your burning questions about salary, answered

If you’re like most people, talking to your employer about your salary is intimidating. You might even avoid it altogether, simply because you’re unsure how to raise it or because you worry about how your manager will react. But with annual performance evaluations coming up for many people, now is a perfect time to get over your fears and talk salary!

Here are six common salary questions, demystified.

1. How can I figure out what I should be earning?

The most obvious way to figure this out might seem to be to consult the many websites that provide salary information. However, many job-seekers report that these sites don’t account for the fact that job titles frequently represent wildly different scopes of responsibility. More reliable methods include:

  • Asking other people in your field for their opinion. Most people don’t want to be directly asked what their salary is, but you can bounce figures off them and see how they respond. Do they think the number you mention is about right, or does it seem too high or too low to them?
  • Asking professional organizations in your industry. They often do periodic salary surveys they can share with you, and even if they don’t, they can often give you general information about what range to expect.
  • Looking at similar positions on online job boards to see if salary ranges are listed.

Remember that you’re looking for patterns and trends to inform your thinking; you’re not after one specific figure. That’s especially true because salaries are only one piece of a compensation package; many companies factor in other elements as well, such as benefits, bonuses, and quality of life issues.

2. What if my coworker is earning more than me?

It’s frustrating to see someone earning more money than you for the same work. But  people’s salaries vary for all sorts of reasons: one person was a better negotiator than the other when first being hired, or the job market was tighter when she was hired, or she has a particular degree or skill set that the company rewards, or the budget for her department is different than yours, or her boss is a nightmare and the company pays people working for him a premium.

What you want to focus on is getting the pay that you deserve for the work you’re doing now, totally independent of what your coworker makes.

3. When is the best time to ask for a raise?

If you’re thinking about asking for a higher salary, make sure you’re able to point to a sustained track record of accomplishment. After all, a raise is recognition of a job well done, an acknowledgement that you’re now contributing at a significantly higher level than when your salary was last set. A raise says, “Your work is now worth more to us.” So you need to make sure that’s true before you make your pitch.

And of course, make sure you’ve been on the job long enough to request a salary review. In most cases, you want to have a solid year of work behind you. Ideally, you also want the company to be in decent financial straits; when employers are going through a rough financial time, they’re looking for places to cut costs, not add them, so you want to be sensitive to that.

4. How do I make the request?

Think about what you can point to that shows you’re bringing increased value to your employer. What achievements did you have in the last year? You can also try pretending that you’re your own manager and ask what about your performance would really impress you, or what your manager should be upset to lose about you if you left.

When you can, it helps to provide details to support your case. For instance, maybe you can show a file of compliments you’ve received from customers. Or maybe you can show that your idea increased revenue by X dollars, or that your productivity rate is twice the average rate.

It also helps to rehearse what you’re going to say ahead of time. For instance, you might open with something like this: “This company has been wonderful about rewarding my performance with increased responsibilities and more challenging work, and I’m really appreciative of that. However, I’ve been performing at a high level for a while now, have consistently exceeded my sales targets, and have played a key role in mentoring new staff as well. I’d like to talk to you about adjusting my salary to reflect these contributions.”

5. Will my manager react badly if I ask for a raise?

It’s perfectly normal to ask for a raise when you’ve earned one. If your request is reasonable and backed up by your value to your employer, a good manager isn’t going to react badly, even if she can’t say yes.

If you’re anxious about this, it’s helpful to understand what your manager is likely going to be thinking. Typically, when a staff member asks for more money, this is what goes through a manager’s head: “Is this reasonable? Am I going to lose this employee if I say no? Where would this put her salary in the larger context of our overall salary structure? And most importantly, how valuable is this employee?” Managers are much more willing to go out of their way to accommodate someone fantastic who they don’t want to lose—and much less likely when the request comes from someone they’re lukewarm about.

6. What I ask for a raise and get turned down?

If your boss turns you down, ask what you would need to accomplish in order to earn a raise in the future. A good manager will be able to show you what a path to a raise would look like. Then it’s up to you to decide if you want to follow that path – and remember to revisit the subject once you do!

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    What if it’s not up your Manager but up to the HR department? I work for a huge financial institution and my Manager has no say in it. So how do you bring it up to HR, or would you go to your Manager first and then HR?

      1. Works in HR*

        Firstly are you sure that HR really decide this. I’ve lost count of the times a manager has told an employee “I’d love to give you a payrise but HR won’t let me”. Secondly even if HR are responsible they probably are only custodians of the process that the business agreed. So perhaps this year there is no budget for salary increases or there are strict rules like only those with top performance ratings get one or the manager has already spent their budget. HR may be informing the manager that they can’t give you an increase or it can only be x not y but that’s not the same as HR deciding what the increases are.

        Of course it’s possible that HR really do sit down and decide how much money to give each individual employee but that’s not just a silly system it’s completely ridiculous. Although occasionally I wish I did have the power to prevent annoying employees get rises – mostly those managers who have blamed me for enforcing the rules that have been set. ;-)

  2. A nony cat*

    I know you hate it when employers negotiate salary based on previous salary, but as an applicant, there isn’t much one can do about it if asked, besides try to make the best of it.

    In those cases, if you have really great benefits (beyond the usual vacation and health insurance) that you are unlikely to receive in a new position, can you factor those into your previous salary, when negotiating? For example, could you say, “my base salary is $25,000, but I also receive a $2,000 yearly bonus, $1,000 in transportation benefits and I get a free lunch each day. I estimate these benefits are worth $4,400 making my total compensation $29,500 plus insurance and vacation time.”

  3. Anonymous*

    It could be worse. At our fortune 500 company there are NO raises outside of the standard percentage that everyone gets each year. The only way to get any kind of raise within the company is to change positions.

  4. Anonymous*

    As someone who works in HR – I can say that in larger companies – it usually goes through HR. When you are dealing with hundreds of employees…all with different job profiles, educations, skills, locations and seniority – it would be nearly impossible for a manager to calculate all of these factors into making a legally sound and fair salary adjustment. If a manager decides to adjust the salary of a direct report – but now the direct reports’ salary is too close to that of a line manager…you start to have major discrepancies not only with the fairness and uniformity of the payscale but there are also FLSA implications that are raised as well (as many salary adjustments are the result of increased responsibility). This is why companies have HR departments – specifically compensation departments that can take all of these factors and produce a fair, yet competitive pay structure.

  5. Editor*

    My current employer decides on raises at the corporate level. After they bought us, for several years we got a percentage between 1 percent and (once!) 4 percent. When the economy got bad they stopped giving raises and haven’t started again. I’ve been with this employer and the predecessor more than 12 years.

    You suggest not asking about raises in job interviews, which I would never have done before. But now, I worry that I will get another job and find out there is no flexibility, just the Annual Edict From Above. (Well, actually I also worry that being within a decade of retirement I won’t get offered another job, but that’s another story.)

    Is there a tactful way in a job interview to find out if there is flexibility with raises or a lockstep approach to compensation?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’d ask about it once you have an offer, but not in the interview. Of course, if it’s a 5-step interview process, it’s reasonable to ask about it at some point later in those interviews, before investing more time.

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