Do you feel underpaid or do you feel underappreciated? When and how to ask for a pay raise

A businessman is giving money to an elephant.

Frequently, the dissatisfaction that goes with feeling that we’re not being paid enough is entangled with a component of not feeling appreciated enough. Therefore, before looking into how to ask for a pay raise, it’s helpful to take a moment and consider whether the issue we wish to address is truly just compensation or whether we are chasing a financial indicator, and loading it with meaning, to resolve a wider dissatisfaction.

Underpaid or underappreciated: Are you clear about priority one?

The interplay between compensation and motivation (let alone performance) is not linear. When job satisfaction is low and the feeling of not been recognised for the value we bring is high, money may not be the best – or first – battle we may wish to pick.

It is helpful to reach clarity on this point to position our case effectively and avoid a pay raise conversation being the outer reflection of deeper expectations. It is indeed one thing to conclude that we feel like valued professionals in our organisation but our remuneration is not aligned, say, to the market. It is another thing to believe that we are not truly recognised in the first place and to seek to resolve our job satisfaction with an improved compensation package. In the second case, money may turn into only a temporary scaffolding or a short-lived fix, and wider considerations need exploring.

Any pay raise conversation that aims to be effective requires clarity around the real issue we are bringing to the table. So long as the two are untangled, we may attach meaning to a figure or a percentage to address the core of our frustrations. A good way to start exploring the genuine issues is by asking ourselves: What would a pay raise mean to me?

Be prepared: Know your figures, the strength of your case and why now

When asking for a pay raise, an effective conversation requires some preparation. This preparation includes gathering reliable data about figures, leveraging the highs of your performance and considering a number of points. These include the following:

  1. What are the external relativities? Is your pay consistent with the region, company size, industry sector you work for? A specialist salary survey may help with building the landscape and having benchmarks. If this is one of your strongest points, a conversation around how we can close the gap is generally more solution-oriented than a conversation about feeling underpaid compared to X.

  2. How about internal relativities? Is your pay consistent with the salary range within your organisation, usually based on seniority and performance? If possible, identify some good precedents and ensure you have credible arguments to differentiate yourself from those precedents that may not assist you: Why is your case different?

  3. Is timing right? Timing is a huge ally when played right, and building great momentum has more than one dimension. Considerations on timing include:

  • The right timing within your organisation’s unique processes: for example, is this part of a structured annual performance review or an ad hoc request based on your performance? Consider the internal process and timeline; swimming against the HR tide is usually hard unless you have a good rationale.

  • Your unique timing and circumstances: Is your contract close to ending and likely to be renewed? A few months before the end of your contract may be a good time to enter into negotiations. Is this the best time based on your performance? Timing driven by outperformance is usually limited; waiting too long often means losing momentum.

  • Your line manager timing: This also plays a role and includes considering when would be the best time to table a pay raise conversation with your manager, especially in case of a newly appointed manager. First thing on Monday morning or during a hectic period are often not favourable for creating the right level of attention.

  1. Go back to your performance reviews and ensure you use them to build your case consistently – review your success stories and ensure they fit well within your narrative.

  2. Know who you need to engage to support your case: This will likely involve your line manager but may also include HR and other stakeholders or sponsors, especially if you report to different bosses. Have a clear strategy when it comes to your supporters.

  3. You need data, but you also need a meeting. Face-to-face works best to gauge reactions, ensure you are maximising your position well (for example, by employing good counterarguments) and adjust the conversation as you go. A face-to-face meeting is harder to prepare for than sending an email, but it comes with a great strength: You are showing that you are committed.

  4. Be realistic and specific: Know what you want and ensure that it is something that has a rationale and can be achieved. How often you ask for reconsideration of your compensation also has to be realistic. You can of course set an ambitious goal, but remember points 1 and 2. If you have done your work properly, you should know the figure or the range: Say it clearly.

  5. Ultimatums rarely work. It is fair to express disappointment and how we feel but ultimatums rarely generate consensus and deliver to expectation. An ultimatum may more likely reveal there are other issues going on. Expressing genuine enthusiasm for your role is more likely to create support for your case.

  6. Are you ready to negotiate? Compensation conversations come with negotiation most of the time. Have you contemplated multiple scenarios and what would be considered ‘negotiable’ for you? Even in the ‘no’ pay-raise outcome, there is room for negotiation, for example, on working days, working hours or increased flexibility.

  7. Be prepared to see the bright side of a ‘no’. You can remain strategic about it and see that a ‘no’ to a pay raise may become a stepping stone to a ‘yes’ later on: If it is not possible now, when would be a good time to discuss the matter again? A ‘no’ or ‘not now’ on a pay raise may open support on other fronts, for example, on reallocating some project work you are keen to undertake.

Not everyone finds talking about their own remuneration an easy conversation. There are two significant mitigating factors that, in my experience, help turn a difficult conversation into a confident one: Number one is knowing clearly if compensation is truly what’s affecting your job satisfaction. Number two is having prepared thoroughly, knowing your figures, knowing why now and knowing the greatest strengths of your case. And if you have gone as far as figuring out what a change in compensation means to you, you have already nailed the most difficult part of how to ask for a pay raise.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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