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How to ask for a raise, even in a recession

A fight over money

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: The end of the fiscal year marked the end of a $5 billion stimulus program that subsidized more than 200,000 low-income jobs all over the country. Many of those workers will now return to the unemployment line. Meanwhile, those who've been lucky enough to have and keep their jobs are wondering when workplace austerity might end. All those slashed benefits and postponed raises.

Alison Green writes the blog "Ask a Manager." Thanks for joining us.

Alison Green: Thank you for having me.

VIGELAND: So basically, there seems to have been kind of a mantra over the last year or two that, you know what, you're just lucky to have a job -- don't go asking for raises and all kinds of extras at this point. Would you agree that that's been the ethos?

GREEN: That is the ethos that most employees have in their heads. I'm not sure it reflects the reality of what it's actually O.K. to ask for.

VIGELAND: So even in a recession, you would say don't be shy?

GREEN: You don't want to be super aggressive, but asking for a raise when you haven't had one for a year or more, or asking to work at home occasionally when you need to concentrate, or asking for a flexible schedule because you need to pick your kid up from daycare -- these are things that have always been reasonable, they're still reasonable. That's not the sort of thing that you're going to get shown the door for asking about. They might not say yes, but there's no harm in asking.

VIGELAND: We might not get shown the door, but at a time when so many people lost their jobs, you know, people watched colleagues having to walk out the door with no income in sight. How do you go in and ask for a raise?

GREEN: It's important to know what your manager is likely thinking. If you're a good employee, your manager is looking to keep you happy within reason. And you want to think like a manager, rather than like an employee. And that means build a business case for what you're presenting: explain how your proposal would benefit the business, not just yourself. And also explain how you mitigate any negatives. In the case of something like flex time, mitigating the negatives might mean laying out exactly how you're going to make sure this doesn't inconvenience your coworkers and so forth.

VIGELAND: Well then let me ask you point blank about the raise then -- has this been the time for anyone to be asking for raises?

GREEN: You know, there are people still asking for and receiving raises. It might be harder to get a yes, but you've got to know your context. You've got to know what's going on at your company. Timing matters. You don't want to make a request for a raise when your company has just received bad financial news, or is in the middle of layoffs, or frankly even just when your manager is in a bad mood. You want to be sensitive to timing, you want to bring some emotional intelligence to it. It's not crazy to be asked to be compensated for the value of the work you're providing.

VIGELAND: What kinds of questions are you seeing from your readers when it comes to making requests of the boss?

GREEN: People write to me all the time saying, 'My company put a salary freeze in effect a couple years ago. I'm really underpaid for my industry and I'd like to ask for more, but is that crazy to do?'

VIGELAND: But you're saying that actually they have more options than they think they do.

GREEN: Particularly if they're a good employee. If you're not that great, all bets are off, I probably can't help you.

VIGELAND: But you probably don't think of yourself as a not-so-great employee.

GREEN: There's the problem. If you're really good, you know that you're really good. You see yourself racking up results, you're getting positive feedback. If you are someone who is in that position where you can tell that your manager and your employer seem thrilled to have you there, you have more leverage than you think you have. They really don't want to have to replace you.

VIGELAND: And what's the best way then, to come prepared? How do you even approach telling your boss why you want to meet?

GREEN: I would be straightforward; I would say, it's been two years since my last salary increase and I want to talk to you about what we can do moving forward, and I have some proposals that I want to run by you. I always encourage people to keep a running list of triumphs as they happen, because often you won't remember six months down the road that you did something really fantastic back in March or whenever it was. And when you come to your boss, you can lay out a professional business-based case for why your value to the employer has gone up. What you don't want to do is make the case about your own personal needs; you don't want to talk about your mortgage payment, or the fact that you're now sending another kid to college -- that's not relevant to the employer's business. You want to explain how it'll benefit them, how it'll make sense for them.

VIGELAND: All right Alison Green, thanks so much for your help.

GREEN: Thank you very much for having me.

VIGELAND: Alison Green writes the "Ask a Manager" blog. She wrote a guest blog for us: 8 ways to get what you want from your boss.

About the author

Tess Vigeland is the host of Marketplace Money, where she takes a deep dive into why we do what we do with our money.

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