The Great Recession is almost a thing of the past, but a lingering effect is lackluster wage growth. For some, job hopping is the way to a bigger paycheck. Others are more inclined to stay put, pursuing opportunities with their current employers. But they want to make sure their compensation matches their contributions and commitment to the company they want to stick with.

Yet even for seasoned pros, discussing pay with your manager can be intimidating. Research shows that it is the most dreaded business conversation of all. Less than half of all workers have ever asked for a raise. Millennials are even less inclined to discuss salaries than their parents.

It’s not an easy conversation for your manager either. Most are focused on processes, and are much less comfortable dealing with people. It’s particularly tough for marketers and sales reps who work remotely or are constantly in the field. They may have little face time with their managers, and few opportunities to develop a smooth working relationship where a conversation about pay could fit in easily.


Having the tough talk doesn’t mean having to talk tough

Discussing your salary is really just a form of negotiation. And negotiation in business is fundamentally about creating value for everyone involved. It’s something you probably already have experience with, especially if you’re in sales.

You got hired by knowing your value and communicating it effectively. The whole hiring process, from learning how to build a resume, to submitting the resume, to the “welcome aboard!” handshake, was all about you and your employer creating value for one another. Those same skills also apply when negotiating your salary once you’ve gotten proficient at your job.

Think of discussing your salary as continuing the conversation that you started back when you and your employer first agreed that you were going to be good for each other. Chances are the two of you are now even better for each other. And it’s time to make sure your price is still in line with your value.

Here are three things to keep in mind as you prepare for the tough talk:


1. Get in the right frame of mind 

Most people start thinking about discussing their salary when they sense a mismatch between their contributions to the business and the compensation they're receiving. That’s okay. Where things usually go wrong is in the motivation for initiating the conversation. Some wait until they start having strong negative emotions about it. Others feel anxious about needing to keep up with the Joneses, or finance a lifestyle.

Research shows that you are more likely to reach a higher value outcome if you can neutralize negative feelings when you decide it’s time to discuss your salary, and focus on what’s truly relevant.

How do you do that? Step back to where you sense the mismatches are, and recast them in a positive light. Ask yourself, which key performance metrics have you exceeded? What performance areas have you shown improvement? What new skills have you gained? What incentive targets have you exceeded?

Don’t think just about your wheelhouse. What additional capacity have you brought to your team? Are you contributing in ways different from what you were hired for? How are you more valuable to the company now than six months ago?

You can’t assume your manager is aware of all that you’re accomplishing. Use this time to give your manager visibility into all your accomplishments, and how everyone benefits. Keep track of those accomplishments in a Word or Google Document to share with your boss when the time comes.

2. Do your homework

Having the right motivation puts you at ease to discuss your salary. And good preparation lets you show confidence when you actually do so.

The two main things you want when preparing are information and alternatives.

Specifically, you need to determine the range of outcomes which both you and your manager could reasonably agree to. That involves getting an accurate dollar value of what you're worth on the job market, and what additional value you bring to the company in your role. That’s no trivial task. But remember, it’s not your manager’s responsibility to know whether your pay is in sync with the job market. It’s yours!

It’s also your responsibility to understand your manager's side of the deal. What are the company’s compensation policies regarding raises? What are the pay bands that apply to your role? How do you stack up against specific skills or accomplishments associated with those bands? And most importantly, does your manager have sufficient budget for raises?

Finally, what alternatives would you accept if your manager were unable to offer a pay increase at this time? Think in terms of your overall compensation package. Common alternatives include greater bonuses or incentive payouts, increased PTO, stock options, accelerated promotion, or increased healthcare benefits.

3. Set everyone up to win

There is no shortage of advice on how to talk salary with your manager. But the research is clear. There are only two approaches that work: playing to win, or playing it so everyone wins.

Playing to win seeks the biggest payoff for you, no matter the cost. It is generally not a good idea if the cost includes generating resentment in your manager or your higher ups.

For most people, playing it so everyone wins is much better. Your goal is for both you and your manager to walk away feeling satisfied, and recommitted to working even more productively with each other. You seek a win-win deal. Your conversation covers both what’s in it for you and them. You talk value first, and price second. All the while, you seek to make the experience a good one for your manager.


Checklist on how to discuss pay with your manager

  • Do your homework; don’t risk getting taken to school by your manager
  • Consult with HR if you're comfortable doing so to get information about your company’s compensation policies, incentive plans, salary bands, performance criteria, and whether the timing is good
  • Schedule the meeting with your manager in advance, and make sure you make it clear the purpose of the meeting
  • Create a list of your accomplishments for tangible proof of all your successes
  • Rehearse; be ready for pushback - it’s not a bad thing
  • Keep things positive from beginning to end
  • Think win-win
  • Be natural but confident, which will come more easily the better prepared you are.

Don't let the taboo of the salary talk scare you. Be prepared and do your research, and you'll walk out of that meeting with your boss with both a sense of pride, and a bigger paycheck.


Originally published Apr 16, 2018 10:00:00 AM, updated January 19 2023