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Earn It!: The Right Way to Get a Raise

Even if you've earned a boost in pay, there's no guarantee your boss will give it to you. Here's how to make him feel like he has no choice.
Earn It!: The Right Way to Get a Raise

During a recent round of performance reviews, two of my reports asked for raises. One of them got it and the other didn’t.

By understanding why, you can be the guy who walks out of that conference room with a spring in his step — the guy for whom mortgage payments suddenly become less foreboding, a carbon-fiber bike seems reasonable, and the boss looks less like a ball-breaker and more like a bonus-bestower.

The single most important detail: The guy who got the raise didn’t get it because he asked for it. He got it because he’d earned it. I knew long before the meeting that he would. He’d been swinging above his weight class for a year, and it was more than deserved.

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So if you want a boost in pay, here’s the first lesson: Do a bang-up job. But there’s a second lesson that’s equally important: Be patient. It usually takes time to get a raise, even a whole year. The money has to come from somewhere, after all, and it may not be there today. So unless you work for a family-run business where the owner can just whip out his wallet, getting a raise means changing your department’s overall budget, which doesn’t happen overnight. Your boss will probably have to sing your praises to his boss — and that means you need to write the lyrics for him.

So, if you work your ass off and play your cards right, here’s how to guarantee that 2015 is the year your paycheck gets bigger.

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The only surefire way your paycheck gets bigger is if you earn it. As management guru Mark Horstman says, “You don’t get a pay raise for just ‘doing your job.’” You already get paid for doing your job. “Pay is what you get in return for value,” says Horstman, whose Manager Tools podcast series is like a crack personal trainer for your career. “If you want to increase your pay, you have to increase your value first.”

I’d take it a step further. Assuming you don’t work for a jerk — and I realize I may be going out on a limb there — your goal is to become so valuable that your boss practically feels guilty for not paying you more. And even if he is a jerk, you want him to be worried that if he doesn’t step up, someone else will, and he’ll have to explain to his boss why he lost a top performer. In other words, by the time you ask, he’ll already have put the money for your raise in the budget.

Of course, exactly what you do to stand apart depends on the specifics of your job, but here’s the one universal point: Think about what keeps your boss up at night. Then take steps that will make him sleep easier while either bringing the company more revenue or reducing expenses.

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If you haven’t done so already, ban this phrase from your vocabulary: “That’s not my job.” If Mark Wahlberg had told Calvin Klein that underwear modeling wasn’t his job, he’d still be headlining Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Colin Kaepernick never told a coach that a quarterback’s job was to throw, not run. Doing things that “aren’t your job” is how you get better jobs.

In union handbooks, a promotion is what you get before you take on new responsibilities and get paid more. In the real world, a promotion is when you finally get the title and the paycheck you deserve for the job you’ve been doing for months — if not years.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’re well on the way to adding the value that’s going to earn you a raise. Because life isn’t always fair, your boss may not call you into his office to hand over your share of the proceeds. You’re going to have to ask for it, and that’s not always easy.

Horstman suggests that the first step is research: Find out what other people with similar jobs in your city are making. The Internet can be a wonderful thing. Sites such as,, and will give you a good sense of what your peers are taking home. The Bureau of Labor Statistics — as its name suggests — is loaded with information. In the time it takes to watch one Big Bang Theory episode you can learn a lot about what your industry is paying people.

Needless to say, if you find out you’re a one-percenter, earning more than the vast majority of people at your level, you need not share this information. But it might suggest you’re close to hitting a salary ceiling, and should be bucking for a promotion instead of just a raise.

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Once you’re armed with pay statistics and a highly specific accounting of how you’ve added value to the company’s bottom line, ask your boss for a meeting. Choose a slow week. Calibrate your approach to your boss’s personality. Maybe you send a memo outlining your case; maybe you keep it a bit more casual. Like a lawyer leading a cooperative witness, you want to bring him along slowly, never putting him on the defensive.

If other guys at your level in the industry are making more than you, share that fact, but don’t imply that your corporate overlords are cheapskates. Don’t try to pull a fast one, citing pay levels at much larger companies, for instance. He’ll call you on it, and that will weaken your case.

Focus on your contribution to the bottom line, emphasize your devotion to your department’s success, and resist the temptation to make this about fairness or seniority or the fact that your expenses are going up. It’s about the value you bring to the company. In the end, there’s a very fine line between sharing your success and coming off like an arrogant asshole. To stay on the right side of that line, focus exclusively on quantifiable accomplishments and facts. For example: “In Q4 I increased revenues by 12%” is good. “No one else in the department can close a sale like I can” is bad.

Since this is a negotiation, be prepared with fallback positions. Just because you make a rock-solid case for a 10% bump doesn’t mean he won’t offer you 5%. Can you live with that? Maybe you’d like better hours or an extra week’s vacation. If you get the sense that he supports your cause but is facing a tight budget, be prepared with a list of things you want that won’t get him in trouble with the bean counters.

And though we’ve all heard that money talks and bullshit walks, holds true only if you’re prepared to walk. If not, don’t push too hard. If you don’t get the raise, use this opportunity to get your boss to articulate his goals for you, and ask him what performance metrics would merit a pay hike.

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Now, if you are prepared to walk, that’s a whole different story. In my case, it’s a story with a happy ending: I got my biggest raise ever. I sat down across from my boss and cordially told him I was taking another job. I had no hidden agenda — in fact, I explained to him nicely that he was a difficult guy to work for — and said I was leaving for a corner office, a big pay hike, and other goodies.

Much to my surprise, he countered. I walked out of that meeting with a big raise, a better relationship with my boss, and, most important, a contract. A year later the Great Recession sunk the entire enterprise, and my colleagues got tossed out on the street with a few weeks’ severance. I had six months of paychecks, thanks to a contract I’d never even asked for.

Unfortunately, threatening to walk is sometimes the only way to get a company to recognize your worth. But the nuclear option can be used only once, and only if you’re 100% prepared to make good on the threat.

Of course, once word gets out about how you juiced your company’s bottom line in 2015, you won’t be bluffing. The only tough decision will be which of your many job offers to accept.

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