Asking for a raise during a tough economy — when consumers and companies are cutting costs — might feel like a bad move, but it's not necessarily.

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Asking for a raise during a tough economy — when consumers and companies are cutting costs — might feel like a bad move, but it’s not necessarily.

You need to ask for a raise professionally and routinely to improve, or at least maintain, your compensation and reputation. If done properly, asking for a raise reminds your company of your value and worth as an employee. Employers want to keep good employees because hiring and training new employees is expensive, said Mikelann Valterra, founder of the Women’s Earning Institute in Seattle.

“A good employee is worth a lot of money. It’s good to know your value,” she said.

To succeed, play smart. Timing is first to consider. Find out and work within your company’s system for discussing, evaluating and awarding compensation — if one exists. Annual performance-evaluation discussions are a good time. If it’s been 12 to 18 months (or longer), it’s time to ask.

Even if the company is experiencing hard times or announces a companywide salary freeze, do not assume raises have stopped for everyone until you have the private one-on-one conversation.

To improve your chances, be professional, said Andrea Ballard, recruiter and retention specialist at Seattle-based CPA firm Peterson Sullivan. If it helps you remain calm and focused, bring short, concise notes in writing (one page or less) to the meeting, and glance at them as needed.

Most importantly, do your homework. Find out the fair market value of your work. If you’re not being paid fairly, that needs to be addressed, said Valterra. Evaluate your job performance and document exactly how you’re benefiting the company. Discuss only work-related issues: your job, the company, etc.

“Make a case of how you have made the company money or saved the company money, if you have increased sales or if you have made the company more efficient,” said Valterra. “… There are lots of ways that you can save the company money or time. And time is money. Companies eat that up.”

Special circumstances should be addressed, too, Valterra said. If a layoff occurred and you’re now doing the work of multiple employees, it’s reasonable to talk about compensation, she said, even if there is a salary freeze in effect.

She suggests that an employee should start the conversation about the new duties shortly after they are added, so everyone can agree on paper that the job description has changed.

Whether the raise should be granted immediately or later is up for negotiation, but a timeline for revisiting the issue can be agreed upon right away.

“There is a line between stepping up and being a team player and letting a company walk over you. They need to know that you are going above the call of duty so that when the freeze is over, you need to be the first in line when raises are awarded,” Valterra said. “The classic mistake is to work really hard and wait to be noticed.”

Besides money, salary discussions can be about learning important information, said Ballard. During your private chat, you might find out a layoff is coming, and the conversation will naturally evolve from, “How do I get a raise?” to, “What can I do to stay with the company?”

“Show some awareness that it is not always about you, that they are a business, the economy is tough and they have to do what they have to do to survive,” Ballard said.

If you handle the conversation correctly, you will not put your job in jeopardy.

“You will demonstrate some empathy, learn some information and get a better sense of what you need to do to navigate the waters,” said Ballard.

If you get the raise, congratulations! Get the decision in writing right away. Supervisors can depart unexpectedly, which might unravel verbal agreements.

If your boss says no, find out how you can turn that “no” into a “yes.” “When people say ‘no,’ it doesn’t mean ‘no.’ It means ‘not right now.’ ‘No’ is not a permanent state,” Valterra said.

Be specific. If the roadblock is the company and its financial situation, ask when raises will be considered again, and what you have to do to be considered. You can also negotiate for things that are not financial, such as flexible work schedules, parking spaces, paid time off, working at home one day per week, access to company-sponsored training, etc.

If the problem is you, find out the reason, discuss specific steps you can take and agree on a date to evaluate your progress. An insightful question to ask: “If it was up to you as a supervisor, would you give me a raise?”

Ballard said asking for a raise is good practice and an opportunity to reflect on your work. Also, you might hear something you might not otherwise hear, such as information about the company’s finances or what you need to do to move up. “It’s a good stretch for people.”

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