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How to negotiate a pay rise or promotion

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Few people enjoy negotiating, and even those whose career involves negotiating on behalf of their employer can feel uncomfortable when negotiating for themselves, such as when asking for a pay rise or promotion – I’ll refer to these collectively as salary conversations.

The emotional baggage of negotiating

When it comes to asking for more, most of us feel like we’re putting ourselves at risk, which is why we feel fear. We fear the possibility of losing our jobs, of damaging a relationship, of lowering the esteem in which we’re held. Our inner voice warns us: how dare we ask for more and expect there to be no consequences!

Or we may fear rejection - the fact of being told that, no, we can’t have what we want - because it confirms our worst fear: we’re not really worth it.

I think we fear this because we equate any “no”, no matter how qualified it is, with outright and total rejection. We hear the “no” and ignore everything that follows it, usually because we’re too emotional or too busy beating ourselves up to care.

We may be told that we won’t get our pay rise today, but that we can work towards one over the next few months. But it’s the “no” we take away with us, so we feel defeated. We forget that even an outright “no” is more often about our employer than us.

So with all this baggage, it’s no surprise that negotiating is a skill that comes naturally to few people. But there are some basic steps we can take to improve our success rate in these challenging conversations.

Preparation

Know your boundaries

One of the main reasons why salary negotiations end in disappointment is a lack of preparation.

The most important preparation you can do is to understand what success looks like for you before you enter into a negotiation. What are your minimum and maximum acceptable outcomes?

If you ask for more money, what’s your dream figure, what’s an acceptable amount and what’s not acceptable to you? And is it just about the money, or can your employer offer you other things that might sweeten the deal? What about enhanced flexibility, learning and development (e.g. paying for courses that will improve your skillset) or additional benefits?

Know your value and build a case

The second bit of preparation you can do is to research and benchmark your role in other companies to see what salary it typically attracts, and have plenty of evidence of the value you’ve added to your employer over the last review period.

Don’t be upset that you might need to build a case for why you warrant a reward. It’s natural that a business will expect you to make a case. If you’ve hit targets and had an agreement based on that, have the evidence to hand. If you’re in a creative role, bring examples of your best work to a salary negotiation (or establish beforehand whether you need to).

Get the timing right

If your salary negotiation entails you marching into your manager’s office with no forewarning and demanding a pay rise, I wish you luck!  

You should never surprise your manager with a demand like this. Firstly, they may need to make a case on your behalf to a Board and to liaise with HR. They need time to think, too – about what they can offer you, about any adjustments to your role and so on. And they need to factor a new salary into their budget.

When an employer grants an employee a promotion or a pay rise, there’s work to be done for many staff: HR and the accounts department as a minimum. So plan accordingly and time your conversation so it’s in advance of scheduled pay reviews or appraisals, with time for your manager to assess and action the case you make and the required follow up.

Practise

One last note about preparation: remember that many people find salary negotiations nerve-wracking. So find a friend or trusted peer and rehearse yours. Get used to framing the conversation and making your case. The more you do it, the more easily the right words will come when it counts.

In the meeting

Don’t pitch to please

It takes strength to remember your preparation and stick to your guns when you’re in the middle of a salary negotiation. In your preparation you thought about what constitutes an ideal pay rise, what’s acceptable (what you’ll settle for) and what’s not acceptable.

But when it comes to negotiating, many people pitch at the level they’re prepared to settle for out of a confused desire to avoid causing offence. This is a mistake: their manager doesn’t know they’re doing this, and so will assume they are pitching high and can be negotiated down.

This is why so many people end up disappointed, having been negotiated down to their minimum acceptable level. Actually, they’ve only defeated themselves - the other party had no idea what they were thinking. It’s better to pitch high and negotiate down towards the level you’re happy with.

Behaviours

Once you’ve stated your case and what you feel you’re worth, don’t be tempted to waffle (something that can easily happen if you’re nervous). State your case and have the confidence to let your silence do the rest.  

Try to switch to listening mode, as it’s very important you hear what your manager says next. They may give you clear signals that a promotion or pay rise isn’t on the cards today, but could be very soon if you hit certain milestones, and it’s important this is the message you take away, rather than losing your cool because you don’t immediately get what you want. Listening is a crucial part of negotiation, while anger rarely achieves anything.

What else can you bring?

Salary negotiations are a two-sided conversation, not just an “I want”. You need to put yourself in your employer’s position. Your employer may have demands of their own, so be open to the possibility that they may wish you to take on additional responsibilities - normally pretty inevitable in a promotion conversation!

Polite paper trails

After your salary conversation, email your manager (or HR, as relevant) to thank them for their time and set out any agreed next steps, so you and they have a record of your meeting and the way forward.

Good luck, I hope this helps!

Jonathan