How to Ask for a Raise When the Pay Freeze Thaws

Liz Wolgemuth

Could the economy be any more confusing for the American worker? Although layoffs are slowing, more than half of employers said in May that they were slashing employee salaries or instituting pay freezes in order to cut back on expenses, according to a recent survey by Challenger, Gray & Christmas. Some companies say they've used as many as 13 methods of cost containment.

Then there are the signs--flickers, flashbulbs--of hope, including better-than-expected numbers on personal income, manufacturing, and consumer spending, paired with a rallying stock market. Some employees can reasonably expect that it won't be long before those pay freezes begin to thaw, and after 18 months (or more) of stagnant wages and stressful work, they may wonder how to approach the issue of a pay raise.

This is a sensitive issue given the nasty unemployment rate and the possibility that your company has had layoffs. When it comes to asking for a raise, here are some points to ponder:

Gauge your company's performance. The first thing you should consider if you're thinking about asking for a pay raise is whether your company's performance is improving as it comes out of the recession, says Lauri Williams, a career trainer in Little Rock, Ark. It's easy to see where a public company stands, but many private companies share very little information with employees. One way to tell, says Williams: "If they're hiring again."

Many workers may be asking for a raise because their wages have not been keeping up with living expenses. In other words, the money isn't about luxury--it's a need. Nevertheless, if your company is still going through layoffs, it may be in poor taste to ask.

[See a rundown of companies hiring right now.]

Measure your own performance. It's important to consider whether you're a true asset to the company, Williams says. Consistently positive performance is likely to be something the company won't want to lose. Proving your flexibility during any recessionary changes in the organization is also a positive attribute.

If you're one of the company's "best and brightest," then asking your employer to discuss salary won't come as a surprise, says Judith Bowman, an expert on business protocol and author of Don't Take the Last Donut: New Rules of Business Etiquette. She suggests taking the time to write down all of the work you've been doing during the recession, then catalogue your achievements and highlight any duties or projects you've taken on that vary from your job description. Using numbers can elevate those achievements from anecdotal to concrete.

Make sure there's a market for your skills. It's important to be aware of the competitiveness and outlook for the sector you're working in, as well as the overall health of the region. If you're in a struggling industry flush with job seekers (say, the service sector in Las Vegas), then asking for a raise may appear ignorant. Indeed, some employers may question the wisdom of discussing pay at the start of a recovery that's expected to be prolonged and painful to workers. "A lot of people will be of the perspective that you shouldn't ask for anything because you're lucky to have a job," says Peter Ronza, compensation and benefits manager at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. But if you're in a sector with a lower supply of workers and you have skills that are in demand--as in certain healthcare occupations or for software engineers--then you're in better shape to broach the salary issue.

[See more on little-known but in-demand healthcare jobs.]

Carefully craft your approach. This isn't the time to be brutish. Bowman suggests approaching your boss with a gently worded request that he or she think about setting aside some time for a review and a conversation about pay. Use a phrase such as "when the timing is right for the company," Bowman suggests, that will make it clear you are sensitive to the challenges of the recession. You have every right to assert yourself if you're an employee who has weathered the trials of a lengthy recession and performed at a high capacity, she says, as most employers have demanded double from their employees over the past 18 months. "They certainly have asserted themselves," Bowman says.

The most damaging thing you could do in a conversation about pay is to act as though nothing is happening in the economy. Another don't: making a veiled threat that your productivity will fall off if your salary isn't increased, says Ronza.

Consider negotiating for perks and benefits. Employees today are facing the momentum of a long-term trend toward reduced employer-sponsored healthcare benefits. So, even those who manage to keep their jobs in the downturn may be paying much more for coverage. If an employer is unwilling or unable to negotiate on pay--after all, some companies simply don't have the money--then it may be smart to negotiate for benefits that aren't in a paycheck. Ronza says such bargaining chips might include a four-day workweek, better healthcare benefits, or more vacation days. "You have to know your employer," he says.


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