How to Ask for a Raise

It's always a challenging task, but there are ways to stack the deck in your favor.
Author:
Publish date:

Editor's note: If you have a pressing business-etiquette question for Miss Conduct, please send her an email.

In some offices, your relationship with the boss is so good all you have to do is say, "Hey, I need a raise," and you'll get one. But in most cases, where the workplace isn't that informal, etiquette can guide you through a successful negotiation.

The etiquette of asking for a raise is exactly like the etiquette of asking for anything else -- say, salt at the dinner table. The only difference is that in typical offices, the "salt" is hidden (not to mention hoarded), so you may have no idea how much everyone else is getting or how much is available.

Indeed, since "salary" is a word that derives from the salt allowance given as payment to Roman soldiers, the analogy is even more apropos.

Set the Table

First of all, money is a measure of value, and since value is fluid, timing is everything.

You wouldn't ask for the salt at the dinner table when your boss is in the middle of a conversation, his hands are occupied and his mouth is full -- so keep the same in mind for a work context. Approach your boss to open negotiations at a time and in a setting that places your boss at ease, preferably when he is flush with a new contract and already thanking you for a job well done in getting it.

Timing is also important in a broader company context. Again, like a dinner-table request, you must ask for salt while it's still available -- not after it's too late, when the shaker is empty or your food is cold. Ask while the moment is right -- not right after the company releases bad earnings numbers.

Find the Opening

Whenever the opportune moment is set up and you're actually asking for a raise, break it down. If you were at dinner, you'd never demand "Salt! Now!" of your dining companion. You'd ask nicely. So proceed with negotiations as you would all business dealings: use a softened start-up, evidence and an open question -- or perhaps even better, an open statement.

The soft start-up approach follows the same formula as a

constructive complaint. When you begin the process with a compliment, your audience will be much more receptive. As you pass into framing evidence of the problem, the onus transfers to your boss to imagine himself in the same situation. Then, when you conclude with an open question, your boss can be free to brainstorm solutions.

It works because the conversation is structured so that you're working together on a solution, instead of turning yourself into one more burden your boss has to shoulder alone.

For example, if you were at a dinner where the salt appeared to be hoarded, you might say, "This soup is intriguing, but something's missing. As one who brought in 15% more salt this year than last, I think my broth needs a sprinkle."

Let the Games Begin

Once negotiations begin, be patient.

Most salary negotiations fall short of the employee's goals because they end too soon -- mostly out of fear.

To combat your fear of being replaced, remember how it costs employers a lot of productivity (money) to find new employees. All other things being equal, it's worth a salary bump or seniority boost for most bosses to keep you around.

So keep your evidence coming (any specific examples of your productivity, including charts or lists of new projects you've initiated, are excellent fodder), but above all, remain friendly. The goal is not to remain merely polite, but warm -- and not just because it keeps your boss off guard.

If you allow your boss's posturing to upset your warm regard for him or the company, it can hinder the relationship. On the other hand, if you maintain your best, most charming characteristics, the Old Salt will go the extra mile to keep you happy. It's a game, so play along. The boss is just doing his job, keeping costs down. If he didn't do that, his own salary would be on the line.

The ultimate preparation is to calm yourself. Practice and role-play with nonwork friends, not colleagues, until you can get through any number of scenarios without raising your heart rate. Visualize success. Assume the attitude that your boss wants to help, but realize that he's got to have exactly the right ammunition to make achieving your goal OK with his bosses.

As you negotiate, keep coming back to the mantra of etiquette: Your boss is perfect in every way, so practice being flattering and funny. The last thing you want is to win the negotiation but sour the relationship. Alternately, if it's just not working out this time around, save your ammunition for the next.

And when you do get the raise you were aiming for, for business' sake, keep it to yourself. You don't want rub salt in any wounds.

Read more of Miss Conduct's best advice at

AskMissConduct.com. Her amanuensis, Lisa Moricoli Latham, is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, and has contibuted to The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Salon.com.