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Advice / Job Search / Job Offer

Q&A: I Didn't Get the Raise I Was Promised—Now What?

frustrated person

Hi Victoria,

I negotiated a raise before I was internally transferred within my company. It is written in black and white that I’d go from my starting salary to the raise in three months. Now, its been four months and I still haven’t received it. 

I had a talk with the CEO who is the only decision maker in the company. She said that she has problems with the headquarters in Europe, as the economy is not going well over there, and that the HQ gave a freeze for all raises and recruitment. She said she is fighting with the HQ but cant guarantee anything. 

Further, I am in Business Development, but she wants to change my role into more Project Management so that I can work on more and different projects. So basically, I am not getting my raise—and I need to work more. 

She is a very nice woman and has the talent to make me feel bad for her even if it should be the complete opposite. 

Please let me know what I should do. Thanks a lot for your help. 

You raise an important question common to most women—you feel bad for your employer even though she has broken her legally enforceable promise to pay you according to your written agreement.

Women are taught by their families and culture to sacrifice their own interests for the welfare of the family and the “tribe.” In this case, you can consider your employer your “tribe.”

Now, this culturally inculcated generosity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We are the social glue that holds families, communities, and the world together. Childcare responsibilities also fall primarily on women, so self-sacrifice is part of women’s central role in society.

What is good for the home and the community, however, is often bad for women at work. Our willingness to forego raises, to forgive breaches of trust and of contract, and to work harder and longer for less money than originally promised is in large part responsible for the wage and income gap between men and women in comparable—and sometimes identical—jobs.

The first step in remedying your situation is to reframe the situation from one of sympathy for your employer to one of justice for yourself and your family. Everyone is struggling in this economy, as I imagine you are as well. Struggle is not an excuse for businesses to breach their agreements to pay their vendors when bills are due or their employees when compensation is due.

If you accept less than was promised to you now, you will experience the negative effects of your employer’s breach of contract far into the future. If you have student loans, you will be unable to pay them back as quickly. Your ability to save for your children’s education or your own retirement will be hampered and your social security income will reflect your decreased earnings today.

And if you change jobs, you’ll be asked about your current compensation, which strongly influences how much your future employers will offer to pay you. Underpayment today can cost you tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in the future. Many female retirees today suffer in poverty because of legal pay differentials during their lifetimes. You do not want to live with that specter in your future.

That said, there are several routes you can take. Sympathize with your employer by all means, and behave professionally—but not maternally. Tell her that you understand the company’s freeze on raises, but that it cannot be applied to you because you have an enforceable contract that requires the company to live up to its legal obligations.

Now, insisting on your rights does not mean that you cannot continue to be helpful to your employer. You could ask her what you might to do help her effectively communicate to HQ the importance of abiding by its contracts. Yes, you’ll want to do so in a way that is non-threatening—but you also need to give a firm indication that you will stand up for your rights.

Alternatively, you could ask your employer how long the company believes it will be unable to pay its obligations as they come due. The inability to pay one’s obligations as they come due is the definition of insolvency—and should make the European HQ sit up and take notice.

You could suggest that HQ defers its obligations other than salaries, given the importance of its employees’ contributions to its speedy recovery. If the problem is not insolvency but a misallocation of resources, demanding that the company pay you what it promised should be persuasive.

You should not agree to take on any extra responsibilities unless you are paid what is owed to you. If you allow yourself to be victimized once, your employer will feel free to do so in the future. A proportional response to your negotiation partner’s lack of cooperation is the most effective means of moving the parties back to mutually cooperative behavior.

This said, if you believe the company will recover its health, you could suggest amending the contract. I would do so, however, only in the event that the company’s financial troubles are of such a severe nature that it is simply unable to pay you what it agreed to pay you.

In that case, you could agree to a moratorium on your raise until a certain date— say, six months from now—at which point the company would agree to restore your losses, plus a reasonable rate of interest, while at the same time implementing your promised salary structure going forward. In lieu of back pay and interest, you might ask for additional compensation in the future that would restore your losses over time in the form of a larger raise.

Finally, if the company cannot predict that it will be in a position to pay its bills as they come due, it might be time to start looking for different employment. If that is the case, this is no time to be giving 110% to an employer who might leave you holding the bag. Do only the work you agreed to do (under protest), while at the same time networking your way into a new job.

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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