How to Fight Back Against Salary Stagnation

Career Advice

You keep reading reports about record unemployment rates, but you find yourself facing the fifth year of a pay raise that barely beats inflation. What gives?

The U.S. economy overall is not doing as great as you might think. Economic growth and consumer spending are anemic at best. Americans suffered flat or declining wages from 2001 to 2012, and while things have improved slightly, it’s hard going: a college graduate in 2017 can expect to earn the same wages as a graduate in 2007. Construction workers earn $5 less today than in 1972. (Other countries—Britain and Japan, most notably—remain mired in their own wage crisis.)

Wages are generally tied to productivity, and productivity in the U.S. has plummeted. Moreover, the increased cost of hiring employees (for reasons such as healthcare) discouraged job creation while also raising the cost of keeping employees. That money quite possibly came from wages. (A notable exception to stagnant wages: babysitting, believe it or not.) The question is: What can you do about it?

If you are a professional with a documented track record of success, you have options. ClearanceJobs spoke with Stacey Lane, a career coach and consultant, to find out how you can negotiate with your manager for a salary increase beyond the standard 2-3 percent raise. You don’t have to wait until your next performance review, she says. If you’ve got the goods, you should start now.

NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT

“The old rules that say you have to wait for your annual performance evaluation to get a raise,” Lane tells ClearanceJobs. “All of that is shifting, but it is absolutely tied to performance.” The two reasons, she says, that people generally ask for significant raises beyond the annual cost of living adjustment are corporate achievement—some sort of big win in achieving a company’s goals—and salary transparency—that is: an employee might not necessarily be earning what is on par with his or her colleagues.

If you want a salary increase due to performance,  she warns, it has to be clearly documented. “Not just ‘I deserve a bigger raise’ or ‘I deserve more money because I had an impact.’ It has to be very, very, very specific. You have demonstrated and documented evidence that your performance made a contribution beyond expectations, beyond your own performance goals, and there has been a benefit to the organization.”

Alternately, if you discover that you’re making far less than your colleagues or the industry standard, you should take action. “Some people are shy in discussing [salary disparities], or try to raise that issue at the performance evaluation, but I would say that is a separate conversation, where you request that there be a salary survey done.”

A salary survey is something an organization does with, typically, a third party that shows what median earnings are according to geography, industry, and so on, and gives ranges. “If you believe you are being paid below average, that is one of those conversations you should have the when you discover that.” Companies are smart enough to know, she says, that they’re going to lose talent if they’re not paying at least average wages.

GOING FOR IT

Before you go into a meeting with your manager, you should speak with a personal advocate at the company such as a mentor—someone internally to whom you can go and explain your situation and seek their advice. “That’s such a great conversation to have,” says Lane, “not only because you’ll get the practical advice you can really use, but now the advocate knows what your agenda is, and they might be able to help with your cause.”

In terms of presentation, she says that you absolutely must have your papers in order. “Present tangible evidence. Tie it to documented quarterly company goals and things like cost savings or customer retention. Anything where you can show quantifiable accomplishments is ideal.”

Don’t make the raise about anything except the job you’ve done. Maybe you bought a new house. Maybe you’ve had a change in living situations. “The request for a raise should never be about anything but performance. It shouldn’t be that you need more money because you had an increase in expenses or because you have to pay for parking. Never make it about anything but performance, and never put out an ultimatum. ‘If I don’t get this I will quit/cry/slash your tires.’ Nobody likes to be bullied.”

No matter how it goes, don’t expect an answer at that first meeting. “More commonly you’re told, ‘I don’t have the authority to make that decision; I’m going to have to get some input,’” says Lane. “Nine times out of ten you’ll need to have a followup conversation.”

IF THE ANSWER IS NO

Be prepared: Sometimes you will be told no… but it doesn’t have to be the only option. Sometimes, your boss really can’t give you a raise. “There might be a budget freeze,” says Lane, “but you can still have the conversation.” You could acknowledge the budget but state that you still wish to talk about your outstanding contributions to the company and see what else can be done. “Job title is often more important to people,” she says. “The opportunity to take on stretch assignments or take on some sort of skill-building project might suffice. Research and studies show that money is what motivates, but there might be some other opportunities there.”

Lane suggests looking for ways that you can negotiate, and to ask your boss for input on what it would take for you to get a significant raise in the future. “This happens all the time. You ask for more money and you’re told no for budget reasons. Three-percent is all they have allocated. Ask what you can do in the future that would permit you to have more of a bonus or to get more of a raise.”

Be ready for a yes as well, and going into the interview, have a number in mind. “The old negotiation advice we gave was don’t put a number out there first,” says Lane, “but I don’t advise that as much anymore. If you’ve done your homework, and if you know why you’re asking for an additional pay increase, you should have a figure in mind and be willing to share that.” The company’s job is to get you for as little as possible—We’re going to give you a 3.25% raise! If that’s the first number put on the table, you have to negotiate up from there. “It’s much harder to negotiate up than if you had first said you would like consideration for a 7-8% raise. It’s a lot easier to negotiate from 7-8% than to start at 3.25% and negotiate up. That’s a big gap.”

Lane says that when the day of the talk arrives, it is vital that you suspend all expectations. Because the issue won’t likely be settled at that first meeting, it will take patience on your part, as well as persistence and hard work. The good news is that hard work is your specialty. It’s why you’re in this position to begin with. Do your homework, go in with a plan, and good luck.

David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.

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