asking about salary freeze at an all-employee meeting

I’m really testing you guys today on how many posts you can tolerate from me in a single day, but the answer to this one is short. A reader writes:

The company I work for has about 200 employees and is part of a larger corporation. Merit raises for everyone have been on hold since 2008, per the corporation. A corporate executive will be coming to our town for an all-employee meeting. He has agreed to answer our questions about “merit and benefit thinking” after his prepared remarks. Local management has asked us to be respectful when asking questions. I feel lucky to have a job I like, even without raises, in this economy.

So…what are some ways to respectfully word questions about financial incentives and merit raises to a corporate executive at an all-employee meeting? This large meeting is very different that a one-on-one salary review meeting with your manager.

I’ve been with the company for 10 years. We used to get merit raises and performance bonuses annually. The corporation controls our pay scales and merit raise amounts. We have a hiring freeze that is several years old, and our 401(k) match was discontinued 2 years ago. I am grateful for my job, and I really enjoy the work I do. However, we’re starting to lose good employees — key staff members — because of the financial restrictions. Many of us have picked up the extra responsibilities without getting a title change or pay raise.

Great question. You want to seek the info in a neutral way without coming across as confrontational or challenging. I’d just say this:

“Understanding, of course, that the economy continues to be tough, what can you tell us about plans for merit raises, which have been frozen since 2008?”

Bonus points if you can convince your manager to ask it on your team’s behalf.

{ 23 comments… read them below }

  1. Working

    What about :

    “Understanding the state of the current economy, how does the company plan to counteract a rising trend in lack of employee retention which appears to be a combined effect of the hiring, pay and merit increase freezes of the past three years?”

    If the opportunity comes for a follow up:

    “So, can we expect more of the same policies of expecting more from employees without a corresponding increase in titles and/or benefits?”

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      My caution here would just be to be absolutely sure that there really is a trend in the company re: retention if you decide to mention that piece of it. Otherwise you’ll knock the legs out from under your question is there isn’t really a retention problem, which is something that may or may not be easy to see clearly from where the OP stands. (Sometimes people see someone leaving and think it’s a great loss to the company when in fact that person’s management saw it as a good thing, because of mediocre performance that wouldn’t be obvious to everyone else. I have no idea if that’s the case here, obviously — just saying to be sensitive to it.)

      I might reword the second suggested question here — it could sound a bit aggressive, and it doesn’t sound like the OP wants to be marked as an aggressor on this stuff.

      1. Working

        True. I am just taking it from the “key staff members” part of the post. If they are truly key staff members, that is very troubling to me. That means the cancer of the poor management has gotten pretty deep. My policy has always been that you pay people what they are worth. Of course that may be why my industry is practically non existent now. Too many who wanted to pay employees what they were worth and did not stockpile money for a 4 yr recession.

        1. Lizzie

          Of course, you are also assuming that these employees are being underpaid by market values. It is possible that this firm pre-2008 was one of the highest paying in the industry and now falls in the middle. Having to implement these sorts of measures in fiscal crisis does not necessarily make this management a “cancer.” It likely kept them from having to implement massive layoffs.

  2. Anonymous

    I’m still embarrassed by this. I was in a similar meeting a few years ago. It wasn’t “all employee” because it was a big company and they split us up into groups. Still, it was about 300 people in a room with a member of the leadership team giving us an update on the state of how things were. (And BTW this was in 2005 or 2006, before things went south) Well part of the meeting included a power point that had several numbers about revenue, profits, stock price, etc. All of which were “up” — and then the leader asked the whole room “Which number do you suppose isn’t up?” And me, with my big mouth, said just a bit too loudly “Raises” every head in that room turned in my direction. I think I turned several shades of red. Someone next to me said “Don’t worry everyone is thinking the same thing.” Still, would not recommend that method! Never did get a response either. :)

    1. Long Time Admin

      I complete understand why you did that. It could very well have been me, also. Sometimes I just can’t keep my big mouth shut. I have gray hair now, though, and most young people just think I’m senile and ignore me.

      I really want to know, though, if you got a raise, if you got fired, or if nothing happened.

      1. Anonymous

        Orig Anon here. Nothing happened. I worked there another 2 years with crappy raises. But then again we got raises (even if they were 1-2%) and from what I’ve heard from folks still there, there aren’t many raises to go around these days (and some would be thrilled just to not get laid off), so I guess I shouldn’t complain.

    2. Annon

      Most people don’t have the guts to confront someone who’s powerful. Probably because they know that their colleagues are cowards that will single them out instead of providing support. Sad.

  3. Anonymous

    There was a similar situation at my last job. I was a contractor so I could watch without any emotional attachment (I already knew my contract was ending). A couple of managers decided to take it upon themselves to represent the group and they got, uh, passionate to be polite. They certainly had a right to ask the tough questions but they just wouldn’t let it drop and kept pressing. They made the new CEO look like sort of a jerk in front of the entire division. A month later the layoffs started and guess who got the first two spots? Most people got 2 weeks notice. They were walked out on the spot.

  4. Anonymous

    Maybe I’m too jaded and cynical. All-employee meetings aren’t the time to ask executives tough questions. At least, not if you value your future.

    Seems like this is a question better posed to your supervisor, who can ask on up the chain in a non-threatening, take-your-time-to-answer way.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      You know, I agree with this, given that the OP seems relatively happy at her job and not on the verge of starting to look elsewhere.

      I think the risk of being labeled a troublemaker is very small as long as the question is posed in a reasonable and friendly manner, but if the OP is as content as she sounds, she may not want to take even that small risk.

    2. Kathy

      Ha, it’s funny you should say that. I’m jaded and cynical in the other direction and think that asking the supervisor to run it up the chain will never happen. Because if it’s that big of a deal for many employees…why hasn’t the supervisor done it already? If OP is willing to take the risk, asking in a non-aggressive way by putting a leader on the spot might be the only way TO get an answer. If OP gets a bumbling, half-assed response….then there’s your answer.

  5. jp

    How about something like:
    “What kind of company performance or other economic indicators would need to occur in order for the company to re-establish annual merit increases and bonuses?”

    It indicates that a) it’s on your mind b) you recognize that there were reasons that they were suspended and c) you expect them to return at some point and you hope they have a plan.

    1. Wilton Businessman

      followed by everybody looking at you and whispering, “I got a bonus last year, didn’t you?”

    2. anon-2

      The reality of today, jp, is that a company’s success has very little to do with merit increases, and bonuses for non-managerial people.

      If they’re not successful, they have a reason.
      If the company IS successful, they still won’t necessarily cough up the bucks unless they actually have to do so.

      There’s a recession on. Corporations are continually reviewing ways to increase profits by cutting costs. Can you jump ship for a raise? If not, that’s going to impact how well your company pays YOU.

      If you can go elsewhere, and several of your co-workers can (retention problem) then the money may flow.

  6. CindyB

    AAM – tolerate? I clap my hands (on the inside, anyway) when I see you’ve added a new post. You’re my favourite blogger!

    To the Op, unless it’s common for people at your company to be disrespectful, I think “be respectful when asking questions” is code for “please don’t ask anything that could be construed as controversial or could possibly make us look bad.”

    The fact that the executive has agreed to answer questions on merit and benefit thinking would suggest he knows it’s a topic that is on people’s minds. A leader who values transparency – and would rather have questions asked out in the open, where they can be addressed, rather than discussed around the water cooler – is likely to also speak openly with employees about the challenges and what that means for the business and employees and why.

    Hopefully he’ll cover off all the information you need and you won’t even need to ask. But if he’s not that sort of leader (and the ‘ask respectfully’ message makes me wonder), then he probably won’t appreciate any questions that could be seen as challenging.

    So I’m with those who suggest it’s not worth the risk.

  7. Slaten

    Perhaps ask them why employees should stick with their company since..

    1. no raises
    2. no 401k
    3. more work
    4. other employees are leaving so there are obviously jobs out there…

    Better yet, ask yourself that same question.

    1. Wilton Businessman

      Um, yeah, I wouldn’t recommend that. Ask yourself, fine, but put him on the spot and you will be remembered down the line.

  8. Mike C.

    Either the CEO is going to address it in the prepared remarks or s/he is the type of person that is just going to let it slide or fire troublemakers for daring to question. I hate to be so dire but no CEO can be so out of touch as to not thing that employee compensation is something that employees think about on a daily basis.

    Sorry :(

  9. Wilton Businessman

    “Bonus points if you can convince your manager to ask it on your team’s behalf.”

    If your manager is halfway decent, you would bring it up to her and she would ask the question.

  10. Hannah

    I think “what can you tell us?” is a perfect way to word it, because it gives the speaker an out. Hopefully you will get a real, satisfying answer out of him, but it gives him the ability to give a quick BS answer like “we’re working on it but there’s nothing concrete to report right now.” There are other ways to word the question that would probably back him into a corner and force a more candid reply, but I doubt the OP would earn any points for it.

  11. Kyle

    In my Org, management really want the questions and get frustrated if they don’t get them. If you word it well, like AAM suggested, you can also be seen as someone who’s willing to step up and say what others are thinking. I wouldn’t hesitate to ask the question you discribed.

    Hopefully when your local leaders say to be respectful, they don’t mean just ask soft-ball questions… I’d tell your manager you want to ask the question and see how she/he reacts. That should tell you wahat you need to know.

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