4 Golden Tactics to Raise Your Salary

salary increase

Q: I finally got a raise this year ... woot woot. I know, I know ... I should probably be happier than I am. I have been waiting so long for this. But when my boss finally gave it to me, it was a 4% increase.. four percent!?!  I feel like I've been working my butt off and now when they finally recognize my contribution, I get a lousy 4% bump. BTW -- its 4% of a very small number to start with - I feel like i'm stuck in quicksand. How the heck can I increase my salary in a meaningful way?

A: I feel your pain. You've hit on one of the most frustrating dynamics we face in our careers and one I don't think most people fully understand. The cruel irony of corporate tenure is that the longer you're employed with a company, the harder it seems to be to get a substantial salary increase.

You've worked hard, you've been loyal to the company for years, you've got the experience and you know how to get things done in the organization. But when it comes to salary review time ... nuthin. Meanwhile, you watch as shiny new people join the company and deep down inside you just know they're getting paid more than you. Why else would they be so happy? And what's with that Prada laptop case? It better be a knockoff ... Its so frustrating. Then you hear whispers about colleagues who finally got so frustrated that they threatened to quit if they didn't get more money - and voila, they got a big increase. Is that the right move? The nuclear option?

Unfortunately, like many tough situations you're going to face in your career, there is no rule book for how to handle this scenario.

  • Do I march into my boss's office and demand a raise?
  • Do I threaten to quit? 
  • Do I wait patiently and hope for the best?
  • Do I start looking for a new job?

It's really hard to know what to do. And so, most of us do nothing. We keep working hard. We sit in silence. We quietly bemoan the injustices beset upon us. We complain to our husbands and wives. And we never get what we deserve. 

Here are the four most important things I've learned about raising your salary:

1. Avoid ultimatums at all costs. The "pay me or I'll quit" ultimatum is the nuclear option. Its mutual assured destruction. It should only be used when there are no other options available and even then the outcome will almost certainly be bad for everyone. The problem with the ultimatum is that your boss can never unsee it ... like that time you walked into your parent's bedroom without knocking first ... oh dear god no. When you threaten to quit or you resign as a negotiation tactic, you've permanently altered the relationship you have with the company and your manager. So even though it might work in the short term - your boss might give in - you lose in the long term because the bonds of trust have been broken. You effectively held yourself hostage and forced your boss to pay the ransom. There's no fixing that. From that point forward every time your boss looks at you, you'll be the one who bullied her. So when exciting projects come up, new opportunities arise, there will always be this hint of distrust in the relationship such that will make it even hard to get ahead. Some managers just won't negotiate this way at all. They realize that when an employee resigns or threatens to resign that they're already too far gone to save. Moreover, that by rewarding this type of behavior, they set a dangerous precedent for others in the company. This is another reason not to get into ultimatums unless you truly have no other option and you're really prepared to leave the company.

2. Take a longer term view. Nobody wants to hear this but I'm going to tell you anyways because I learned this lesson the hard way and I want to help you avoid that. When I look back on the early years of my career, I see now that I burned a lot of bridges and a great deal of emotional energy over what was, in retrospect, a pretty insignificant amount of money. I remember caring so much about the difference between my 33,000 salary and the 40,000 I thought I deserved. It really affected me. It had a major impact on my attitude at work, the decisions I made, and ultimately led to a pretty lackluster performance. Eventually I did get the 40,000 I wanted, but at what cost? The thing about income is that your mindset should always be on calculating the expected value of each action you take - you have think about the net present value of the earnings you'll make in your career and make the best decisions to maximize that. And many times that means taking a longer term view - forgoing short term gains to optimize your career path such that it will lead to bigger earnings down the road when you get into bigger salary levels. For example, you could torpedo your relationship with your boss (as I did) to get that 7K salary increase but if it means that 2 years from now when he's at a new company and looking for a new director of marketing that will earn 100K a year ... is he going to choose you? I'm not saying that you should avoid negotiating your salary in the early stages of your career. What I am saying, is that you need to make sure you focus on optimizing your path to the higher income ranges which sometimes means you need to be a bit more patient when the stakes are lower to get to higher stakes faster.

3. Always be working towards a promotion. You might think this one is self-evident but most people I see are not actively working with their boss towards a promotion. If you aren't, you should be. The fastest path to material salary increase without changing companies is to get a promotion. Annual increases and inflationary adjustments will never change your fundamental salary dynamic. You might slowly earn more but you won't be increasing your income relative to everyone else - you'll just be keeping up. You also won't be changing your salary level which is key to breaking out of the lower end salary ranges and into the higher brackets. Check out my blog on getting promotions for strategies I've used to jump up in my career. The most important thing to know is that you should have a promotion plan at all times and you need to be engaged in an ongoing dialogue with your boss as you work towards achieving it. A promotion isn't something you ask for. It’s not a request. It’s a journey you embark on over many months with your boss as your partner. 

4. Don't job hop - make purposeful moves. Job hopping is a pretty hot topic at the moment. You can read my blog on the subject which explains in detail why I think it’s a flawed career strategy. It’s no secret that the easiest way to get a significant salary increase is to change companies. Internal promotions and increases tend to be incremental, 2%, 4%, maybe 7%. So the prospect of becoming a free agent can seem alluring. But in the long run, jumping from one company to another every 2 years isn't going to get your where you want to go. It might seem like these jumps are the best way to get meaningful salary increases but in the long term there are diminishing returns as your resume starts to raise red flags for hiring managers who don't want to make a significant investment in a job hopper. It might work in the early stages of your career when you can get a nice salary jump at the new company, but it will actually hurt your chances of landing management and executive level roles down the road where the salary bumps will be so much bigger. Job hopping is pretty short sighted but purposeful company changes at key points in your career actually make a lot of sense. My experience tells me that you need to stay with a company for at least 3-4 years in order to take advantage of all the opportunities to learn and demonstrate your ability to develop and grow. You want to work at a place long enough to show a track record of promotions and role expansions to make you more attractive when you ultimately test the external job market. In this way you're probably forgoing some smaller salary bumps along the way but you're positioning yourself for a bigger wins when you inevitably move to another organization. 

We all want to earn more money. We want to be appreciated for our contributions. It can be extremely frustrating especially when you've worked for a company for a number years without a material salary increase. I hope by sharing some of the lessons I've learned along the way will help you avoid my mistakes and get the job and the salary you deserve. 

Let me know in the comments about your experiences trying to get a salary increase.

4 Tips to get a Promotion this Year

There are three questions I get asked over and over again by friends and readers who care about advancing their careers.

  1. How do I convince my boss to give me a promotion or raise?
  2. How do I deal with a colleague who seems determined to F up my life?
  3.  How do I re-brand myself so people take me more seriously at work?

Over the next few weeks I’ll go through each one of these to give you some tips that have served me well in my career so you can avoid some of the mistakes I made along the way. Since it’s a new year and we’re all still feeling positive, let’s start with #1:

#1: How do I convince my boss to give me a promotion or raise?

The phrasing of this question is actually a great place to start. More often than not the promotion question contains phrases that sound a lot like these:

  • How do I convince my boss to give me a promotion?
  • How do I ask my boss for a promotion?
  • How can I make my boss recognize that I deserve a promotion?

If you’re thinking about the promotion process along these lines i.e. as something you have to pitch, show or make your boss do, I’m afraid you’re already heading down the wrong path. In fact, the biggest mistake I see friends and colleagues make when it comes to promotions, is that they treat them as a point in time event - a binary decision or pitch to their boss. This strategy will get you nowhere.

It doesn't help matters that so many career blogs and workplace columns focus so much time on the importance of bringing in data to support your case, preparing your pitch for a promotion etc. They’re all missing the point.

The single most important thing you can do to get a promotion is to stop thinking about it as an event or a decision, and rather turn it into a journey you go on together with your boss.

I've never asked for a promotion in my life but I've had several. As counter-intuitive as it may sound, when it comes to promotions, you have to play the long game to make them happen fast.

So how does that work?

When you frame your promotion as a journey, your boss can never say no:

If I walk into my boss’s office tomorrow and ask him to promote me to President, I’m putting him in a very difficult spot. I’m unnecessarily forcing him into making a binary decision which will more than likely result in a “no”. There are just too many reasons for him to reject this style of pitch. The timing may not be right, there may be someone in the job already, the budget might not be there, and my skills might not be adequate. By forcing him to make a discrete yes or no choice, I’m inadvertently hurting my chances for a promotion and I’m also risking the relationship I have with my boss by putting him or her in such an uncomfortable position. Making your boss uncomfortable in the promotion discussion is exactly the opposite of what you want.

The secret to getting promotions is to get your boss on your team – rooting for your success. When I’m working towards a promotion I want my boss to be my biggest cheerleader – I want my promotion to be a day he celebrates with me, not a day where I finally get him to capitulate. Turning the promotion conversation into a journey means that you reframe the conversation away from a “yes” or “no” decision and towards a “what will it take for me to get there and how can you help me” conversation – which is almost never met with a “no”. A journey, unlike a binary decision, carries no defined date, which means you’re only asking your boss to join you on a path towards a promotion which you’ll define together. This is fundamentally different from “asking” for a promotion. It turns the promotion into a win-win scenario for both parties. You give your boss the opportunity to define all the criteria and skills he’d like in his ideal candidate and you get absolute clarity and buy in on what it will take for you to get there. This approach might seem like it will take a bit longer but it’s infinitely more effective than forcing an on-the-spot decision.

Here are three ways to get your boss to join you on your promotion journey and become your biggest cheerleader:

1.       Tell your boss what you want 12 months or more before you actually want it.

This one may be frustrating for those of you who are dying for that promotion right now, but you need to be patient. The earlier you engage your boss in the promotion journey the sooner it will happen for you, but you just can’t force it.

2.       Engage your boss like a friend and mentor – not like an adversary.

People respond well to being approached as a mentor. Don’t make the promotion discussion overly formal either, keep it friendly. You want your boss to WANT to help you get there. By not forcing her to make a decision on the spot and by soliciting her help as you work towards your goal, you’ll accomplish that.

3.       Don’t focus on dates – focus on skills, deliverables and development.

You need to re-frame the promotion conversation to be about you achieving specific development milestones. Maybe you need training or you need to improve on a particularly metric or deliverable.  You need to work with your boss to set up a list of achievements that when met will mean you’re ready. This puts you in the driver’s seat and in control of how long it will take to get promoted.

4.       Maintain a regular dialogue to understand your progress towards the goal.

This doesn't need to be formal – in fact I recommend it isn't. But one way or the other you need to be talking to your boss about your progress at least once every couple of months. Do not let it go for six months or a year and then bring it up again all of a sudden – that’s just making the same mistake all over again. And when you do talk to your boss about it, keep it light, let her know how good you’re doing on your journey but don’t push it too hard.

If you’d like to read more tips for getting promotions check out my recent article on careerealism.com