So Your Boss Refused to Give You a Raise


While being rejected for a raise can be a blow to your self-esteem, it’s an opportunity for development, and not a step backwards. The author offers advice on how to maintain momentum after being denied a raise: 1) respond diplomatically, 2) unearth possible barriers and pressures, 3) propose alternatives, 4) master the art of authentic self-promotion, and 5) seek out additional advocates.

After five successful years in her role as vice president of philanthropy at a large nonprofit, my client Clare felt she was overdue for a pay increase. Under her leadership, Clare’s team had increased donor gifts by tens of millions of dollars. In fact, they had more than doubled their annual giving goal last year alone.

On the heels of this achievement, Clare felt empowered approaching her boss — the CEO of the organization — to ask for a raise. She prepared diligently for weeks, researching salary data, crafting her talking points, and rehearsing the conversation. But when Clare shared her request with her boss, she was shut down. She felt crushed to hear her boss say: “I’m sorry, but we’re not able to adjust your salary at this point in time. Check back in six months, and keep up the good work.”

Perhaps you’ve been in Clare’s shoes, eagerly anticipating your annual review or a compensation discussion, only to be discouraged when the outcome is “No.” Asking for a raise takes courage, so when your request is turned down, it can feel like a punch in the gut.

Despite the setback, Clare was resolute in the value she brought to the organization. She was determined not to let the rejection be a blow to her self-esteem. You can do the same. Here’s how to maintain momentum after being denied a raise.

Respond diplomatically.

Rejection stings, and it’s human nature to feel hurt and upset. Give yourself time after the conversation to process your feelings. In the moment, do your best to respond diplomatically by taking a few deep breaths and identifying your emotions.

You might say: “Thank you for sharing that. Not surprisingly, I’m disappointed that the company won’t be able to honor my request. Nevertheless, I’m committed to bringing my best to the organization and hope to continue the conversation about how I can be an even more valuable contributor.”

In this response, you’ve expressed appreciation for your boss’ openness and demonstrated resilience in the face of a challenge. You’ve also opened the door for a follow up conversation to discuss compensation in the future.

Dig deeper.

Unearth possible barriers and pressures that led to your supervisor’s denial with a curious, non-defensive tone. Are you at the top of the salary band for your level, for instance? Has the organization hit hard times? Get more details with open-ended questions like:

  • What’s contributing to your decision?
  • How are compensation and performance evaluated?
  • What could I be doing more of?

Getting more information can help guide your decision whether to stay and advocate for yourself — or to create an exit plan and focus your energy on a new role where you’ll be more valued.

Propose alternatives. 

Seeing the situation through your manager’s point of view also allows you to brainstorm alternatives that they may be more amenable to. For example, one of my clients recently requested a $20,000 salary increase. Her manager counter offered, explaining that although a $20,000 increase wasn’t in the budget, he could give her $10,000 and would restructure her bonus to be merit-based and more in line with what senior management receives.

You could also consider negotiating for:

  • Flex time or a work-from-home arrangement
  • Stock options
  • A title change
  • More vacation time
  • Professional development funds
  • Funds to upgrade your home office

Continue the conversation.

Hearing “no” is not a failure, so don’t immediately give up. Counterintuitively, rejection often signals the start of a negotiation because it shines light on the real issues.

If you’ve been denied a raise, use the opportunity to your advantage. My client Clare scheduled a follow up meeting with the CEO. She explained that she wanted to position herself for a pay increase in the next six months and engaged her boss in a conversation about what she would need to do to get there. Together they created a plan with key metrics and specific improvements that would justify a compensation increase.

Clare went a step further, proactively touching base with her boss about her progress. Doing so showed the CEO that Clare was serious and committed to following through and continually reinforced that her performance was exceeding benchmarks.

Master the art of authentic self-promotion.

Highlighting your achievements is essential to building a case for a pay raise, so look for ways to publicize your successes and impact. Perhaps you offer to present a case study in a meeting with important executives. Maybe you pursue extracurricular thought leadership on behalf of your firm by speaking at a conference or on a podcast.

Another simple strategy is to kick off one-on-ones with your boss by reviewing recent wins. It’s an organic way to make sure they’re regularly updated on your successes. Be sure to frame your progress in terms of how it positively affects your clients or organization overall — not just how it makes you look good.

Seek out additional advocates.

Flat or horizontal management structures, where there is less hierarchy, are becoming more and more common. With power decentralized, your boss may be one of several stakeholders who contributes to decisions about your career path and provides input into whether or not you get a raise.

Consider requesting a skip-level meeting with your manager’s manager to make them aware of your work and contributions. Build relationships with other key stakeholders who hold influence so that you have more allies advocating for your advancement.

Remember, while being rejected for a raise might initially feel like the end of the world, it’s an opportunity for development, not a step backwards.



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