How to ask for a pay rise

I feel uncomfortable asking for a rise when times are tough. What do you suggest?

by Jeremy Bullmore
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2017

Q: I've always found it impossible to ask for a pay rise, especially when times are so difficult, but I've read recently that women often shy away from doing this. I feel ready to challenge this stereotype, especially as my annual review is due. What are the dos and don'ts?

JEREMY SAYS: Here are a few of my personal dos and don'ts: but follow them only if you feel comfortable doing so. Attempting to assume a style that's not your own is the quickest way to appear false, unconfident and unconvincing.

Start by imagining that you're a boss - and that one of your juniors asks very politely if they could discuss their salary with you. How do you react?

You don't say: 'How dare you!' You don't say: 'Who do you think you are?' You don't say: 'Simply by asking such an impudent question you confirm me in my belief that you're already grossly overpaid!'

You say: 'Of course. Let's fix a time so we can do it properly.'

And that's in all likelihood how your own boss will respond - as long as you do it thoughtfully. There's nothing in the least improper or embarrassing about raising the subject in the right way at the right time. Your annual review is a natural moment.

So don't ever spring it on your boss and expect an immediate response - least of all at some social occasion or in the pub, just because you feel a bit more relaxed.

Don't brood on the problem for weeks until some toxic combination of apprehension and resentment boils up inside you: you'll start blurting things out instead of presenting a sensible, reasoned argument.

Don't base your request, even partially, on some perceived injustice. For a variety of reasons, mostly acceptable, every salary list will include apparent disparities and anomalies. Furthermore, you'll never know with certainty what other people are earning (they don't always tell you the truth). If you do know, you probably shouldn't and, anyway, it's irrelevant. Claim that you know Marcus is paid 15% more than you for doing exactly the same job and you risk being told that Marcus is 15% more effective than you are. That's exactly the sort of judgement that bosses are paid to make - and other than change bosses, there's nothing whatever you can do about it.

Don't base your request on your own financial circumstances: higher travel costs, new flat, another family dependant. Employers won't (and can't) respond to what you claim to need; only to what they think you're worth.

So research your sector carefully and get as accurate a reading as you can on average salary levels. If you're clearly well below average, that's a point worth making: there's an implication that you might have to move without needing to say so explicitly.

And never, never threaten to leave - or even imply that you might - unless you're mentally prepared to do so. Once your bluff is called, you'll be in a weaker bargaining position than you were before.

Above all, put the best case you can for the contribution you already make - and how you plan to do more in future.

And always ask what else you could be doing (in both manner and matter) to make promotion more likely.

Jeremy Bullmore is a former creative director and chairman of J Walter Thompson London. His book Another Bad Day at the Office? is published by Penguin at £6.99. Got a problem? Email Jeremy at editorial@managementtoday.com.

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