In the spirit of pay transparency, I'm willing to divulge my irresponsible financial past on the internet for all to read. Upon moving to New York City at the tender age of 23, I naïvely signed a $1650-a-month lease (without utilities) on a $38,000-a-year salary. I relied on a small savings account accrued during my year spent living and working in the metro Detroit area after graduation, which, thankfully, saved me from making what I assume would've been many desperate phone calls to my parents (okay, there were still a few).
You see, I've never really been much of a "numbers" person, and my degree in English did little to prepare me for the financial realities of adulthood, let alone living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Before I knew it, money (or lack thereof) became an omnipresent source of anxiety in my life. I no longer had the luxury of tossing out receipts or skimming over pay statements. Similarly, I couldn't afford to be afraid of talking about money in my professional life. Though personal circumstances should never be the catalyst behind asking for a raise, my job encouraged me to work hard enough to feel comfortable asking for more money, in addition to overcoming the anxiety I felt about negotiating with my employer.
My work as a writer and content manager at a small financial literacy nonprofit also enlightened me to the realities of the persistent gender wage gap, which currently stands at 87 cents for every white man's $1 for Asian women, 79 cents for white women, 63 cents for black women, 59 cents for native Hawaiian women, 57 cents for American Indian women, and 54 cents for Hispanic women.
While countless economic and cultural factors underlie this wage gap, a willingness to ask for more money is one of them. Men are four times more likely than women to ask for a raise, which leads to a sort of snowball effect over the course of a person's career. "I tell my graduate students that by not negotiating their job at the beginning of their career, they're leaving anywhere between $1 million and $1.5 million on the table in lost earnings over their lifetime," Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University told NPR. "Even a small pay boost will mean bigger annual raises and possibly bigger bonuses, and it will carry over to a new employer, who is almost certain to ask, 'What was your last salary?'" (One note: It's illegal for employers to ask this question in select places in the U.S., including California and New York.)
Emboldened by these statistics, I was determined to negotiate my first raise at my upcoming annual review. Fortunately, it was around this time that I met Logan Wells, a former senior-level colleague of mine and current founder and CEO of Not Another Agency, a New York City–based digital marketing agency focused on lifestyle brands and startups. Roughly three months before my review, I asked her to get post-work drinks and discuss the matter at hand: how to ask for a raise (and actually get one).
It was over overpriced cocktails at a watering hole across from our office that I learned about Wells's foolproof method, which essentially consists of planning out your ask, backing up the "why" by comparing your original job description to what you actually do, and supplying industry research from a site like Glassdoor to further support your ask. Using this method, Wells has secured countless raises and promotions herself, in addition to helping friends and colleagues climb the corporate ladder (myself included).
"I always want to teach my employees enough about their value and role that, if they ever decide to leave my company for whatever reason, they can command at least $20,000 more within one year than their current ask price," Wells told me. "It's important to circle back and look at your job description, even just for yourself, and compare it to the actual role you're filling—it helps you to keep track of your progress in a way that's somewhat measurable."
She specified that it's not about highlighting all of the extra work you're taking on, but simply saying, "I enjoy the extra responsibilities, but I want recognition for the fact that I'm servicing more roles and that I'm serving a more senior role than I was initially hired for." She added, "That's the hope—that you're actually fulfilling a more senior role than what you were initially hired for. It's kind of like dressing for the job you want—you're going to have to over-service your current role for at least six months before you step up."
Wells actually came up with this strategy herself after working at her first agency job. "I realized that I was essentially doing three jobs, and I loved it, but I wanted a title that commanded the respect for what I was doing," she explained. "I was also getting a lot of offers from other companies through recruiters, which led me to do my own salary research. Emotionally, it made me feel better to know that I was being compensated fairly for the work I was putting in." Below, find Wells's method, which helped me to successfully negotiate my first raise.
Do Your Research + Set Up the Meeting
A few months before your review, touch base with your manager over email to set expectations for the meeting. "Always have a paper trail documenting when you want to talk and what you want to talk about—set the agenda for them and make it really easy," advises Wells. You can phrase it however you like, but she suggests asking to "revisit my progress" or "discuss the evolution of my position."
Be sure to consider timing when setting the meeting. "When it comes to asking for a raise, I suggest doing it after something personally successful, like delivering on a big pitch or finalizing a big end-of-year report," she advises. You should also consider company expenses. "Don't schedule your review for right after your employer paid taxes or bought new company laptops," for example. This is especially relevant if you're in the startup world or work for a relatively small company.
Plan Out Your Ask
When you walk into the meeting, you should have four figures committed to memory: your ask, your counteroffer, your bottom line for negotiating (the absolute lowest number you'll accept), and the national salary average for your industry and role. In terms of deciding on an ask, remember that "asking for a raise is kind of like tax brackets: If you're in the $50,000- to $70,000-a-year range, your raises are going to be smaller than if you're in the $75,000 to $100,000 range." If you're unsure, always revert to the national salary average for your industry and role, and make sure you're inching toward the higher end of that number. Additionally, consider the following:
The cadence of your reviews: "If you can revisit this conversation at any time, then don't stretch too hard," explains Wells. "But if you know that this is a once-a-year deal, then consider going for the big ask. Break it down by month and ask yourself if your new salary would be enough to sustain you for the next year."
Your company's finances: "Try your best to understand where they're coming from as a business owner," adds Wells. "Do the math: How many clients do you have? How do you guys make money: Is it slow or busy? Has there been any change in senior management?" Remember that it's not all about you and your salary. Considering these factors can increase your likelihood of pitching a realistic number and landing a raise.
Personal preference + lifestyle: "At the end of the day, it's about whatever number makes sense for you," explains Wells. "You shouldn't have to feel like you have to constantly look for a new job, and you don't want to feel like you're going to develop resentment because you're not getting paid enough." It also depends on what you value professionally. For example, you may be willing to take a salary hit to work in the fashion industry or for a really amazing startup. "It's hard to give exact numbers because it depends on what you care about and your lifestyle," says Wells.
The industry average: "Don't be afraid to share what the going rate in your industry is for your position during your meeting (assuming it's higher than what you're currently making)," she advises. Think of this as another negotiation point for why you can command a higher salary, but always reinforce this data with statements like 'I enjoy working here' and 'I plan on being here for a long time.'"
Back Up the "Why"
"It's important to illustrate that you're going above and beyond your job description," she explains, and there's no easier way to do that than to literally print it off and take it to the meeting with you. "You're essentially trying to say, 'I love working here, but I've taken on a lot of extra responsibility.'"
Wells reiterates the importance of always going off metrics when making your case—focus on tasks you can measure and prove. For example, if you now manage four client accounts compared to the two you managed when you first started, make that one of your talking points. This is also a great time to suggest more efficient ways of doing day-to-day tasks or splitting up work between team members. "If you come with a solution of how to better maximize hours and money for the company, then we're happy," she adds. "Aim to make it about the company as much as you can."
Beyond looking at your daily tasks and roles, consider your management skills and influence in the office. "Consider who you're managing or how you're influencing other people in the company," explains Logan. "That has a snowball effect, and you'll be more valuable to your employer over time. You can leverage that prowess when you're asking for a raise."
What to Do If You Get Rejected
If you get told no for whatever reason, remember that your boss is trying to run a successful business, and try not to take it too personally. If the issue is budget, ask your employer to set expectations for future raises and set another meeting for the following month to track your progress. Say something along the lines of "I understand that this is the final offer, but I'm excited to work my way up. What's the next best review strategy, and how do we proceed from here?"
Ideally, you want to set up a consistent review-and-reward process that allows you to keep moving up the corporate ladder. "I set benchmarks to let [an employee] know what they can do to contribute to revenue, which would in turn change the budget," explains Wells. "For example, if an employee brings in more sales, then I can agree to give them 10% of the net, plus a 2.5% raise for every six months of a longer client."
If your employer just flat-out says, "No, we can't do that right now," and you feel like you've truly earned it, you may want to think about whether this is the right company for you. "If your compensation isn't based on your performance, then what is your growth plan? What is the measurable component?"
Key Phrases to Consider
"I plan on continuing my career here and am interested in understanding how I can grow with the company."
"I want to be able to understand how I can contribute to the company's growth in a measurable way."
"I've successfully contributed to X, Y, and Z in addition to my outlined role, and I'd like the opportunity to do more."
"If there is not an established growth plan at this stage, maybe we can regroup quarterly to ensure my efforts are aligned in a way that supports a raise or growth."
A bit riskier: "I'm really happy here, but comparatively, on the market, I know what the salary demands for my position and what my experience is worth."
Phrases + Approaches to Avoid
Don't talk too much. Let them respond to your initial ask before diving into the "why."
Don't start with "I deserve." It can come off too aggressive.
Don't ever reference your personal financials. There should be no mention of student loans, rent increases, or the like. Only connect the requested raise to your role and company at hand.
Don't settle. Employers expect you to counter. But, also know when they counter with a final offer and when to step away from the negotiation.
If a salary increase is not an option right now, make sure you know your options for title change or other "rewards." Also make sure that you know when it's okay to revisit again.
Logan Wells is the founder and CEO of Not Another Agency, a New York City–based digital marketing agency with a name that speaks to its vision. After more than 10 years of experience in agencies and venture capital, she founded NAA to be the "anti-agency"—a no-BS alternative providing clients with strategy and support specifically designed to grow with each stage of their business. It specializes in lifestyle, e-commerce, and health and fitness.
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