I am willing to bet that most of us during the holidays spent time thinking about our jobs, our bosses, and, yes, about our compensation. I'm also willing to bet none of you were fretting about making too much money. Let's be honest, perhaps the most emotion-laden, and clearly one of the most sensitive topics for any employee-manager relationship, is the one about compensation.
The simple truth is that most of us believe we are underpaid. Now, I am not here to tell you that this is a bad thing—but rather that it's reality. However, I don’t think many of us step back and acknowledge how big a deal this really is and how important it is to feel we are fairly rewarded for our contributions. Concern about compensation follows people their entire career. I'm sure it's no surprise to most of you, especially those of you who are married, that money and finances are one of the biggest stressors in any marriage. There are countless articles on the stress that money and finances cause in marriages, and this pressure inevitably finds its way to the source of decisions around compensation— your manager.
What may surprise some of you is that the more money people make, in my experience, the sensitivity around compensation and wanting to earn more money often increases. I remember having a discussion with an executive not long ago that came to see me furious that the candidates he was interviewing were all demanding high salaries. In the course of the conversation, this person actually said to me, "They should feel honored to work here as they are going to learn so much, and they should be prepared to work for free as this is such an amazing opportunity!" Knowing the individual, I was not surprised with the perspective, but the next sentence did surprise me. He proceeded to ask me about his own compensation and began to make a case about why he deserved more money.
Given the sensitivity around this subject, here are six suggestions to consider as you contemplate your position around your compensation:
1. Be Prepared and Have a Goal in Mind When You Talk to Your Manager
Make sure you are clear on your objectives when you set up a meeting with your boss. What do you want to achieve? What message do you want to deliver? What outcome do you think is realistic? Is there a timeline in which you must have your compensation issue addressed, and can you support that timeline? What is your response/reaction if the answer is "no," and are you prepared for that? Do you have a number or target in mind? Have you had discussions with your boss about this before, and if so, what did you learn? What can your colleagues who have had similar discussions with your boss tell you that will help you prepare for this discussion? Being unhappy with how much money you are making is not a strategy that will help you convince your boss that you should be paid more.
2. Make Sure That Compensation Is Really the Issue
As Craig Gomez, HR expert and founder of Positive Paradigm Shift, says, "Before you meet with your manager, make sure you have a candid discussion with yourself about whether or not compensation is really the issue that is troubling you. Will more money make you feel better, or will more money just make you a higher-paid unhappy employee?" There could be many factors that are contributing to something that has you unhappy, and it may well extend beyond compensation. So be sure to think that through before you open up a discussion.
3. Find the Right Time for the Discussion
Every company has a compensation cycle and a time or times of the year when compensation is reviewed. Know that cycle. For most companies, compensation is reviewed at least annually, and the planning for it and budgeting begins at the end of Q3 and into Q4. You want to know your cycle and get your points and needs across before decisions are made that are harder to change or reverse. It is much better to bring up a discussion around your compensation before this cycle starts than after you have been informed that you did not receive a salary increase or that the increase you received is less than you expected or wanted.
Once you know the right time of the year to have your discussion, then you need to find the best time to approach your manager. Make sure you pick a time when your manager is in a good place and not feeling stressed. Do not talk about compensation if you are upset or angry—that is the worst time to have the conversation. Another important factor to think about in timing is speaking about compensation after you have had a few wins, proven your ability on a key project, and/or received great feedback from a key customer or member of the company. In other words, pick a time when your stock and value has visibly increased. But be careful on this one not to do this every time you score a victory. You only get a few times to have this discussion before it starts to turn your manager off in a big way. Come at this conversation from a position of strength.
4. Be Aware That This Discussion Is Hard for Your Manager, Too
The first thing you should recognize before you walk into a discussion with your manager about compensation is that, they too are probably uncomfortable with the discussion. Be aware of that and do what you can to set the conversation up in a way that is not threatening or accusatory or puts them on the defensive. Realize that they likely have some boundaries and limitations of influence and in many cases, do not have the full authority around what you are paid, especially if you are in a larger organization. Also realize that your manager probably shares the desire to be paid more.
5. Find the Right Place for the Discussion
For a sensitive topic like this, sometimes the office is the worst place. Think about going on a walk outside or meeting at a cafe in a private place where you can have a candid and real talk and where your manager will feel at ease and comfortable. A calm and informal setting will also allow you to feel comfortable talking about this subject.
6. See the Full Compensation Picture
One of the most common mistakes I see people make regarding compensation is not seeing the full picture.
Your rewards at a company often include a great deal more than just your salary. Total rewards typically include base pay, a bonus opportunity, benefits, time off, perks (like an onsite gym), and in some cases, free food and drink, transportation, parking, and so on. Make sure you are mindful of the whole package because salary is just one part of it.
If you are unable to negotiate more base pay, is there a way you can ask for something else that is important to you, like working from home once in a while or more vacation days. During my career, I pursued an MA degree and had the entire degree paid by the companies I worked for because they had an amazing tuition reimbursement program. I think that benefit rewarded me with over $15,000, which helped me a great deal.
See the big picture in a compensation discussion, and be ready to know what levers you would want to adjust if base pay in not one your manager is willing or able to change. Chances are they have the ability to adjust some other things that matter to you without outside approval.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it's helpful. While you may not always land the result you want from these conversations, having a plan, thinking it through, and finding the right place and time will hopefully put you at ease. If you do not get the result you want, ask for an explanation or at least an understanding of why your compensation is not changing. Find out if there is anything you can do about it (complete a project or take on a new responsibility) and ideally, see if you can get your boss to agree to a timeline or a commitment to take action if you do complete a certain project or take on an additional responsibility.