what your manager is thinking when you ask for a raise

You’ve researched the going rate for your work, documented your accomplishments from the last year, and put together a case for a salary increase, and now you’re sitting across from your boss, having just uttered the words, “I’d like a raise.” And you might be getting a little panicky as you wonder what your boss is thinking.

Despite what you might fear, it’s probably not, “The nerve of this guy!” Most commonly, when you ask a manager for a raise, your manager is thinking about the following five questions.

Am I worried about losing this person?  The subtext to a request for a raise is always “I might go somewhere else if you turn me down.” Even you don’t actually mean that, your manager is going to assume that you do. And so the first question your manager will think to herself when you present your raise request is, “How much would I mind losing this person?”

Does this person deserve the salary she’s asking for? You might be a great worker, but if your salary request would put you outside a reasonable range for the value of your work to the company, your manager isn’t likely to say yes. So it’s key to make sure that you know the market rate for your work before you approach your manager.

Do I have the money to say yes to this request? Your manager might want to give you a raise but not have the money in her budget. Or your company might have an organization-side freeze on raises (something that’s been increasingly common in the last few years). Or she might be able to secure a raise for you, but at the expense of raises for other people who also deserve them, or by using up political capital that she was planning to use on something else.

What would this mean for other people’s salaries? Good managers strive to ensure that people are being paid comparably for comparable work. If your salary request would bump you up significantly above what your peers in the company are making, she might not be able to justify it. Many companies have salary bands for exactly this purpose: specific ranges that each position can pay. Going outside the company’s salary band for your position is difficult to do, although not always impossible.

What’s likely to happen if I say no? Much of the time, this is what it comes down to. Does your manager believe that you’ll look for higher-paying work somewhere else – and find it? Is she willing to take on the hassle of finding and training a replacement? Or does she believe you’ll stick around even without a salary increase?

If you’re a great employee and you have a good manager who recognizes the importance of having a strong team, that good manager will want to retain you (as long as the salary you’re asking for is reasonable and warranted). But it’s important to also realize that there are plenty of employees whose performance isn’t so stellar – and in those cases, their employers often wouldn’t mind seeing them leave. If you’re in that category, your manager might rightly respond to you with, “We not able to adjust your salary, and I understand that means you might leave to find more money somewhere else.”

Knowing how your manager views your performance is key in understanding how she might be likely to react to your request, and how hard you should or shouldn’t push for it.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 11 comments… read them below }

  1. Anon-Mouse

    Is it ever appropriate to include a job offer that you declined as part of your market research in these raise discussions? Something like “this is a job offer that I declined two months ago–it’s a reasonable indicator of how the market is valuing my work and experience” or does it sound too threatening? Obviously I like my company culture enough to reject a significant pay bump elsewhere, but that doesn’t mean that I’m okay getting paid so much less than I seem to be valued.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Potentially, yes, but you’d want to be careful about how you do it. If you sound like you’re job-searching, that can raise issues at some companies / with some managers, so you want to know your audience in that regard.

  2. Liz in the City

    For #3, that’s one of the main reasons I left OldJob. We had a “company-wide” salary freeze that’s still going on, 5+ years later. (Except for people they deemed too valuable to lose.) I wasn’t considered one of those “too valuable to lose” until I resigned for NewJob, and then my bosses panicked and started saying things like “were you searching because of money?” Of course not. I can absolutely live on no wage increase for 4 years while my job sucks my soul out of me. /s/

    1. anon-2

      +++A

      The important thing is to try to be one of those people who are “too valuable to lose.”

      And the greatest factor at getting an increase, at a very productive company — is to have another job ready, and to not be afraid to leave if you don’t get what you’re seeking.

      Most of the time – if you are underpaid by industry standards, your management knows that. And they also likely have made a decision as to whether to counter-offer to keep you – and for how much – if you should happen to resign over money,

      1. Vicki

        There is no such thing as being “too valuable to lose” (and seriously, you don’t want to be that person anyway).

        Why is there “no such thing”? Because it’s manager-specific. One of these days you’ll get re-orged to a new manager who doesn’t know you and Poof! you are no longer as valuable as you thought you were.

        Why don’t you want to be that person? Because if you are “too valuable to lose” you are also too valuable to allow to move up or over to another team, too valuable to allow to take a day off let alone a week of vacation. A friend of mine found himself in the position of being “too valuable to lose” as a filesystems programmer. He wanted to do utilities work. Management refused to let him try something new. He quit.

        Be valuable. But not too valuable to lose.

        1. darsenfeld

          I agree that the cliche “nobody is indispensable” holds. Well, personally I don’t agree with that saying fully since which manager would want a good employee to leave (with no guarantee that a replacement will be as good)?

  3. Joey

    I think about things at a more granular level:

    1. Would a smaller increase accomplish the same goals?
    2. Can I find someone out there to do a comparable job for less?
    3. How long has it been since the last raise?
    4. How long has this person been with the company an in her job?
    5. How long has this person stayed at previous jobs and were the reasons for leaving related to salary?
    6. How long will this raise retain her?
    7. Is this person so valuable that I need to offer more than what she’s asking for?
    8. Is this person ready for something with more responsibility? Do I have that need?

  4. darsenfeld

    I think as a general rule, in most organisations and industries, more value means higher reward. Hence why senior managers get paid more than middle managers.

    I agree (largely) with both AAM and Joey’s listing. However, I don’t think it’s possible to know why an employee left previous jobs. Generally there is an exit interview, but HR will obviously only record what is said in such arenas. Many employees, even if they’re leaving a bad job, will state neutral points (,e.g. “I’m leaving since I believe it’s time for a change and not to get stale”) out of fear of not burning bridges or to look petty and infantile.

    Another thing is that the financial situation of a company has to be accounted for, as well as the general reward policy. Some firms simply have a flat monthly or yearly pay and that is it. Whilst there are some legal requirements, the reward structure of companies differs widely. And of course, asking for a raise when the firm is facing a loss, has cash flow problems or is looking to cut costs obviously is not wise.

  5. Ed

    Unless you’re legitimately underpaid, I think money is rarely the real issue. Many people simply don’t like their job and decide that more money is required to balance out the negative aspects of the job. That financial pick-me-up is short-lived and they’re quickly unhappy again. If you can get to the real issue(s), by all means try to fix it but I say let those people walk.

    Personally, I would never ask for a raise unless my resume was up-to-date, I had at least looked around a little and maybe even contacted a few recruiters. Some managers take any signs of unhappiness very personally. Now that my career has taken me to a comfortable financial level, I would never switch jobs or stay in a job for money. Another $5-10K will make me any happier.

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