The Perfect Moment to Ask for a Raise or Promotion

Asking for a raise or promotion is technically and emotionally challenging. Doing it the right way greatly increases your chances of success.

December 5, 2023
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3
min read

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I was listening to a podcast the other day and the host asked the experts about “the moment” to ask for a raise. It’s a moment fraught with anxiety for many people and one where employees are looking for guidance. Unfortunately, the question itself suggests a misguided approach to getting a raise or being promoted.

Let’s start with why people think there is a key moment. For some period of time at your job you’ve put forth a level of effort you think is deserving of a promotion and now see this at the key meeting where you ask and either get it or don’t. It’s a simple model; unfortunately, it’s overly simplistic.

Raises and promotions are a negotiation. As other negotiation experts and I have taught for years a negotiation is not a single moment in time. A good negotiator puts in a lot of effort before ever setting foot in the room. There is significant research done to plan arguments, understanding the counterparties’ objections and interests, determining potential tradeoffs, and more. When walking into the room a good negotiator is well prepared.

Sometimes when negotiating we have a counterparty with whom we have had little or no prior contact. Other times this specific negotiation is part of a longer standing relationship. Consider auto manufacturers and auto worker unions. They negotiate the contracts every few years. They know who will be able to the table. They also know they have a longer relationship outside of this one negotiation. When it’s time for a formal negotiation they don’t simply sit down and hammer one out but will have preparatory meetings and other conversations ahead of time. While the negotiation between you and your boss may not be quite so complex, you’re certainly not strangers and can have multiple conversations.

Consider a PhD candidate. No candidate walks into the defense (the formal session where the defense committee interrogates the PhD candidate) totally cold. In the months leading up to the defense the candidate will have spoken with people on her committee to understand what they’re looking for and any concerns about her research. In some universities the defense itself is a fait accompli. In others it may not be guaranteed, but it’s also not a discussion in which the candidate walks in blind with no idea what they may focus on.

The same should be true with your boss. This conversation shouldn’t be the first time you speak about it. Instead, this negotiation begins with a conversation about your interest in getting a raise or promotion, and a discussion of what your boss would be looking for to be able to provide it. Then, over the course of the coming months, as you work towards it, check-in every month or two to make sure you’re on track.

Equally important is to understand what other constraints there may be. For example, the executive team may have a freeze in place on raises until the next round of funding. There’s nothing worse, for both parties, than an employee working hard to get a raise only to be told his boss can’t deliver. (Or working to marry your dream girl only for her father to tell you, after seven years of hard labor, that he can only let you marry her older sister—I’m looking at you Laban.) The employee feels dejected, and the company has taken a potential hard worker and now betrays his trust. Some companies, for example, budget only once a year so making sure a potential raise is part of that conversation is key; if you miss that window, it becomes much harder.

After months of work and making sure you’re on track it still may not be a given. Even then, a bad year could still result in a freeze on raises and promotions two weeks before that final moment. This is outside of the control of you and your boss. Still, when there is such a freeze, your boss will have an easier time asking for an exception if you have months of documentation showing you’ve been planning this and working towards it. (Each discussion should have an email in which you document what was discussed.)

Even then it’s not a guarantee but overall, but your odds will be better if you have worked with your boss on getting this promotion or raise, instead of going in cold to a meeting and hoping it works out. Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind.”

Here’s a simple way to start. You can send the following as an email or ask in person:

I’d like to speak with you about my career. I enjoy working for the company and am looking to advance. I’d like to get a raise/promotion in the first half of next year. Rather than see this as a single conversation with a yes/no answer, I’d like to discuss what you would need to see in order to support the raise/promotion. Together we can make a plan for me to work on over the coming months and I’ll check in with you as I go. Please take some time to think about this and in the next week or two let’s discuss what that path would look like. Thank you.

Asking for a raise or promotion can be nerve racking. It’s honestly not easy for your boss either, since she is unexpectedly asked to make a big decision that may not have been on her radar. Instead of a single discussion, see this as a process in which you two can work together. This increases the odds of success and makes it less stressful for everyone. Good luck.

By
Mark A. Herschberg
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