The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: When Employees Ask for a Raise

We hear a lot about how critical it is for women to ask for raises. But, asking is only the first step. Most businesses require managers to exert effort to fund even the most well-deserved employee compensation increases. I’ve been managing employees since 2006 (longer, if you ask my younger siblings!) Here’s the good, bad, and ugly I’ve experienced when my employees have asked for a raise.*

Let’s start with the bad. “Allison” worked on my team during the economic downturn in the late 2000’s. Allison was a detail-oriented employee who was meeting the expectations of her entry-level job. She wasn’t a rock star, nor was she dragging the team down. However, at that time our company was struggling as the housing market and banking sectors were imploding. Allison requested a salary increase, after receiving a passable performance review.

There were at least three things that Allison messed up:

  • Her request was really a demand. How you ask for a change in compensation matters. Allison’s tone was, “Pay me more or else.” A more productive, fact-based tone would have started the discussion off without sounding like an ultimatum.
  • She didn’t have the performance to back it up. Allison had just received a review that identified her as adequately meeting her performance standards. Focusing on her areas for improvement, and building a plan to improve those in pursuit of a salary increase, would have been more effective.
  • She asked for salary (and only salary) at a very difficult time for the business. This was the late 2000’s. Businesses like Lehman Brothers, which was founded in 1850, were going bankrupt! Allison didn’t bring any other negotiables to the table, and I certainly wasn’t inclined to suggest any to her.

Allison didn’t get the raise she demanded at that time. Instead, we focused on her development plan and ensuring she was getting the feedback and opportunities to improve her performance in her current role.

Now, the ugly. “Heather” was a lower-than-average team member who seemed to excel in getting in her own way. Her work was inconsistent in quality, and team members struggled to work productively with her. She was constantly comparing her performance to others that joined the business at the same time, and would regularly bring up the expenses and lifestyles of others.

When Heather approached me for a raise, it was in a rambling speech that included remarks like, “...everyone in DC was born with a silver spoon in their mouth,” and “I can’t afford to live the lifestyle I want on my current salary.” Her reasoning seemed to be that given the excess she saw around her, and the cost of living in downtown DC, our company owed her a raise.

Anchoring your request for a raise on your own personal financial situation or lifestyle is a huge mistake. First, it isn’t germane to the conversation - which should be performance and business based. Second, it’s likely to backfire. In this situation, I saw Heather’s negative attitude in a very unvarnished manner, and we later had a candid career discussion that resulted in her resignation, which I happily accepted.

Finally - the good. “Nia” was a strong performer who pro-actively managed her career, by asking for feedback on how she can improve, seeking additional responsibility, and supporting her peers. In a conversation before her upcoming performance review, Nia shared her salary history and compared it to her current responsibility set, which had expanded since she accepted the role. She also compared her salary to more junior hires on her team. They were certainly making less than she was, but not that much less given their difference in responsibility.

I told her I understood her request and would do some research on her behalf. First, I asked HR to benchmark her salary to other higher-performing employees in her role. Next, I met with the other decision makers that would need to weigh in on the decision, and with their support negotiated an increase with our company’s compensation team. Nia’s request required me to do work on her behalf, but her clear and well-reasoned case inspired me to expend the effort and political capital to support her.

You can tell what Nia did well; she was a stronger performer who came in with a business-grounded request. For example, I had access to her salary history, but she brought me the data and presented it in compelling contrast to the more junior team members. She concisely summarized the added responsibilities she had taken on in one summary document.

After this effort, Nia received a sizeable salary increase. This helped her in two ways - obviously, her regular take-home pay increased. But, because she had a bonus available where she could earn up to a certain percentage of her salary, her overall compensation pool increased.

Wouldn’t you prefer to be Nia, compared to Allison and Heather? Even Nia could have improved her ask by identifying more negotiables (beyond salary). But, she created the case that compelled management to take action. Have you had an employee ask you for a raise? Were they the good, the bad, or the ugly? Or, have you been the asker? (In which case I hope you were the good!)

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*Names and identifying details have been disguised, but each story is real. You seriously can’t make this stuff up.