How to Ask for a Raise
A Modern Survival Guide Interlude
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook for interacting with the modern world. And this article is an interlude, an aside that talks about a tip for modern living. This isn’t a philosophical insight or a deep discussion of human impulses, or an explanation of some major phenomenon; it’s just something people might want to know, and this time around we’re talking about getting a raise.
Unless you work for yourself, you’ll eventually have to ask for a raise. This is harder than it seems, and a lot of people seem to languish in jobs that are not paying them enough because they are too scared to request more money, or don’t feel like they deserve it. In this article I’ll be talking about two topics:
- How to know you need a raise
- How to ask for one
Let’s tackle #1 first — when do you need a raise? Let’s discount the obvious answer (which is: always, all the time, especially on Mondays) and think about this realistically. Here are the circumstances when you need — not want, but need— a raise:
- You have a permanent cost of living increase (for example, by having a child).
- You need to pay medical expenses, or other large-dollar short-term expenses that would otherwise result in debt.
- You have long-term debts that you cannot pay off at your current salary, such as student loans or a home mortgage.
- Your salary has not increased in several years, and as such you are falling behind the inflation curve.¹
You get the general idea: you are in a situation that requires more resources than you are currently pulling in. Moreover, this situation is not easily fixed by lifestyle changes. This happens — there are many, many circumstances when you simply have to have more money, and the list above is not exclusive.
Under these circumstance, you have very little choice. You can either make more money or go into debt. There are two avenues to making more money: get a new job (or a second/third job), or get a raise. Depending on your circumstances, getting a new job may or may not be preferable, and in any case it’s usually easier to ask for a raise first. So it’s time to bite the bullet — do not be that person who sticks around in a crap job for crap money because you’re too nervous to ask for more.
With that in mind, let’s tackle #2 — how do you ask for a raise? Well, there’s actually much, much more to this than simply going into your boss’s office and shouting “I need money!!!” until they hand you a new salary package. You can and should do several things beforehand to make sure that this request is heard and given due consideration. Keep in mind that asking for a raise isn’t a singular act, it’s a process. And it’s not guaranteed to work.
First things first, take a good look at your place of work. If at all possible, try to look at it objectively — see it as it really is, not as you want it to be. Evaluate what you see based on the following seven points:
- How’s your visibility? Does your boss know what you do and who you are?
- Does your boss like you?
- Is your place of work prosperous? Is there obviously money available to pay you more?
- Who else is a rival for a raise? Is there someone higher on the local totem pole who might be in competition with you?
- How’s your quality of work? Are there accomplishments you can claim that make you obviously deserving of more money?
- How’s your timeliness? Are you arriving on time and leaving on time?
- How do #5 and #6 relate to other people in your office? Are you obviously better than your coworkers?
Note that, while all of these points are things you need to consider, they may not all be necessary in order to secure a raise. You should evaluate your raise potential based on which of these seems most important in your situation. That being said, in most cases you should actively work to make sure that you can satisfy each of these points.
Does your boss know who you are? If they don’t, you’re going to have a hard time asking for a raise, because you’ll just be Peon #112 in their mental map when you walk in. If this is the case, you should work to bring yourself to their attention without, and this is a key point, acting like a suckup. Nobody likes a brown-noser. Ask pertinent questions in staff meetings. Say hi to them in the halls. Try to be on projects or teams where you are visible to them. At the very least you should be a relatively familiar name and a face to them, not a drone.
Does your boss like you? If they don’t, you’re not getting a raise. It’s that simple. Put in the legwork to make sure you are in their good books before you go asking them for more money. At the very least, don’t get in trouble.
Is your workplace prosperous? If not, do they have a dedicated personnel budget? If neither of these items come up positive, you’re not getting a raise. At this point it’s time to look for a new job.
Do you have rivals? I’ll answer that one for you, yes you do. Every one of your coworkers is a potential rival. There’s only so much money to go around, so you need to set yourself apart from the herd. If other people aren’t on time, be on time. If everyone’s always on time, be early. Put in a late shift from time to time to get yourself noticed (but don’t make a habit of it, you’re not working for free and work/life balance is important). Take on a special project or two. Take on an optional role or two. Try to win an award from time to time. Make yourself obviously useful — if at all possible, make yourself indispensable.
The idea here is as follows: when you walk in for a raise, your boss should know who you are and be generally well-disposed towards you. You should be able to point to a clean record and several accomplishments that put your current work above and beyond whatever work you were doing when you first took the job. You should clearly, obviously be doing something that justifies an increase in your salary by making it easily apparent that you are doing more, or doing things better, than you were at your last performance review. And you should clearly, obviously be performing well compared to your coworkers.
This is all preliminary work. Now for the actual ask:
- Set up a meeting specifically on the topic of your getting a raise.
- De-stress beforehand.
- Prepare your argument. You don’t need a presentation (unless your boss likes that sort of thing) but you do need to have talking points.
- Be prepared to delay. You want to catch your boss in a good mood. If they’re not in a good mood, don’t have the meeting.
- Keep it short.
Let’s talk these through. First, you should set up a time with your boss and make it clear that you are going to be talking about money. This is an important topic for everyone, and it deserves its own time and space. Do not ambush your boss in the hallway to ask for a raise.
Second, de-stress yourself beforehand. Asking for more money is a stressful process, but you shouldn’t be twitchy during the meeting. Do some deep breathing, take thirty minutes of quiet time before the meeting, have a beer at lunch — whatever you need to do to clamp down on your nerves, do that thing. You need to present yourself as calm, confident, and knowledgeable, not twitchy, sweaty, or stuttering.
Third, be prepared. You should know why you deserve a raise before you walk in the door, and have supporting evidence. It’s ok to make notes or something similar to keep yourself on track during the meeting; the important thing is to be able to support your request.
Fourth, keep in mind that this is a request that requires your boss to put in effort on your behalf. Therefore you need them in a good frame of mind during the meeting; grumpy people do not do favors. If you know your boss is having a crap day, offer to reschedule. They will almost always thank you for it, and it will help cement your status as a team player.
Fifth and finally, keep it short, as in thirty minutes or less. That’s more than enough time for you to make all of your points, and for them to hear you. Make it clear that you don’t necessarily expect an answer right then; offer to schedule a follow-up session. It’s worth noting that if they’re going to give you raise, they’re going to give you the raise. If they’re not, pestering them about it won’t make a difference.
Then go in and do the thing. Have the meeting, make your case, see what they say. Your request should be direct and unambiguous. You should have a figure in mind that you need in order to meet your financial obligations. You should clearly communicate the amount you would like as a raise, and make it clear that you deserve additional pay for the work that you do.
Now for the last part — understand that there is nothing you can do to get people to pay you more money if they don’t care about you. If they care enough to keep you and reward your work, and they have the money, they will pay you more. If they don’t, they won’t, and that’s that. This is like buying a car — be prepared to walk away. Recognize that you don’t owe them anything. You are an employee, they are management. It is your prerogative to leave if you feel you are not being treated appropriately.
This is where the follow-up meeting becomes very important — it’s your chance to feel out the situation. You should ask your boss what the prospects look like, and take their answer to heart. If they give you a list of things you can do to get a raise, that may be worth hanging around for, but it’s up to you — don’t let people take advantage of you by extorting work in exchange for a minimal pay increase. If the boss makes excuses or says a raise isn’t in the budget, you’re not getting a raise. Time to go look for a new job.
If they say you are getting raise, it’s time to ask about timelines. Because let’s face it, if you’re not getting a raise for several months, you may not be getting a raise. Circumstances might change, they may change their mind, or it could be a delaying tactic. The ideal timeline is a couple of weeks to a couple of months, depending on the local paperwork requirements, pay cycle adjustments, signatures required, etc. But if they can’t get that stuff done in two months, it’s probably not happening. And it’s time to look for another job.
I keep mentioning this concept of looking for a new job. That’s because there are only two ways to get more money — get a raise or go to a new position that pays more. It’s worth noting that this may not be an option. If you live in a small town, there may not be any other jobs for you. Remember, the universe is not obligated to place your dream job in your current location.
If this is the case, I have one word of advice: move. Do what you have to do to move. Take on debt. Impose on your friends and family. Call in favors. But get out, because otherwise you’ll be stuck in a no-win situation. A lot of small towns in America are dying right now. It may be time to roll the dice and try your luck someplace with a better economy.
To summarize — check your situation. Prep your presentation. Ask your boss. Be prepared for them to say no, and make plans for that eventuality. Asking for a raise is a situation where you expect the worst and hope for the best, and the worst that can happen is that they say “no.”
¹Inflation usually runs around 2% or 3% per year (it’s been less than that in recent past years, but that’s an exception to the rule). This is the rate at which money loses value in a fiat currency economy. If you are unfamiliar with this concept, the short version is that you should assume that every dollar you make loses 2–3% of its buying power every year, give or take a percentage point. This is a good thing if you have debt (because you borrow expensive money and pay back cheap money) but it’s a bad thing if you’re on a fixed income (because your money is worth less and less as time goes on).