Q: I am preparing a presentation (including examples of work and glowing feedback) to ask for a significant raise, in the 15% to 20% range. Part of why I am seeking the raise is for my recent and overall excellent work. The other part is that I could really use the financial bump. My family cannot afford to make needed upgrades to our home or obtain therapy for our child who has special needs, and that’s before taking into account skyrocketing health insurance premiums and general inflation.

Do I include the personal and family information in my presentation, or keep it professional by including only examples of my work achievements?

A: You may not remember the days when “He has a family to support” was an accepted justification for paying men more than women performing the same job — but there’s a reason that justification is no longer considered acceptable for men or women.

When it’s acceptable to pay employees more based on their personal challenges, it becomes inevitable that some employers will factor those challenges into hiring decisions and decide that someone who has a medical condition or disability, or who might become a parent, presents too great a financial risk. The fairest solution is to base workers’ pay on what their labor is objectively worth to the employer.

Now I’m not naive enough to believe there are no subjective factors in compensation decisions. A manager’s inside knowledge about an employee’s personal challenges may influence decisions about who avoids layoffs or gets extra coaching. But for you to plead for more money explicitly on the basis of your family and financial challenges would put your employer in a difficult position, ethically and legally — and it would undermine you as well. Do you want a paycheck based on pity or performance?

But hold on, now. Hasn’t the coronavirus pandemic exposed just how precariously balanced U.S. workers are on rickety, underfunded structures that can be demolished at any moment by the winds of health, housing and child care costs? Shouldn’t we be honest about those challenges and demand what we need to build a better foundation that allows everyone to thrive?


Yes, but. There is a time to bring your whole self to the discussion, and a time to leave personal details out of the business impact. Any income-earning mom who has learned to replace “my kid has a school event” with “I have a conflict at that time” can tell you where that line falls. Revealing your personal hardships may invite sympathy, but it’s just as likely to invite judgment and resentment.

Variables such as the cost of your child’s therapy, leaky pipes or making your home livable can certainly factor into your private motivation and goals. But they belong on your scratch pad, not in the final equation you’re presenting your employer.

Fortunately, there are more business-oriented variables that can help load negotiations in your favor, such as how competitive the labor market is, and what other employers are paying people with your skills. Researching pay ranges in your industry and perhaps securing a couple of interviews will give you valuable leverage and a better understanding of your assets, so you don’t have to draw attention to your liabilities.

Also make sure you have realistic expectations of how much your job pays. When you stay with the same employer in the same position long enough, you’ll eventually bump against the upper limit of that pay range. In that case, “I can no longer afford to stay on in this position” is a valid claim you can make without being too detailed or demanding. An employer that wants to keep you will find a way to, although it may require you to take on more responsibilities or new training. Otherwise, the best way to get a two-digit percentage wage increase often involves a change in position or employer.

Likewise, your employer needs to be realistic about whether it’s offering all of its workers fair and adequate compensation, not just listening to those who complain the loudest. If it’s not — and the past two years have unearthed just how many employers are falling short of that mark — the number of feet heading out the door will make that clear.