can I ask for a retroactive raise?

A reader writes:

I am wondering how to go about asking for retro pay and debating whether or not it’s fair of me to ask.  I love my job and have recently returned from maternity leave, but I’ve taken on more responsibilities, including another complete position (to cover another’ s maternity leave!) on top of my original duties.

Some history: while on maternity leave, I came back on a casual basis to help out.  My pay was increased and was temporarily put on an hourly wage.  I was also told the number the raise would equal as a monthly salary (without asking).  However, three days before I started back full time, I was told that the raise itself had been temporary, he was not willing to pay $X amount to me in the near future and it was my fault for not clarifying.  I was to start back at my old pay, but there was a possibility of a raise in a few months after he saw how I handled my new duties.

I am managing to cover everything rather well, and my days are consistently busy, which I enjoy.  However the time has come for us to have our one-on-one meeting about my raise.  I have been told by my co-workers that I should have no problem getting my raise (though not as high as $X).  But now I’m debating asking for retro pay as I have done so much extra on top of my previous list of duties.  I believe I have the right to ask and that it would be fair of him to pay me retroactively, but I don’t want to jeopardize my position.

I want to make a career out of this place but I don’t want to be treated unfairly.  Yes I know, unfair = life but I think that if he didn’t, how would I have job security if he is willing to be so unfair in the first place?

Ask for a raise, by all means, but retro pay?  It doesn’t work that way. You agreed to work for a particular rate of pay, and until you mutually agree to change it, that’s the rate of pay you’ve been working for.

Imagine if you hired someone at $X/hour and after a month of work he told you that he’d decided his work was worth more and he wanted you to go back and retroactively pay him more than what you’d agreed to. Or, alternately, imagine that you yourself had been working for $X for a few months and then your boss told you he’d decided it would be more fair to pay you less than that, and he wanted to retroactively lower your pay. You’d probably think both of these situations are unfair — but what you’re suggesting is no different.

You work for the rate you agreed to, and you can’t try to change it retroactively after the fact.

It does sound like there was some miscommunication somewhere about the increased pay when you were doing some work on maternity leave — but from what you’re written here, it sounds pretty plausible that your boss never agreed to make that increase a permanent change. In fact, there’s nothing here that says that he told you it would extend beyond that period; you clearly assumed that it would, but it sounds like you may have made that assumption on your own. It doesn’t actually sound like your boss did anything unfair here.

You say that you love your job and want to make a career there. If that’s the case, the last thing you should be doing is making unreasonable demands like this. Not only will your boss almost certainly say no, but you’ll come across as someone who doesn’t get how this stuff works, doesn’t honor agreements, and is willing to cry unfairness when there’s nothing unfair there. If I were your boss, I’d want to keep you at a real distance after that.

If you want a long-term happy future there, you need to play by the rules you agreed to.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    The statement from the original question that caught my attention was “I have been told by my coworkers that i should have no trouble getting my raise.” in my opinion It is not a good practice for employees to discuss compensation matters.

    1. Jamie*

      The same statement jumped out at me as well. For your co-workers to have an opinion about this they probably know far too much about your compensation.

  2. Andrea*

    The part that caught my attention was when she said she’d been on maternity leave and was now covering for someone else on maternity leave, but felt like she should have more money for that (as well as for other new responsibilities). As a childfree woman, I’ve covered for women on maternity leave many, many times over my career, and I’ve covered for them when little junior was sick and they had to run right home for soccer games or whatever. And I was rewarded for doing so, and gained more oppoprtunitites than those other women did. Still, she needs to realize that someone covered for her when she was out, and now it’s her time to cover for someone else, and if she doesn’t like it, well, the one who covered for her probably didn’t love it, either. Having kids is a choice, and there are drawbacks. Maybe your manager just wants to see if you are still going to be dedicated to the job now that you’re back before giving you more money–and I can’t blame him for that, because I’ve worked with many women who stopped putting forth the necessary affort, much less extra effort, once they had kids. If you want to make a career there, prove it–with efficient working habits, attention to detail, great ideas and a good attitude; use your talents and skills for the good of the company, and continue your professional education and strengthen your networks. And then, after a year or so of doing that, post-kid, your boss ought to be only too happy to reward that.

  3. Lilly*

    Andrea I think you unfairly making this about children… and life choices. And no, I don’t have any children.
    It looks like OP is asking because she did get an increase in pay when she was out of the office, and was told she can ask in a few months.

    With that being said, retroactively…? No. That would be very tacky. Also, as with the previous poster, I don’t know if I would be discussing money at the office. People get funny about those things.

    1. Mikey*

      I didn’t read it as unfair. OP brings it another’s maternity leave as a reason for the increase pay request, so she put it on the table for discussion. I would recommend to the OP that when she has her review, she not bring it cover for another’s leave at all. It might seem to prove her argument, but another person covered for her. I would focus on my accomplishments and leave it at that.

      1. Lilly*

        Let me rephrase.. the way that was writen made it sound like it was more a question of lifestyle. OP wants a raise because she was coming in on materinty leave and she got an increase in pay (hourly). I doubt it if it would have crossed her mind otherwise.
        I don’t think this was a simple switch off while on maternity leave situation, as OP was coming into work hence the raise.
        Sounded a bit “let’s question lilfe choices” to me. A war women have been fighting with each other for decades. But I would not expect a man to get it :)

  4. Anonymous*

    It’s not right to ask for retroactive pay for two reasons:
    1. By coming back to work, you agreed to work and to review your salary later, even if you didn’t like it. To me, agreement implies that you accepted the old rate of pay for the time being.
    2. In general, when people ask for a raise, it’s because they have already been successully performing the new duties. Essentially, asking for a raise is saying, “please reassess my value because it has increased.” You have to prove yourself before you get the dough. The salary/promotion always lags behind the work you’ve been performing.

  5. Susan E*

    Just to play the devil’s advocate. As I read this, OP’s employer raised her pay when she was working part-time to help them out, leading to her expectation that the increase in pay would continue when she returned to work. If she wasn’t clearly told this was a temporary arrangement due to x, y, or z, this sounds like poor communication on the manager’s part. And why not ask for the increase retroactively in the salary negotiations, understanding that the manager might not agree due to budget/resources/equity and all the other issues that come into play, making it hard for someone not in that position to assess what’s *fair*. My experience is it’s always good to go into negotiation with something you can *give* up as long as you can present it professionally, calmly and with a straight face.

  6. Dan Ruiz*

    Thanks Susan E., I was thinking the same thing. It sounds to me like OP got a raise, then later it was taken away with the explanation that she must have misunderstood. That’s crazy. A raise is naturally expected to be permanent unless it is explicitly presented as temporary.

    In this case, she was not told it was temporary until it was taken away. That is not miscommunication on the part of the OP; it’s more like the manager changing their mind and trying to back out of a deal.

    OP should consider finding a new place to “make a career” unless this manager makes things right.


    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I don’t think that’s right. It sounds like it happened this way: The OP was on maternity leave but did some work while she was away. They negotiated an hourly rate specifically for that work, which she described as temporary. That rate was specific to that special work; it doesn’t sound like there was any mention of it being her new salary — it was an hourly rate just for this (and it sounds like she’s normally salaried). Having a higher hourly rate is typical for salaried employees who are for some reason getting paid hourly for something.

  7. anon-2*

    The only times I have ever seen retroactive pay raises (outside of a union “deal”)

    – when there’s been some type of legal settlement over pay discrepancy and

    – as part of a counter-offer; a situation where an employee finds that his pay is lower than it should be (or that he was shafted out of an increase) — he goes to move on, and the management wants to keep him, and seeks peace. As a gesture of good faith, it’s RARELY done, but it is done from time to time.

    1. anon-2*

      I might add, to save face, it’s often called a “stay bonus”, given on top of a raise, but it is what it is = a retroactive increase.

  8. OP*

    OP here

    Actually my boss made the raise sound permanent as I work on a salary, yet while on casual I was going to make $Y per hour instead, working out to $X per month.

    Just thought I’d throw that in.

    And yes, I agree asking for retro pay is completely unfair since I agreed to work at the old pay. However, I far exceeded the previous workers abilities to do her job. I had improved and streamlined the work with more coverage, making it much more efficient to do so. So I wanted a professional opinion and I thank you for it.

    I’d also like to note that while I was on Mat Leave, they went through 3 people to try to cover my position…none of them lasted.

    And to end on a happy note, I got a larger raise than expected anyways without having to push. :)

    Thanks Alison! I love your site and wish I’d found it years ago!

  9. Another Perspective*

    Good for you. By the way, all of these folks posting here are being overly simplistic. Unothrodox doesn’t mean wrong. And while asking for a retroactive pay hike is unusual, so are superstars. It’s all about leverage and delivery. If you’ve got the leverage to ask for it, e.g. as above, where your employer can’t find anyone to easily replace you, then I’d say go for it. I’ve done it since my very first review (Though I asked for it in the form of a catch-up bonus). And respectfully pushed for more at every review since. It’s worked out great for me. Rather than a backlash, it showed that I was career minded and put me on an executive fast track. I don’t recommend this approach for underachievers or even good employees, but for superstars like yourself, there is no harm in asking.

    1. Jamie*

      I agree that this can work in the case you present – it seems you are a top performer in a non-fungible position.

      I also agree with the wise caveat you added that it’s not an approach for underachievers or even good employees. Anyone wanting to play these cards needs to make sure their self-assessment of their value and level of performance is accurate.

      Ironic as it is, there have been studies that show the less competent one is at their job the higher their self-assessment ratings. Top performers tend to rate themselves lower because they are measuring themselves against their own higher standards – there is always room for improvement and advances to be made.

      I know there is a down side to 360 reviews, but the upside is getting a pulse on how you’re really perceived as opposed to how you perceive yourself.

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