Raise your hand if you think you might be underpaid!
If you work in office management, administrative support, facilities or operations, or hard-to-define fields like “employee engagement” or “culture,” there’s a good chance your hand just flew up. These roles can be rewarding and challenging, but are often undervalued and don’t have clear trajectories for career growth, promotion, and more money.
So how do you fix that? While you can certainly think about going back to school or planning a career change, if you like your work, and your company, your next step is to plot your path to a better compensation package. Caveat: It may not work. Some companies and industries have strict salary bands that assign dollar amounts to each role with little wiggle-room for recognizing individual accomplishments. If that’s the case, you may have to leave, or at least leverage another offer, to get where you want to be.
Know what you want
Spend some time thinking about how a successful negotiation would actually impact your life. When you hear “compensation” you probably think annual salary or hourly rate. But what would really make you happy? Remember, there could be more than just cash on the table. Would more vacation time be a boon to your life? A flexible schedule or work from home days? Are you looking for professional development opportunities where your organization could cover trainings or certifications? Are there benefits that are not currently part of your benefits package you want? Or, is it just about the money? Before you set up the conversation know what you want.
Decide on your timing wisely
A successful negotiation doesn’t happen on the spur of the moment and your timing is key. An annual review cycle is a good opportunity to re-evaluate, but if you’re off cycle, consider asking shortly after you’ve completed a big project or taken on new responsibilities. Another offer letter in your hand is always solid footing from which to negotiate, but remember that there’s no bluffing. If you say “Can you match this other offer I’ve received?” and they say no… it’s probably time to move on.
Research, research, research!
Think about your pre-negotiation prep work in two pieces.
Part one: What can you say about your own performance? What goals have you reached? What expectations have you exceeded. Revisit your job description or annual goals, and note anything you’ve done that qualifies as above and beyond. Make a list of your accomplishments both to have on hand should you be asked, and to remind yourself that you deserve to have this conversation.
Part two: What can you say about how your role fits into your organization and your industry? Are you doing work at the same level as your colleagues who are a step above you? Can you point to how your work has contributed to the whole organization’s goals, and better yet, how that might affect the bottom line? Check sites like Glassdoor or Salary.com to find folks in similar roles that make more than you. Make sure what you’re asking for is in line with industry norms, or if it’s more, then be prepared to explain exactly why you’ve earned that salary bump.
Give management a heads-up
Nobody likes to be blindsided. Give your manager a heads-up before you kickstart the conversation. In an in-person check-in or by email, mention that in the next few weeks you’d like to review your responsibilities and compensation package. Then, put that meeting on the calendar, or add it to a future one-on-one agenda. Giving them notice will give them time to do research of their own and remind themselves what you’re making and what a great job you’ve been doing. Most managers have some discretion over bonuses or raises, but they may not have the numbers at their fingertips.
Trick yourself into confidence
If you’re someone to whom this conversation doesn’t come easily, know that you are not alone. Fortunately you can trick yourself into being your own best advocate. Picture your most competent, talented friend and imagine you were negotiating on her behalf. It would be obvious to you that she deserves it, right? You could clearly state your reasons, and you wouldn’t be remotely embarrassed to be her proxy because you know it makes logical sense for the company to pay her more. She earns them every penny back through her skill and work ethic, right? Channel that out-of-body experience and be your own best friend.
If that doesn’t work, try power posing. Seriously.
Make your case, then be quiet
When you sit down at the negotiating table (or phone call), state your case simply, respectfully, and positively, and then shush. Say something like, “As I mentioned a few weeks back in my email, I’d like to revisit the conversation about my compensation package.”
Explain how your work product exceeds expectations, how you are excited to grow with this company, and that you’d like to adjust your compensation so it’s commensurate with industry standards for the work you’re doing. Don't hamstring yourself. No need to say anything like "This is a big jump, but..." or "I know this may sound crazy, but..." Put your proposal out there with confidence and then, the hardest part, be quiet.
If your manager asks you what you had in mind, say, “Well, given my accomplishments (be specific!), my contributions to the team (be specific), and the research I’ve seen on industry websites, I’d like to see something in the neighborhood of X to X+$10,000.” And just to be clear, that X should be at least $5,000 more than where you actually hope to land.
If they look surprised, sit in silence for a moment and let them sit with it too. You don't need to massage the situation. If they stutter, or ask for time, say something like, "I understand you'll need to check with other decision makers, and I appreciate you considering my request. Please let me know if there's anything I can provide about my work that will help you make the case to other team members."
When it works...
...It works! And it works more often than you’d expect. Why? Because companies have more money than you think, you are talented, and employee turnover is expensive. They want to keep you. Searching for, hiring, and training someone new costs your company real money. Chances are what you’re asking for is in budget, and they would be financially irresponsible not to help you find a reason to stay. You and your employer are on the same team: you want to stay and do good work, they want you to stay and do good work. You are just pointing out how they can make that happen.
A loss is still a win
If it doesn’t work, still be glad you asked. First, you are telling them that you know what you’re worth and that sets the tone for any and all future conversations. Second, you are practicing a tough conversation that you will be having for the rest of your professional life; now is the time to learn to live with the discomfort. Think of it this way: if someone asked you hop on one foot for five minutes in exchange for $5,000 would you do it? Yes! This uncomfortable conversation will barely last that long, and the results can be substantial.
And finally, a quick reminder about math: When you earn $5,000 more this year (or even $1,000!), you also earn it next year… and the year after that. You save more, you pay off debt faster, and you benchmark yourself at a higher pay grade for every future role. Negotiating for yourself is a gift that keeps on giving.
Photography by Mel Walbridge