I asked for a raise but instead they’re doing small cost-of-living increases for everyone

A reader writes:

I work for a small company, about 50 people. We’re all fully remote, and I speak to my boss — the owner —only every few years. My work is all project-based, and there’s no path for advancement (I’m a one-person department), so things just sort of roll on from year to year.

So I finally met my boss again, and — when pressed for what I needed — I said I need more money. I made my case, noted that I am making an embarrassingly small amount more than when I was hired, doing more work than ever, etc.

Got a great response: “We’ll fix it today!” Yay! And the next day the finance person said I’d hear about it by a certain day “at the LATEST.” Then the day came and went, and nothing. Couldn’t get hold of the money person, called the boss.

And I found my raise has turned into a general plan for raises for almost everybody. And it’ll be some arbitrary (likely quite small) percentage. And there’s no timeline. It will have nothing to do with me, or what I deserve, at all.

Yes, I like the idea that everybody might get more money and to have (even unwittingly) advanced that. But I brought up something I’d been thinking about for a long time, for myself, and I was so happy at the response that I broke a personal rule to never believe any boss until the thing is actually on record and happening. I feel like I got suckered, and I am crushed. I cried.

I like the job and most of the people, and the boss and I largely stay out of each other’s way, so I don’t really want to change jobs. Boss was annoyed that I was upset, so there’s not much more I can say to him. But hey, I was actually dumb enough to feel valued for a minute there.

So: Am I just being a big baby, or does this suck as much as I think it does?

Nope, it sucks. You asked for a raise based on your work contributions, and you were told everyone would get a cost-of-living raise at some future date and it still hasn’t happened.

A cost-of-living increase is a good thing! But it’s different — and almost certainly smaller — than what you were asking for, which was to revisit your salary based on the change in your contributions since you were hired years ago. A cost-of-living increase is intended to keep you at your same level of compensation, but adjusted for today’s dollars. You were asking for a merit raise to bring your salary to a higher level entirely, not just to keep up with inflation.

I don’t think you’re upset because everyone is getting a raise; you’re upset because your request to pay you for your current level of work has been ignored.

And the cost-of-living raise that everyone is supposedly getting may or may not even materialize. It hasn’t so far.

I don’t know that you got suckered, exactly (unless there’s more context with your company that makes you think that). Probably when you raised the issue, your boss thought, “Yeah, that’s a good point, we haven’t done raises in a while and we should look at them company-wide” … which misses the point that merit raises and cost-of-living increases are two different things, but that doesn’t mean he was trying to sucker you.

It would be reasonable to go back to your boss and say, “I appreciate the intention to do a cost-of-living raise for everyone, but I was asking about a merit raise to bring my salary up to market rates for the work I’m doing — so more than a cost-of-living increase.” At this point, it might also make sense to name a specific number you think is fair so that he knows what you’re envisioning.

Caveat: You mentioned he was annoyed that you were upset. I don’t know what “upset” looked like when you talked to him, and you might need to adapt based on that. But it’s a reasonable thing to say.

{ 77 comments… read them below }

  1. NeedRain47*

    I read “boss was upset” as LW already expressed that this is not what they meant and boss doesn’t care. LW, please look for a new job.

    1. Blue*

      Yep, this is what it comes down to. I’d bet the farm you will never be paid appropriately at this job. There are many, many jobs where you can enjoy your work, have decent co-workers, and be able to work independently that will also value your work and demonstrate that via fair compensation.

      1. Slow Gin Lizz*

        I have definitely fallen into the trap that I stayed at jobs far too long because I was convinced I would never be able to match what I had at some other job. OP, you don’t have to take a new job if you can’t find one that you might like, but it sure doesn’t hurt to start looking. If your boss does come through for you and gives really good raises to you and everyone else, then by all means, stay, but if you got only a tiny raise or none at all, would you want to be working there a year from now? Five years from now? (This is the internet-famous Sheelzebub principle, after which I now base a lot of decisions.)

        And yeah, I, like some other commenters I already see here, can’t believe you only speak to your boss every few years. That is totally bizarre to me. I worked a remote job for seven years where I lived only a few miles from the boss and saw him maaaaybe twice a year but we spoke on the phone all the time, just about every day. Did he call me more often than I thought necessary? Sure! But if he had just emailed literally everything and we never spoke, I would have found that a lot weirder and more annoying.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I forgot my original point, which was that I stayed in jobs longer than I probably should have but then found other jobs which not only were as good as my previous jobs that I didn’t want to leave but actually were quite a bit better. So that was the trap, that I feared the unknown without looking into the abyss to discover that there actually was a lot there that was good for me.

        2. ursula*

          “I have definitely fallen into the trap that I stayed at jobs far too long because I was convinced I would never be able to match what I had at some other job.” <– same. I think it's really easy to over-value what you like about your current circumstances.

          It has also been helpful for me to learn that if the next job is worse than this one, you can leave that job too! It can be a hassle, and obv you dont want to have a different job every 6 months, but it's also normal and sometimes good for your career progression to make those changes now and then, depending on what you want.

      2. Smithy*

        In addition to this….I’d also add that you can leave this job, successfully start a new job where you’re paid what you want, enjoy your work, co-workers, and level of independence enough.

        And then at some point, either the work, co-workers, independence, or salary dip below a point that is ok. And you’ll be able to reassess the job market and figure out how much to try to fix what’s gone wrong vs finding another job. This isn’t to minimize how a job hunt or starting a new job can be challenging, but rather to remove some of the catastrophic thinking from those realities.

        Lots and lots of jobs don’t do raises well. Therefore, lots and lots of people end up pushed into getting new jobs to get raises at all. Sometimes this is our sector or our employer, but it’s not us as employees who have failed at finding magic sentences during annual reviews.

      3. Momma Bear*

        Agreed. If this is the way pay raises go (no merit) then I would at least dust off the resume and look around. LW may be surprised at what’s currently available. If the position itself is a dead end, all the more reason to look for advancement elsewhere.

        1. tw1968*

          Ditto agree! Worst case, you find out the market rate for your work is near what you’re at now. That would make me feel better about my current situation (altho honestly any COL increase probably won’t keep up with actual inflation). Best case, you get a better offer and the joy of telling your boss when you leave (when he tries to keep you with a raise when it’s too late) “Oh, remember, I ASKED for a raise and the best you could do then was a 3.2% cost of living increase, when my rent went up 50% and groceries went up 25%. I felt that’s what you and your team consider my value to the company. I realized that wasn’t going change and I found a new job where they consider my value to the company to be 75% more a year. Cheers!”

    2. Prospect Gone Bad*

      I manage a few people like OP (though we talk more often). I often see “please look for a new job” to mean “your job sucks” but in cases like this, I’d sort of agree. If you’re plan is to get > let’s say $100K in their current role, there just isn’t the responsibility and type of work to justify it. So even if I love them and we get along great, not every role is meant for continual growth.

      1. Lenora Rose*

        But this hasn’t even included cost of living raises until maybe now, which means in practice their pay has been going DOWN. And they did indicate they were doing “more work than ever” which implies the role isn’t completely static even if they also admitted there’ no room for advancement’; they’re likely more productive than a newcomer by enough to warrant a look at them personally.

  2. enc*

    You only see you boss every few years?!????

    This sucks and you deserve better. Please consider finding a new position.

    1. ferrina*

      That is genuinely bonkers. Only speaking to your boss every few years? Forget annual reviews- how do you even align on priorities and resources? How is this even a successful business?
      The mind boggles.

    2. alldogsarepuppies*

      Yes. I’m very surprised this wasn’t addressed. How do you not talk to your boss? How does that work

      1. Student*

        It’s very common in some industries, actually. In such roles, you are more of an independent contractor within a larger organization structure, but paid as an employee.

        I had a job like this for a long time, where I didn’t talk to my boss for similar intervals (and occasionally, would have a “boss” I hadn’t actually met or interacted with at all). The “boss” in such cases is more of a legal fiction to protect the overall organization from liability, rather than someone who actually steers your work.

        In practice, I was in direct competition with my “boss” for internal billable hours on internal projects, and similarly in competition with him for pitches for external funding. He was my peer, but with a guaranteed small amount of his annual hours billed to some special internal code to cover rubber-stamping time cards and attending rare “management” meetings.

        Our productivity was managed by our ability to convince people with a pot of external money to pay for our internal services. So, nobody needed to review us explicitly. If other people across the organization liked you or liked your work, then you’d manage to collect enough internal work to cover our required internal billable hours, and are allowed to stay. If nobody liked you or your work product, then they wouldn’t ask you to be on their projects, so you wouldn’t get enough billable hours and you’d quickly get fired for not billing enough.

        It’s very cut-throat and exacerbates certain types of business problems, but it does knock certain types of productivity problems out quickly. I don’t personally recommend it.

        1. Momma Bear*

          I had a job like that – projects came from another person and my actual boss/manager was offsite. I never met him and only talked to him maybe twice, the second time was after I submitted my resignation.

        2. Gemstones*

          What industry did you work in? I’m trying to picture this more concretely, and I’m curious!

          1. Excalibur*

            One really simple example: a landscaper employee whose job is to cut the grass at various campuses. Go to work, pick up equipment, do job, drop off equipment, go home. Customer requests/changes come in through online portal. Boss is invisible unless something goes wrong.

    3. Boss Scaggs*

      I assumed that meant they only see them in person every few years (remote). Hopefully they talk to the boss more than that!

      1. Double A*

        The letter does say they only “speak to” their boss every few years. I almost thought it must be a typo, and should have said they only speak to their boss a few times a year? Or only speak to them every few months?

    4. ragazza*

      Yeah, this sounds like a verrrrry hands-off boss, which normally I like but it goes beyond the pale. He’s so hands-off he doesn’t really care about his employees or what they need.

      1. WillowSunstar*

        Most jobs do at least an annual review, even if it’s on Zoom nowadays. I agree that this is odd.

  3. GreenDooor*

    OP says, “I like the job and most of the people, and the boss and I largely stay out of each other’s way.” So the big question is….does liking the job and most of the people and the fact that your boss stays out of your way outweigh the fact that you’ve got all this time put in….and are still making the exact same amount as the day you first started?

    If not, look for a new job because your boss is a cheapskate that doesn’t value you enough to pay you at the market rate

    1. Double A*

      I have to wonder, ts there a connection between so little contact with the boss and the stagnation of wages? “Out of sight, out of mind” might apply here.

      Also I have to assume that there is some level of management between the Big Boss and the LW? And Big Boss might just come in for conversations about money? Otherwise how does the LW know if they’re on track or what they’re even supposed to be doing?

    2. Prospect Gone Bad*

      Well, we have no clue if they are a cheapskate or not since salaries and jobs never get written in these sort of letters. All we know is they aren’t getting a raise. My raise was also tiny this year and I could spin that into being unfair and leave out the fact I got huge raises in years past

      1. Mad Harry Crewe*

        I think even if people do write in with specifics, Allison anonymizes them before posting publicly.

  4. NobodyHasTimeForThis*

    My job gave me a promotion last April. This came with an embarrassingly small raise. Then they had miniscule COL increases in June but anyone who had been promoted in April could not get the COL raise, meaning by the time it was said and done my raise for my promotion ended up being something like $10/week.

    1. Enai*

      Wow, don’t spend it all in one go on something extravagant, like a banana!

      (Sarcasm, I’m insulted on your behalf)

    2. Anon for this*

      My workplace does it too. Not to me, I’ve never been promoted here, but have heard stories.

      Then they act all mystified when management and senior-level professionals leave. Dudes, you’ve been shorting them on raises, what did you expect?

    3. Fart Noise*

      Do we work for the same company? My company did a COLA payment to staff last year that was sizable, but put many parameters on it so quite a few people did not get the entire amount.

  5. Carlie*

    One set of terminology I’ve seen used to distinguish more clearly is to call it a cost-of-living adjustment, as opposed to a merit raise. That makes it more obvious that the cost of living increase isn’t an increase in buying power at all, much less a raise. It’s just adjusting what you make to current conditions.

    1. NeedRain47*

      Or avoid calling it either one, b/c your merit increase is way, way less than the cost of living and there aren’t any cost of living adjustments….

      1. ferrina*

        I think what Carlie was saying is that any pay increase should be distinguished as either a cost of living adjustment (COLA) or as a merit increase. A “raise” is a really vague term. It sucks to be told you are getting a “raise” based on merit, but the amount doesn’t even cover the annual inflation rate.
        I agree with Carlie- businesses should clarify whether they are giving a COLA or merit increase (or if it’s a mix, explain what it is based on). COLAs often impact the entire organization and are generally small amounts (2-4%) designed to offset inflation. Because it sucks to do great work for two years and have less buying power.
        A merit-increase reflects that you are performing at a higher level than where you were the last time your pay was adjusted, and they are adjusting your pay to reflect your increase in skills/knowledge.

      2. mlem*

        Yeah, that’s my company right there. Low-percentage “merit” increases and no such thing as COLA.

    2. Somehow_I_Manage*

      I prefer to use the term “market adjustment.” At the end of the day, we make market adjustments to ensure we are competitive with market rates for our staff. I do not want my staff hired off the street to do the same job at a competitor for more money.

      While on a macro level, you could say this trends with inflation, there are other factors that are more meaningful and can trend differently in the short term. We don’t really consider the price of gas and milk- we consider risk of replacement.

      1. JMR*

        Market adjustments different from cost-of-living adjustments, though. When our company does cost-of-living increases, it’s based on national inflation, and the same percentage is given across the board, because the cost of living has increased for everyone. And that type of increase is about the price of gas and milk, as you say. But market adjustments are based on what a person in a similar role at a similar company would earn. Those adjustments are done to keep salaries competitive and to increase retention. Our company sets our salaries at the 60th percentile relative to other companies with similar footprints (similar size, market cap, etc). If a certain job function has become more in-demand and salaries for those roles have increased, people with those jobs would receive larger salary increases than people in roles where the average salaries have not increased as much.

  6. Aggretsuko*

    And here I just sat through a meeting in which we were told we will never get merit increases based on our performance evaluations, but we still have to do them anyway!

    1. NeedRain47*

      Do you work at my old job? Because it was ALWAYS “your raise isn’t based on your evaluation”, but then, it was. (I worked for the state. What they meant was, if the state decides to give raises, everyone will get one. But the percentage you got was directly based on your evaluation so that part was a lie.)

      1. Governmint Condition*

        That sounds unusual for government work. In my state, everybody gets the same raise if it’s the union contract COL increase, and the evaluation does not matter. If it’s the step increase for movement toward top-of-grade, the only way that the evaluation comes into play is if you receive an unsatisfactory rating – then you are not eligible. (And that rarely happens.) But it’s an all-or-nothing situation, percentages are not based on it.

        1. old curmudgeon*

          Raises are done similarly in my state, except since the governor effectively eliminated state employee unions twelve years ago, our pay increases are now solely at the whim of the legislature. The biggest raise I’ve ever gotten has been a munificent 2% increase, which was granted to all employees whose most recent evaluation was satisfactory. And when the politicians are grandstanding about “lazy state employees,” my colleagues and I have gone as long as three years without any increase at all.

          Basically the OP is working for an employer who gives out raises the way my state does, without the compensating factors of a pension and good benefits. And I’d agree with the commenters who are recommending that they look elsewhere.

      2. Well...*

        Whenever people evaluate you and then say they won’t use the information gathered for any purpose, I get extremely suspicious. I’ve been lied to like this many times. It’s very aggregating because sometimes the lie is super obvious, but it’s used to shut down complaints about the information-gathering process.

        Instead I now hear it as: “Right now, we don’t have any specific plans for how we’re going to use it, but that could change at any time.”

  7. Zap R.*

    Oh, OP. I feel your pain. My merit raise request was denied in favour of a cost-of-living increase that was 3.5% blow the rate of inflation – I technically took a pay cut. I don’t have any advice but I can offer rage solidarity.

  8. ecnaseener*

    LW, please do look at other jobs even though you don’t think you want to leave. You don’t have to actually leave, just look. See if you can’t find a similarly pleasant job that pays way more.

  9. Bananaphone*

    Yup. We got Salary Adjustments- that I found out I was STILL below market value for what I do, and when I asked about merit since this has been a grueling year… I was told NOPE, all we are doing this year is the salary adjustments, and we’ll work on some merit bonus stuff for next year.

    UMMM nope. I’m not chopped liver.

    I went somewhere else and negotiated myself a 34% raise.

    1. Clorinda*

      What a perfect ending to a short and annoying story. You can be the role model for OP, I hope, because that’s exactly what they should do!

  10. not a hippo*

    *laughs in person who’s never gotten a COL raise ever*

    I’m sorry your company isn’t compensating you fairly. Time to freshen up your resume and look for better opportunities.

  11. azvlr*

    Lots of advice to look for a new job, but instead (or preferably in addition to that) let your co-workers know about the conversation and the fact that this raise has not materialized for any of them. Maybe enough people getting pissed off about it will light a fire under the CEO to make these raises happen.

    1. Prospect Gone Bad*

      Maybe but we have no clue what any of the people involved earn, or what the condition of the company is. I work at a company that rakes in money and the past year has been painful. So what if it’s not called a recession, everything is more expensive, I can’t say it’s greedflation or whatever the buzzword is, becuase it’s also tiny mom and pop shops charging us more and materials that are pretty regulated and where price gouging would get companies in regulatory trouble. It just is the result of inflation. And then customers spend less and suddenly you earn even less. And then employees come asking for 12% raises because inflation was 6% and you’re wanting to say yes but there is literally not enough money there.

  12. Jane*

    Been there for years, only sees their boss every few years (!!!), no chance for advancement, boss is pulling weaponized incompetence to deny a merit raise vs. COL raise… UM, get a new job! Yesterday!

  13. JMR*

    My read on this was that the cost-of-living increases were already in the works when OP approached their boss, and their boss knew it and used that as an opportunity to say “Oh yeah, totally, you can absolutely have a raise! In fact, it’s happening very soon!” Presumably the boss was hoping OP wouldn’t understand or care about the difference between a COL adjustment and a merit raise as long as their paycheck got bigger.

    1. Hannah Lee*

      All the more reason to polish up the resume and start a job search.

      When your boss, who speaks to you rarely, chooses in one of your few conversations to lean into word salad, vagueness, confusion to mislead you on something as important as pay, that is not a good thing.

  14. JelloStapler*

    I’ve been through two situations where I finally got a raise than everyone did in order to correct some market issue- but yet they never address how cumulative lean years affect those of us who have been here longer. So I am left making barely more than a new hire and HR is like “Why are you upset?”.

    Gotta love Higher Ed.

    1. Cyndi*

      My job is having a lot of turnover right now and I keep getting boilerplate recruitment messages, from my own company where I already work, for the lower-level job title I started at a couple years ago…at the same pay I make now. Sometimes I wonder if I should take them up on it and see what happens.

    2. what the nope*

      I’m actually doing alright in higher ed but it’s taken me 16 years to get here. Now I can see retirement peeking over the far horizon, so even if new hire wages creep up to mine, the golden handcuffs are still in effect. I like stability and hella vacation accrual.

    3. WantonSeedStitch*

      Ugh. I’m in higher ed too, but we do fairly regular salary reviews and market adjustments outside of annual increases to correct situations like this.

  15. Jennie*

    Any chance the company was already planning to do COL raises prior to receiving OP’s request? They might’ve felt like they had an easy way to write OP off. (“Oh, you want a raise? Don’t worry, you’re about to get a raise. Okay, who’s next.”)

  16. Melicious*

    I feel like I need way more context on what “boss was annoyed that I was upset” means to get a good read on this. What did the upset look like, what did you say, and how did he express his annoyance? This feels like a major piece of information that I actually missed on the first read.

    1. Festively Dressed Earl*

      I had to reread that, too. At a guess, the boss is hurt that LW isn’t jumping for joy over his generosity, erroneously believing that LW is “not a team player” for wanting their compensation to be evaluated separately from the COL increase, or some head melting combination of both.

  17. NeutralJanet*

    OP, I definitely feel for you and you’re in the right, but I also think you’re taking this all a little too personally. It sounds like your company is poorly run in a lot of ways, but they aren’t trying to insult you as an individual here. It sounds like you’re pretty burnt out on this job, understandably, but the attitude that you were “dumb enough to believe that you were valued” is neither healthy nor helpful to carry in this job, your next job, or your life in general. I know it’s much easier said than done, and it’s quite possible that you wrote this letter in a fit of emotion, but you should probably try to be a little less emotionally engaged, and not just because this job in particular will most likely disappoint you.

    1. Middle Aged Lady*

      It’s hard not to be emotionally engaged when it’s your livelihood and someone tells they will take care of it today, then screws you over completely.

  18. Anonymous quitter.*

    I just went through something similar. Only in my case the boss decided everyone should get a cost of living increase and I should get less. What my getting upset looked like was that I yelled. Then we went back and forth on my salary for. Literally. Months. Then I quit. I had to quit several times, because they didn’t believe me the first few times. Reading AMA helped.

  19. Lucky Meas*

    I want to highlight something that I think is really important for managers, business owners/leaders, HR, and anyone else who has input on employee salaries (abbreviating to “managers”).

    “I was so happy at the response that I broke a personal rule to never believe any boss until the thing is actually on record and happening. I feel like I got suckered, and I am crushed. I cried.”

    We see a lot of managers wondering why workers don’t feel loyalty to their companies anymore, why candidates behave poorly or burn bridges, why workers make self-interested decisions and don’t want to sacrifice for the team or business.

    Here we see a perfect example of how this happens. OP was already skeptical of believing promises of a raise. They took a chance and were burned, and it was emotionally devastating for them. It affects their livelihood and life’s work! They feel lied to and disinclined to trust promises from an employer in the future.

    There is a lesson here for good managers: You can prove you are trustworthy and accountable with transparency and followthrough. And the impact of not doing so is huge and long-lasting.

    1. loglady*

      Oh my goodness, yes about the followthrough! I’ve had managers who are on top of it, and others where you feel lucky if the issue/idea/etc. is ever mentioned again. Guess which ones provided a better overall work environment?

      Since becoming a manager I have made followthrough a priority and, not to toot my own horn, have received comments like “wow, I appreciate that you didn’t leave me wondering.” Which makes me sad that it is so uncommon!

  20. Nebula*

    I really hope we get an update to this one at some point which is like “Wow, I realised how undervalued I was and got a new job where I’m earning so much more than my last job.” I know it’s not always that easy, but as many people have said, LW, there’s no harm in looking for a new job. If there are no opportunities for advancement and you’re being underpaid in your current position, now might be the time to think about moving on.

  21. weckar*

    While necessary, I hate that cost of living increases are a thing. Over time, it literally devalues money. If everyone makes more… well that money has to come from somewhere. So prices go up to match. So we add another cost of living increase…

    1. Cthulhu's Librarian*

      Cost of living wage increases are fundamentally NOT the core thing which is currently driving inflation and monetary devaluation.

      It currently has a lot more to do with corporate profit margins than individual wages – profit margins which, (spoiler alert again), are functionally at their highest level across the board since the 1950s. For corporate profit margins to continue increasing requires that the corporation increase the money they take in, over and above the increased cost of producing the good. The data I’ve seen says that from 1979-2019, corporate profits accounted for about 11% of the price increases in goods – from 2019-2022, that number has been closer to 54% of the price increase.

      1. CC*

        Oof, yeah, and don’t forget “corporate profit margins” include the companies who own lots of rental properties and crank up the rent as fast as they’re legally allowed to. When housing is generally the largest single expense a person has.

  22. Anonnj*

    uhhh the same thing happened to me then I to got a new manager who said they’d advocate for me then I got switched to a new team with a manager who didn’t know me then they left and a new guy was hired so 2,years later still waiting and now looking

  23. Anony776*

    All of the companies I worked for uses the terms cost of living and merit increase interchangeably, to make it sound like you are actually getting a “raise”. sometimes, they will adjust the COL based on performance higher or even lower.

  24. Anonymous*

    Wow, this sounds like my situation, but in reverse!

    I asked for a raise (merit, but I didn’t use that term) but was denied because everyone just got (a generous) COLA across the board and they don’t really do merit raises.

    I was disappointed, angry and felt very hurt and undervalued. From what I’ve seen, though, everyone who works there is overworked and underpaid. However, I thought I had a strong case since I’d taken on a second and completely unrelated job in addition to the one I was paid for. I won’t make that mistake again. Months later, I’m considering going back to school for something that will make me happier and pay me more.

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