When Allen Walton, 26, of Dallas, was hired to help launch an e-commerce site for a security products company in 2011, he happily accepted the CEO’s offer of a $65,000 salary. After all, he’d been making about half that in a previous sales job, so he didn’t attempt to negotiate.
By 2013 the company was raking in more than $1 million in online sales—yet his salary hadn’t budged. When he asked colleagues in the industry how much they were making and did research on his own, he was shocked to learn his job was worth $10,000 more.
At first, he did nothing with this information.
“Based on the value I provided, I knew I wasn’t getting paid enough, but I was too afraid to ask for a raise and get shot down,” says Walton, who now runs SpyGuy Security, a site for high-tech security products. “The guy that I was working for was a bit intimidating. I’m not a confrontational guy, so I was afraid of rejection.”
Most of us can probably relate. According to a Salary.com survey, only a mere 12% of people try to negotiate for more money during performance reviews, and 44% say they never bring up the subject of raises. And it seems they’re really missing out, given that a recent CareerBuilder survey found that two-thirds of workers who ask for a raise actually get one.
Walton should know. Frustrated by his salary situation, he decided to watch some role-playing videos featuring a career expert offering tips for negotiating a raise, which helped him get up the nerve to ask his own boss. “Seeing and hearing other people do it gave me the confidence that I could do this myself,” he says.
When it was time to have the money talk with his manager, Walton went over how much revenue had gone up and pointed out that his salary remained the same. He showed his boss income figures for comparable positions in other companies and made it obvious how much he knew about operations in his department—and how little his boss did. Within 15 minutes, Walton received a $10,000 pay bump.
Sounds straightforward enough, right? So why is it that, even if we know the golden rules to getting more money, the majority of us fail to act on them?
The big-picture answer: fear.
Even in today’s workplace, money and salaries are still taboo topics, which could encourage you to stay silent rather than stir the pot. But, in the long run, you’re only hurting your own best asset: your earning potential.
To tackle this career roadblock, you have to first pinpoint what, exactly, is making you feel trepidation about asking for a pay bump. Chances are it’s likely one of these four salary-related fears that career experts most often see:
1. Fear That You Don’t Deserve More Money
We all know at least one overconfident co-worker who walks around the office thinking he or she is the company’s golden child. But these folks are actually few and far between. What’s more typical are employees who undervalue themselves, says Shaelyn Pham, a psychologist and author of The Joy of Me.
“They don’t believe their contribution is any more valuable compared to others. And if they don’t see their worth, then they’ll have difficulties asking for more.”
In fact, there’s actually a term for this: “impostor syndrome,” or the fear of being exposed as not nearly as talented, intelligent, or deserving as others might think you are. As a result, any promotions or raises are merely viewed as pure luck or that you’re simply on the receiving end of a boss’ goodwill.
2. Fear of Rejection
When you ask for what you want, there’s always the chance that you’ll hear “no,” and that means you’d have to live with the embarrassment of rejection. But you need to remind yourself that “no” the first time doesn’t mean the topic is off the table forever.
“The first response is typically ‘no,’ so if you put your tail between your legs after your request is denied, you will not get that raise,” says Katie Donovan, founder of salary and career consultancy Equal Pay Negotiations.
“The negotiation actually starts with the request being denied. So be ready for at least one ‘no.’ ” Which brings us to…
3. Fear of Negotiating
Unless you’re a lawyer or a seasoned salesperson, you probably don’t enjoy haggling for more money. In fact, 22% of respondents in the Salary.com survey didn’t ask for a raise because they felt they lacked the skills needed to negotiate, while 18% simply find the process “inherently unpleasant.”
But Donovan offers this telling statistic: “I’ve heard estimates that people who negotiate starting salaries and raises can earn $1 million more during their career. That’s over $20,000 a year if you work for 45 years!”
If you’re hesitant to proactively start the discussion, take advantage of review periods, suggests Matt Wallaert, a behavioral scientist and co-founder of GetRaised, a site that helps people do salary research so they can advocate for a raise. “You’re already having a conversation about your performance,” he says. “Salary and performance should be strongly linked, and so you want to take advantage of talking about one to bridge to the other.”
4. Fear of Losing Your Job
Being underpaid is better than not being paid—at least that’s the excuse people give for not rocking the boat in a still-recovering economy.
“The myth persists that asking for a raise or negotiating can get you fired,” Wallaert says. “But in the many interviews we did while building GetRaised, we never found a single person who was actually fired [for asking for a raise].”
Donovan also points out that if you have a job that requires a very specific skill or knowledge set, it might actually be more expensive for the company to lose you.
“The cost of hiring a new employee ranges from one and a half to three times the salary [of the position]. So a 10%, 20% and even 30% raise is often easier and more cost-effective.”
The Key to Fighting Those Fears: Know Your Worth
Getting past these phobias boils down to reinforcing for yourself that you are providing value to your company—and deserve to get paid more for it.
For starters, it’s OK to let a little righteous anger fuel you.
“It’s a great balancer for fear—you can really get angry when you see how underpaid you are,” Donovan says.
To help pinpoint your worth, check out data from sites like Glassdoor and Payscale—or simply ask others what they make, as Walton did. “Just remember that people starting out may be getting paid more than you, since the job market has improved over the past few years,” Donovan says.
Taking the time to place a dollar figure on the impact of your work can also help motivate you because it’s a reminder of how skilled and talented you are—and it can help you with negotiations later.
Donovan recalls helping one client go through the exercise of translating her impact to her employer. The client was only expecting to unearth a small figure—but they actually calculated that she was worth $2 million in revenue and cost savings. In that context, “Negotiating for $10,000, $20,000, and even $30,000 did not seem scary when she understood the value of her work,” Donovan says.
And if your own results don’t give you the courage to speak up, ask yourself: Am I actually doing the job that I was hired to do, or is this a different job that deserves a different salary?
When Brianna Rose, 25, from Long Island, NY, graduated from college, she took an entry-level job as a PR coordinator, and her employer met her salary expectations. But a year into the job, “I knew how successful of a brand I had built for them, and my workload had nearly doubled since being first hired,” says Rose, now a branding consultant.
She presented this information—including analytics that proved the impact of her work—to her boss and asked for a whopping $20,000 raise during her annual review. She was nervous to make such a large request because she was technically entry-level and working in the healthcare industry, which was cutting costs at the time. But she got the money in the end.
“It wasn’t that I just wanted a higher salary—it was that I wanted a higher salary once I better understood the job scope,” Rose says. “The research and time that went into my ‘dissertation’ for my $20,000 negotiation is what made me confident that I would receive it.”
At the end of the day, remember that part of your manager’s job is to deal with money and performance issues. So unless you’re asking for something that’s way above market rate and calls your common sense into question, your boss isn’t going to treat your request as unreasonable, says Alison Green, founder of the Ask a Manager hiring blog, who adds that you just need to make sure you stay professional and avoid being pushy or adversarial.
When “No” May Signal It’s Time to Move On
Of course, it is possible that, even if you do make a strong case for yourself, your employer may simply choose not to reward your work. When that happens, it may be time to see if there’s someone else who will.
And for some companies, the threat of losing a good employee may persuade them to change their minds. It certainly helped Walton’s case.
“My boss pushed back, but caved when he could see that I was serious about walking right then and there,” Walton says. “I knew that I could make at least the same amount of money somewhere else, if not more.”
But that tactic didn’t work for Keith Harding,* 37, a partner at an international law firm based in San Francisco.
Throughout his career, Harding had learned that the key to a successful salary request was to understand an employer’s profit model—otherwise, management might lowball employees in an attempt to boost their own bottom line.
“Before you ask for a raise, you have to be able to explain why it makes economic sense for the company—and make a case for why you deserve a bigger portion of the profit,” Harding says.
With that in mind, Harding felt justified asking for a 10% raise and a six-figure bonus at his last firm. His employer felt differently and turned down the request. Harding loved where he worked, but he made the painful decision to leave and work for an employer that met his compensation expectations.
“Pride was a greater fear [than rejection] for me, because I had to come to the conclusion that if I did not get what I wanted, I had to move on,” he says. “This is difficult when you like your employer and get along with management. But, at the end of the day, business is business.”
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