accept it. His manager needs to spell it out for him that the answer is not going to change. And you all need to get clear on the fact that just because someone refuses to accept your answer the first five times you give it, you don’t need to keep having the conversation over and over; there’s a point after which you can say, “No more. We’ve already discussed this, and you’ve been given a clear and honest answer.”

As a side note, I’m assuming that in general your salary structure is working for you, and that you’re not having trouble attracting and retaining good people. If that’s not the case, it’s worth looking at your salary structure as a whole, and seeing if it needs to be updated. But even if that’s the case, this guy has still handled this poorly. Speaking of which…

As a second side note, the way he has handled this situation (particularly the part about directing you to change his job description when he hadn’t even talked to his manager about it) makes me think that there’s no way this kind of bad judgment isn’t present in other aspects of his work too. I’d be curious what his manager’s take is on that.

{ 19 comments… read them below }

  1. Cosmic Noodles*

    Great advice Alison, and yes, a conversation stating 'we are no longer having this discussion' is the best route.

  2. Anna Smith*

    "there's no way this kind of bad judgment isn't present in other aspects of his work too." Yup, that's what I'm thinking! No way…

  3. Anonymous*

    My take on this is that the employee is already looking elsewhere, hence the extensive data. Truth is they may be underpaid but staying put and acting like an ass isn't their only option. I'd be okay if they acted like an ass with their next employer. And I might even be okay with sending them in search of a better paying job on my timeline.

  4. Joey*

    I have a different take. I'd like to know if any research has been done recently to determine if the salary range needs updating. I don't think the only indicator of a low salary range is turnover, but whether or not the range is comparable to similar positions at relevant organizations, adjusted for market conditions and inflation, etc. I highly doubt a small municipality keeps up with this on a regular basis. Maybe the guy is underpaid and you can explain that although you can't afford it now, there are plans to consider it in future budgets. Better to find out now than when the guy is gone.

  5. Interviewer*

    If you have an EAP, you should remind him of it. He may be dealing with some pretty difficult financial issues.

  6. Anonymous*

    Sounds like the employee doesn't get that he is working for a government agency. Every government agency has rules for how reclassifications/raises can be done. Find out the rules and point him in that direction.

    If your town is so small you don't have rules about this, contact other towns and figure out how they do it.

    The bad thing about government employment is you can't get rid of employees just for being a PITA. The good thing about government employment is that you can keep competent people that have some rough edges and aren't part of the 'popular' set.

  7. Anonymous*

    Joey, I have noticed you like to be contrary in your comments here but the answer said "I'm assuming that in general your salary structure is working for you, and that you're not having trouble attracting and retaining good people." If they are not having trouble attracting and retaining good people that says their salaries are working for them and the market is giving them what they need.

  8. Joey*

    Anon 4:22,
    is there something wrong with disagreement? It just doesn't sound like anyone bothered to consider whether the guys complaint had any merit. Only whether or not they could afford it. And, when I agree I don't post comments because I don't think it adds anything to the discussion.

  9. Ask a Manager*

    It sounds to me like they did consider it, and told him what he'd need to do to earn a raise. He's arguing that he should be in a different pay grid, and they disagree. They've offered him quite a bit of help, including looking into helping him go back to school. At this point, he needs to accept the answer and decide if he wants to stay under those terms or go somewhere else. This doesn't sound like an employee I'd be bending over backwards to keep, if this is typical of his judgment and way he operates.

  10. Anonymous*

    I agree with AAM. Obviously, we are getting the employer's side, but we have to run with that. It's not that they haven't given him alternatives or tried to help this guy. It appears that he just won't accept that they are unable to, at this point in time, give him a raise.

  11. Byron J.*

    It would seem that the worker feels that he can bully his supervisors and others into getting what he wants in somewhat of a passive aggressive manner. I believe that the formal conversation with him, his manager, and director of HR would be best that way all parties involved know where things stand, and he can not simply go from one person to the next after the conversation with the same complaints. If this still doesn't work, I think it's best for him to actually put in for those other jobs asap…but that may just be me!

  12. Anonymous*

    The letter writer's comment about how "we're a small municipality and can't afford to pay more" is about as compelling of an argument for NOT giving a raise as "I just bought a new car and need to pay for it" is for giving one. IOW, it's not.

    If the market dictates that he get paid more, then so be it. But there are other things that come into play in terms of "total comp" (some non-monetary BTW) like the fact he has pretty darn good job security despite being a royal PITA.

  13. Ask a Manager*

    I actually see that as similar to nonprofits: Sometimes there are limited budgets, and employees/candidates can either accept that their salaries will be impacted by that, or they can choose not to. Even if the market rate for the work IS more, if this is all they can pay or are willing to pay, the employee needs to decide if they're willing to accept that or if they want to go elsewhere. (In the nonprofit context, lots of people accept it because they want to do that specific type of work.) It's always the employee's prerogative to walk away if they don't like the answer they're getting … but they're not going to do themselves any favors by being obnoxious like this guy.

  14. Anonymous*

    Actually, this made me laugh. It sounds like he is reading lots of blogs & articles about how to "win" in salary negotiation. He is technically following all the usual suggestions, but instead of doing it all at once, he's following the advice more serially and hitting them up more than once.

  15. The Engineer*

    Just say "No." If the employee continues to be a distraction to others then begin your corrective action process.

    I too see other issues with this employee. Corrective action is the only way to deal with them all.

  16. Anonymous*

    If I understand this correctly, the employee is asking you to honor his additional workload or responsibilities with a change in his current job descriptiion and an increase in pay.

    However, he must jump through additional educational hoops to do what he is already doing – perhaps, I am missing something.

    It would seem to me that if you want him to stop asking for a raise, then adjust his position accordingly, and find someone else who is willing to do more at their current salary.

    There is always money – you just have to decide how you will allocate it.

  17. Anonymous*

    If you want to keep him, then give him the damn raise already! Ask him how much he wants and work it out from there. Geeezz.

  18. KellyK*

    Anonymous at 5:27 makes a good point–if he's doing the work of the Engineering Coordinator role, he should be getting paid accordingly. If those are tasks he's qualified to do, that would be an indication that the Engineering Coordinator requirements need to be revised. (If they aren't, why is he doing them?)

    This isn't to take anything away from the comments that he's being rude and unreasonable, or that going behind his manager's back to get his job description changed was beyond the pale. Just that if he feels he's doing work above the level of his current job and pay, that's worth looking into.

    I'm not suggesting someone should get a raise just because they're picking up a few tasks from a vacant position, but if a significant part of what he's doing is at that level (and he's doing a decent job at it), it's rather unfair to get that work done at his pay level instead of hiring someone for it or promoting him to it.

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