How to negotiate a raise in a tough economy

Has anyone in your IT department managed to get a raise lately? Statistically, the answer is “probably not.”

Pay for IT employees — as well as everybody else — has been flat for a few years now, and many analysts don’t expect it to get better this year.

In a survey released in November 2009 by the Society for Information Management (SIM), 46% of IT staffers polled said they expected to see no bump in pay in 2010, with another 9% predicting that IT staff salaries in 2010 would actually be lower than they were in 2009.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t talk your boss into giving you a raise.

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“Short of impending financial collapse, even when there are salary freezes, good employees can always get salary increases,” declares Erik Van Slyke, founding partner of Solleva Group LLC, a Princeton, N.J., firm that advises companies on change management, new technologies and IT strategies.

If you’re a techie who wants a raise despite tough times, industry insiders say you have to build a strong business case and execute the right strategy. Here’s how to do just that.

Set the stage

From the moment you take a job, know what you must do to earn raises and promotions, says Nicole Spicer, president of the Burbank, Calif.-based recruitment firm OARIP and a frequent presenter with Women in Technology International.

Have a clear job description, and make sure you and your supervisor agree on what it means to be successful in your position, she says. Then do the job better than expected. Ask for extra assignments. Find ways to help your boss solve whatever problems he or she is facing.

Spicer cites the case of one IT manager in particular who taught Java to colleagues after work and volunteered to mentor junior workers. “He was constantly being promoted and getting significant raises because he was always doing more than the requirements in his job description,” Spicer says.

Just don’t get so swept up that you forget why you’re going the extra mile. “People need to track everything they do. We get so busy in our day-to-day jobs that we forget what we’ve done,” she says.

If people offer kudos for a well-done job, ask them to e-mail you the compliments and cc your boss, Spicer advises. Gathering that kind of documentation about your outstanding performances and on-the-job victories will help you build your case for a raise when the time comes, she says.

Benchmark your salary

Even when salaries are stagnant, your pay should be on par with that of other professionals in your region and field of expertise, says Jerry Luftman, executive director and distinguished professor at Stevens Institute of Technology‘s School of Technology Management.

Look at surveys and job postings to calculate the salary range for your position in your region. Discreetly ask co-workers and colleagues in your professional network what they’re hearing about the average salaries and raises for your type of position. Look at your company’s financial reports and their official stance on pay practices and policies.

Luftman, who conducted last year’s SIM research on salary trends, says all this will help you understand what you should be earning and how big a raise you could reasonably make a case for (or whether you should expect a raise at all). “If you hear that some people are getting raises, then it might be something to pursue,” he says.

If not, consider negotiating a raise based on the argument that you’ve taken on new responsibilities during the recession, suggests Alan Vengel, CEO of Vengel Consulting Group Inc. in Danville, Calif., and author of 20 Minutes to a Top Performer. If you’re like many other tech workers, consolidations and layoffs have left you doing more, but without an additional bump in pay or a promotion.

If that’s the case, ask your boss to recalculate your pay to take into account the job you’re actually doing today — again, using comparable figures as a benchmark.

Articulate your value

It’s natural for IT employees to consider their technical skills their strongest contribution to the corporation, but that’s not necessarily what upper management values most, says Solleva Group’s Van Slyke, who is also the author of Listening to Conflict: Finding Constructive Solutions to Workplace Disputes.

Stop and think about what your boss values most in your work, and what he or she is trying to accomplish from a business perspective. Having a world-class programmer on staff isn’t a goal in and of itself. “You have to be masterful in understanding what the other person wants or needs,” Van Slyke explains. “You have to pay attention to that if you want to get a raise.”

Say your boss needs to be able to deliver applications that meet business needs without costing a fortune to implement or requiring too much of users. If you can highlight your ability to meet those needs, rather than focusing on your technical acumen, you’ll be better able to make the case that you’re worth extra pay, Van Slyke says.

“To get a raise, you have to be considered indispensable. You have to be seen as someone they cannot afford to lose,” he adds.

Don’t shy away from calculating the actual dollar value of your contributions — and let your boss know, too. “You can’t just say you’ve gone the extra mile. You have to talk about value,” says Dave Willmer, executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology in Menlo Park, Calif., and a columnist.

If your work as a Web developer helped increase volume on the company’s Web site by 20%, calculate the value of that extra traffic. If you’ve started to manage a new team of workers because of workplace consolidations, figure out how much money your willingness to manage more people has saved the company. If you’re faster on the help desk than your co-workers, add up how much time you’ve saved the company as a result.

“Know the top-line value of what you work on and, more importantly, know the bottom-line value,” Willmer says. “Equate that into why you should get a raise.”

Present a compelling case

Finally, it’s time to schedule a meeting with your boss and ask for your raise. Be direct and be ready to justify why you should get it. “It literally is a business case. It’s marketing and negotiating,” Luftman says.

If you’re like most IT workers, making presentations isn’t your forte. But you can still be successful, Van Slyke says, if you strategize on the best way to approach your boss with all the information you’ve gathered.

Think about your boss’s management style. Is your manager someone who likes to be direct, who appreciates straightforward questions and conversations? If so, follow that cue. Ask outright for a raise and present your case justifying the request.

If your boss tends to be more indirect, you might want to ask for a meeting to discuss your career path, using the time to ask for a raise as well as to discuss other aspects of your work.

Either way, you should prepare your case in advance and run it by a trusted colleague for feedback, Luftman says.

Be ready to negotiate

The economy may be trending up, but most companies are still struggling, which means there’s a good chance your boss won’t agree to give you a raise on the spot, Vengel says.

“They might not say no directly. They’re not going to say, ‘You don’t deserve it.’ They’ll say, ‘We don’t have the money in the budget,’ ” he explains. “But if it ends there, you have not prepared adequately. Asking for a raise is a negotiation. So if your boss says no, that’s just a starting point. The key here is to get into a negotiation and to keep the negotiation going. You have to ask, ‘What else can I get?’ “

Compile a list of alternatives for your boss to consider that are meaningful to you, Vengel says. Maybe you’d consider a raise that’s doled out over time, or stock options, or more paid time off, or company reimbursement for classes to earn a certification that might make you more valuable in the marketplace down the road.

“Put a list together of what will make you feel satisfied and valued by the company,” Vengel says. “You want to make a list in a priority order. Those are things you’re going to put on the table and negotiate around. The key here is that anything is possible.”

Mistakes to avoid

If you think your stack of unpaid bills will persuade your boss to bump up your pay, think again. Everybody’s facing higher costs, so crying poor won’t get your manager to give you a raise.

Other missteps that will spoil your attempts for a higher salary:

  • Getting emotional, whining or complaining. Jerry Luftman of Stevens Institute of Technology says it’s important to remember that you’re at work; you need to keep your professional composure.
  • Threatening to leave. Why, asks Robert Half Technology‘s Dave Willmer, would your boss give a raise to someone who has one foot out the door?
  • Threatening to work to less than your full capacity. Doing so openly sets up an adversarial situation, Willmer says. Resolving to covertly cut back hurts your performance, which in turn jeopardizes your chances of getting a raise or promotion down the line.
  • Letting the negotiations die. If your manager says to check back in six months, confirm that timetable in an e-mail, mark it on your calendar and keep the appointment, suggests workplace consultant Nicole Spicer.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at [email protected].


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