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Advice / Job Search / Job Offer

Negotiation Q&A: I Got a Raise—But it Wasn't Enough

person negotiating

Dear Negotiators,

I think I've just been shorted the raise I deserve, and am hoping you can help me—or at least tell me what I should have done so I don't make this mistake again.

I have been at my current company, a medium-sized marketing agency, for almost two years. I love my role and feel like I've really succeeded here—I've continued to take on higher-profile clients and projects, and I have received great feedback along the way. 

My annual review was last week, and I went in planning to ask for a promotion (and corresponding salary increase). I did my research (online and with friends) and planned to ask for a raise of 25%—which I know sounds like a lot, but it's in line with what people in my field at that level make. 

The good news? I went into the review, and my boss rewarded me with a promotion and the title I wanted. I didn't even have to ask. 

The bad news? The raise he offered me was 7%. 

I feel so deflated—I feel like I was shorted on the salary I really do deserve (OK, I would have been happy with 15%), but I have no room to negotiate because my employer preempted me and "gave" me something that I should be "thankful" for. 

I didn't know what to do, so I said "thank you" and left, but it hasn't sit well with me since. I'm not sure if you could help out in my situation, but hopefully your answer will help other women (or men!) like me when they're faced with the same situation. 

Thank you!

—Promoted but Deflated

Dear Deflated,

Great question, and one women ask us regularly. We often hear women express gratitude for less than what they deserve. Heck, we often feel grateful just because we have the job!

Here’s what most men know that we do not. Your employer expects you to negotiate. Let me give that a little more nuance. Your employer expects men to negotiate. The only reason they might act surprised when you say, “that’s a good place to start,” is because (surprise!) you’re not a guy.

I have this surprised male reaction to negotiating women on the highest authority.  The former Mayor of my own city—Los Angeles—speaking at the annual gala of the 100+ year old Women Lawyers Association of Los Angeles, said “I love my women lawyers. [Beat.] They never ask for a raise.”

I kid you not.

Be of good cheer. Your employer did not lure you into a box canyon. He began the negotiation by offering you a raise that was likely less than he had the authority to offer. He anchored the negotiation in his favor by setting one end of the bargaining range very low. Anchors have unexpectedly strong influences on both parties. You needn’t, however, accept either the opening offer nor allow yourself to be overly influenced by the first proposal put on the table.

What you can and should do is re-anchor by making a counter-offer, giving your employer a compelling reason to either accept it or counter it with something less than 25% but more than 7%.

In response to that counter, feel free to counter again. This “distributive” pie-claiming process generally results in a number that is halfway between the first two supportable offers. And, the delta between 7% and 25% is 18%, 3% higher than the raise of 15% you were willing to settle upon.

Here’s how the negotiation conversation could have gone.

Your Boss: We’ve decided to give you a 7% raise.

You: [Instead of saying, “Oh thank you, that’s so generous of you.”] That’s a good place to start, but it won’t close the gap between my market value and my current salary.

Your Boss: [Often surprised that a woman will negotiate her raise.] Well, that’s what management has given me the authority to offer you.

You: Hm. Let me see if I can help you convince the company that its needs and mine would be best served by paying me my true market value.

Your Boss: Well, I don’t think that will work.

You: If you’re willing to give it a try, I am. Negotiating, after all, is just like marketing. It’s what I’ve been trained to do. Back in ___________, I was hired to do the ____________ job with these duties [handing over your out-of-date job description]. The job I’ll be doing now looks more like this [handing over the job description you used to benchmark your salary at $X + 25%]. If I had to be replaced—which of course I wouldn’t want—this is how much it would cost to replace me. My replacement, however, would have to be brought up to speed, introduced to our clients, and incorporated into the business. Our firm would also lose the institutional knowledge and client relationships I’ve developed over the years. It wouldn’t surprise me if your own compensation hasn’t fallen below your market value given the [layoffs, raise and bonus freezes, whatever] that have required all of us to accept less for doing more.

Your Boss: I still don’t think that will work.

You: If you wanted to pay me something closer to my market value, who would you talk to?

Your Boss: Well, I’d talk to _______________, but I don’t think he’d agree to anything more than 7%.

You: I’m willing to have a conversation with him about it myself. If you’d like to be included in that conversation, that would be great. I do think it will be useful to you at compensation time as well, since we’re probably all working for less than our market value.

Your Boss: Let me talk to ____________ first, and I’ll get back to you.

The actual negotiation with the person with more authority should go something like this:

Management: I believe your manager offered you 7%, and that’s the best we can do.

You: I don’t know if my manager told you, but I’m asking for 25% because that’s what the market is paying for someone doing my job [hand over your new job description] in our geographical area for someone with my education, skills, and experience [hand over your benchmarking data].

Management: I think I could convince HR to go to 8.5%, but I doubt they’d authorize anything more than that [this is a grudging counter and you should decrease your counter accordingly. Because women tend to hate the process, however, and men don’t expect women to do it, I’d be ingratiating].

You: I really appreciate your concession. I know it was probably as difficult for you to make as it would be for me to accept much less than 25%. Still, I’m confident we can find a number we can both agree upon, and I’d like to get there as quickly as possible. So I’ll double your concession of 1.5% to 3%. That’s 22%, which is 3% less than market.”

Management: I’d go to 10% but I don’t see how I can do so without throwing everyone else’s raises out of whack.

You: I understood that we keep salary data confidential here. Are you concerned about leaks?

Management: I’m concerned about our entire salary structure company-wide, which was set in consultation with a consulting firm.

You: That’s interesting. When was that?

Management: [Whatever this person says, keep this conversation going with wide open who, what, where, when, how, and why questions to learn about the company’s needs, desires, preferences, priorities, challenges, and concerns.]

You: 18% is halfway between our first two offers. I don’t usually split the baby in half, but it seems like that would make it easier for both of us.

Management: 15% and that’s final.

Of course, this is hypothetical and easier to write than to actually say, but it illustrates some important negotiation lessons.

First, it gives you permission to respond to a proposed salary increase as if it were a proposal rather than an edict. Secondly, it keeps the parties talking as if the raise is in fact negotiable. It employs the rule of reciprocity—stressing the significant concession you’ve made and indicating you expect it to be reciprocated—a very powerful persuasion principle. Your statement that your concession is twice your employer’s concession frames your counter-offer as being extremely generous, even though you’ve reduced your demand only by 3%.

When you learn that the first line of authority isn’t free to negotiate a deal, you ask who is and offer to include that person in the conversation—once again bestowing a benefit on your first bargaining partner and suggesting that further benefits could well flow to him or her as a result of your own strategy. You avoid gender blow back by being ingratiating and inclusive as well as generous. You also avoid gender blow back whenever you frame your willingness to negotiate as something you do primarily for your employer’s benefit. You are also treating the negotiation as a problem to be solved rather than a win-lose game.

Finally, you give compelling reasons for your request. Social science research shows that reason-giving is so powerful that only a single percentage point separates compliance in response to a good reason and agreement in response to a completely nonsensical one. Giving no reason, however, drops compliance rates a full 40%.

You may have to go to your bottom line of 15%, but I’ve got you “splitting the baby” at 18% in recognition that negotiators tend to do so without prompting because splitting the difference just seems “fair.”

Again, don't feel stuck in accepting the 7% you were offered. I’d encourage you to ask for a meeting this week, bring your research, and start the conversation that will bring you closer to your goal. Say, “Listen, I’ve been thinking about our conversation about my raise, and I’d like to revisit the issue. Why don’t we have lunch?”

This article is part of our Ask an Expert series—a column dedicated to helping you tackle your biggest career concerns. Our experts are excited to answer all of your burning questions, and you can submit one by emailing us at editor(at)themuse(dot)com and using Ask an Expert in the subject line.

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