Stuff They Don’t Tell You How do you ask for a raise?

Cover Image - Stuff They Don’t Tell You
Poan Pan
WordsAlex Moshakis

Like so many parts of professional life, asking for a raise is easier said than done. Writer Alex Moshakis discovered this firsthand, when he spent the better part of a year negotiating for what turned out to be a modest pay increase. However, there are steps you can take to build your case and navigate the inherent awkwardness of demanding more money. Here, he speaks to experts to find out how to manage it.

Illustrations by Poan Pan.

The last time I asked for a raise, the conversation lasted 10 months. The process was rough and laborious, and when a figure was eventually agreed upon, I felt frustrated: the increase wasn’t anywhere near what I’d hoped for.I remember thinking, “Was there another way to go about it?” The answer, I know now, is yes. 

When it comes to negotiating a raise, it all comes down to recognizing your value. “You’ve got to know your worth,” says Ryan Gray, an expert in negotiation at management consultancy The Gap Partnership. One way to determine this, he continues, is to speak to recruiters, “to understand what your market value is.” Since it’s their job to fill vacancies at different companies, they’ll be able to tell you what others have been offered for roles similar to yours, which should give you an idea of what you can reasonably request.

It’s remarkable, Gray says, how many people ask for a raise without suggesting a specific amount. “People say, ‘I’ve been here for a few years now. I do all these extra things. What more will you pay me?’” He shakes his head. “You could say, ‘I know from the market that I’m not being paid how much I’m worth, so I’d like you to pay me X amount more.’”

If you want to cover your bases, try asking for slightly more than you’re actually looking for. “It’s unlikely your company will offer you exactly that amount of money. They’ll have negotiators working within their business that will want to get the best deal they can for the company,” he says. “Be prepared to make concessions to show that you’re reasonable.”

Market rates aren’t the only facts that can bolster your case for a raise. “Come with data about your own performance. Come with data about comparable pay. Find people either within your organization or outside of it who are on a comparable path, and find out what their trajectory was,” says Tessa West, an associate professor of psychology at New York University, and an expert in interpersonal relations. “Ask, ‘What have I done for the organization?’ or ‘How have I contributed to increase in revenue, or the bringing in of new clients?’”

Finding data to strengthen your position can be easier in buying or selling roles, where the numbers are clear. “In roles where there aren’t those metrics available to you,” Gray suggests, “have conversations with your colleagues. It’s really taboo to ask a colleague how much they earn, but asking that question can make you thousands of pounds a year. If I ask you, ‘How much do you earn?’ and you give me an answer that’s £5,000 more than what I’m earning, and we’re doing the same job, I’m immediately going to my boss.”

In reality, it’s not just your boss you have to appeal to. “Businesses often disempower line managers,” Gray says. “Instead, they use human resources departments to create rigid structures, or bandings, in which they place and pay their staff. You will get paid within a band and, without getting a promotion, it’s very hard to negotiate around [those limits]. Those structures are put in place to stop you getting paid too much money.” 

West agrees. “A lot of times, bosses want to give you a raise,” she says. “But they need something to go to their boss with, to convince their boss that they should give you a raise—and they need that on paper.”

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Some businesses will rigidly stick to their pay structures, and would rather lose employees than alter their bandings. “But in other businesses where there’s a people shortage, they will be desperate to keep you,” Gray says. “So if you’re good at what you do—and you must think you are, that’s why you’re asking for a pay rise—test the limits of how wedded they are to their pay frameworks… Those bands are man-made striations that can be changed, depending on how important you are, the power you have, and how desperate your company is to keep you.”

If your company is proving inflexible, Gray suggests broadening the remuneration conversation beyond salary alone. “If your employer isn’t prepared to pay you what you want, maybe you can get some extra annual leave. Maybe you can negotiate different ways of hybrid working. Maybe you can improve your bonus structure, if you have one,” he says. “These are things we call low-cost, high-value trades. Allowing you an additional couple of days off a year doesn’t really cost your employer much. But it could be worth a lot to you.” 

Regardless of how well-armed you are with data, or how convincing your case, negotiating a raise can still be uncomfortable. But that doesn’t mean you should back down at the first sign of resistance. “When your employer says, ‘We will give you a 5% pay rise’... The comfortable thing to do is accept the 5%. It gets you out of the room. Your employer’s happy. You got a raise,” Gray says. “The uncomfortable thing to do is to say, ‘No, I asked for 10%,’ and then sit there in the meeting, or send the email, and make your employer come back to you with an improved offer.

“If what your employer is offering you is okay, but not what you want, sit there for another five minutes, hold your position, and push a bit harder, because you could get more,” he says.

Asking for more money should not have a negative effect on your standing within a business, “unless, of course, you’re being an arse about it, or being difficult, or damaging relationships,” Gray says. In fact, your employers may even respect you more for being assertive. 

Just remember: it's often more cost-effective for a business to pay you more than let you walk. “[If you leave], they might have to pay someone else overtime to pick up your job. You might take clients with you. They might have to pay a recruiter to replace you, and then have to train that person up, and they’ll probably have to pay that person market rate, which is what you were asking for anyway,” he says. “You need to understand your alternatives and their alternatives. Your alternative might be going to work for a rival company for the money you’re asking for. Their alternative might be having to recruit someone, paying a recruitment fee, and paying the new employee more.”

In extreme cases, it is possible to threaten to leave unless you’re given a raise. But Gray advises this route only as an absolute last resort, given how such hostility can damage trust in a professional relationship. elsewhere unless they offer a raise. 

“But if you’re going to threaten to leave, you have to be ready to actually leave,” he says. “Don’t make threats you’re not prepared to follow through on.”