Before you ask for a raise, take time to hone this skill

Follow the money.
Follow the money.
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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In more than 30 years of recruiting, I’ve counseled thousands of people at all career stages. It’s a privilege to help people get hired and build satisfying professional lives. But lately, I’ve noticed a trend that  requires reflection. Consider the following examples:

  • A midlevel manager—I’ll call her Kate—came to me with a problem. Her boss had let an employee go and had asked her to cover the vacancy on an interim basis. Kate has been doing two jobs for three months now. She hasn’t gotten a pay increase for doing so, and she hasn’t had a raise in four years. She’s frustrated and burning out. Her friends think she should quit.
  • A new college grad I’ll call Brian finally got a job offer after several months of searching. He thought the offer seemed low but took it on the spot because he had no other irons in the fire. Now he’s regretting the quick decision, wondering if he should have negotiated for more.

At the root of both scenarios is a lack of confidence, particularly around asking for money. The problem isn’t limited to Kate and Brian. When we commissioned a survey of more than 1,000 US workers employed full-time in office environments, 90% of them said they felt they deserved a raise, yet only 44% planned to ask for one this year. Surprisingly, some people would rather look for another job, get a root canal, or be audited by the IRS than talk money with the boss.

Why are people so hesitant to have this discussion? Multiple factors are at play, with fear at the top. Kate was laid off in the Great Recession. Although it was several years ago, she vividly remembers the difficult road back to a full-time job. She admits she wants to appear indispensable because she is afraid it will happen again. When I asked Brian why he didn’t negotiate, he said he was afraid to rock the boat and risk having the offer rescinded. Other professionals feel all salary matters rest with the company. The thinkings, if I do a good job,the firm will notice and reward me appropriately with raises and promotions.

But unfortunately, good work often goes unnoticed. Building the confidence to ask for a raise is usually the better strategy. Here’s how I recommend getting started.

Homework to the rescue

Knowing the market demand for your skill set is essential to negotiating salary at a new job or a raise with your current boss. There’s just no substitute for doing your homework. Compensation decisions are based on facts, not what you “think” you should be making or what your friends or family want you to earn. I find when people aren’t armed with market research, they swing to extremes: They either ask for way too much money or don’t ask for nearly enough. Neither situation has a good outcome.

You should track what your skills are worth in the market on a regular basis. This includes reviewing the number of job openings in your field using tools like CareerBuilder or other job sites. Even if you’re happy in your job with no plans to leave, check for shifts in the job market quarterly. Go to industry events. Talk to people in your network about what they’re seeing and what skills are generating top dollar. These discussions will help you gauge your worth and close any skills gaps to ensure you remain marketable.

Practice for all scenarios

With research in hand, your  next step is to build your confidence and plan for a good discussion. I always advise role-playing the conversation with a trusted mentor (someone in your profession who has more experience than you). Sit down in-person, if you can, and practice all the possible scenarios. Your mentor will be able to flag any issues—including non-verbal cues—that could hurt your case. A great adviser will practice the conversation until you can make a solid business proposal. That’s the way it should be, because a salary discussion is a business discussion—it’s never personal.

If you don’t have a mentor, find one

People like helping others, especially if they know them personally. I’ve benefitted from a wonderful adviser who still helps me even in his retirement, and I’m happy to return the favor, mentoring several professionals. As you look for people to advise you in your career, get out from behind your computer. Go to events and talk to people. Meet for lunch or coffee. Be specific about what you need when you ask for help.

Doing all of these things will help you build confidence, which is the cornerstone of a more successful and satisfying career.

Paul McDonald is senior executive director at Robert Half.