I’m an HR Manager—Here’s What We’re Not Telling You About Salaries and Raises
Are you hoping for a raise this year? Here are the insider tips you need to get the salary you want and deserve.
Want to increase your salary this year?
“My boss asked me to start my presentation with a joke … so I put my salary on the first slide.” If that joke evoked a grim chuckle, you’re in good company. More than 50% of American workers say they expect to get a raise in the next year and are hoping for one in the 6% to 7% range, according to the ADP Research Institute’s 2023 People at Work survey. But they may be in for a rude awakening, as companies predict only a 3% raise. With inflation and other challenges in the economy leading to widespread penny-pinching, it’s more important than ever to know how to negotiate your salary before getting hired and how to ask for a raise once you’re a valued employee.
I’m currently the Director of People for an aerospace company, and in my 15 years as an HR professional, I’ve learned a lot of secrets about how to get the salary you want and deserve. (For starters, act your wage!) In addition to answering questions like “How do I get my salary bumped up before accepting an offer?” and “Why didn’t I get a raise this year?” I’ve got the intel on when to ask for more money—and exactly what to say. Here’s all the HR intel you need to know before your next salary negotiation.
Get Reader’s Digest’s Read Up newsletter for more career, humor, cleaning, travel, tech and fun facts all week long.
The process of asking for a raise starts months in advance
But weirdly enough, you shouldn’t ask for it right off the bat. In fact, asking for a raise with no prep work is the fastest way to get shut down. If you want a raise or promotion, start planning strategically by meeting with your manager months before you ever bring it up. Ask them about their expectations of you and how well you are meeting them. Then, when you schedule the meeting to discuss your request for a raise, you can show them how you have met (and even exceeded) their expectations.
What you can do: A good manager will schedule these meetings regularly with you, but if your manager doesn’t, take the initiative and ask for one. If they don’t provide you with a written copy of expectations, write them down yourself. Be sure to document what you are doing to meet those goals.
You need to make nice with your manager
When it comes to anything to do with your pay, your direct manager is going to be your biggest asset or your biggest stumbling block—and which one it is will depend on the quality of your relationship with them. Some employees think that if they feel like their manager is being mean or unfair, they can bypass them and go to higher-ups or HR to fix the problem. That’s not HR’s job. (HR draws up the paperwork, but we’re not the ones you’re negotiating with!) Not only will we not go over a manager’s head for things like raises, but we’ll simply direct you back to talking to them.
What you can do: Even if your boss is truly terrible—and trust me, I’ve seen some of the worst—it’s still worth your time to figure out a way to work with them and stay on their good side. Basically, I am telling you to suck up (in an ethical way).
Cost-of-living increases often don’t match the increase in the cost of living
People often make the mistake of assuming that cost-of-living (COL) raises are calculated to offset the rate of inflation and are automatically awarded annually to everyone. Neither of those things is true. Most companies budget only a meager 3% for COL raises for employees each year, regardless of what the rate of inflation is. As of this writing, inflation is officially at 3.7%, so getting a 3% “raise” would still be getting a pay cut (just not as much as if you didn’t get a raise). While some companies do have built-in annual COL increases, far more do not. This is a question you should ask during the interview and hiring process—don’t just assume it’s a benefit.
What you can do: If you are guaranteed a COL increase when you are hired, make sure you get it in writing. Otherwise, don’t budget your money based on an anticipated cost-of-living raise. (Easier said than done with skyrocketing inflation, we know.) Instead, see it as a nice bonus. If COL increases are important to you and your current employer isn’t offering them, this is a good reason to look for a new job.
Cost-of-living raises are not doled out equally
Not every company offers annual raises to offset the rising cost of living (and the time to ask about that is during the hiring negotiations). But if your company does do this, a common myth is that these types of raises are given equally to each employee, regardless of role or merit. The truth? The money will not be split equally among everyone, and how much you get depends entirely on your performance. For instance, the top performer may get a 5% annual increase, while the “less valuable” team members may get only 1%. Some low performers may get 0%, which is not only not a raise but is actually a significant pay cut. Remember: Anything less than the rate of inflation means you’re losing money, because your salary is worth less when everything else costs more.
What you can do: Check with your HR director to find out how your company handles COL raises, then adjust your personal budget accordingly. Also make sure you’re staying in contact with your boss throughout the year about your performance and how you’re meeting expectations.
Do the job you want to get promoted to before asking for the raise
Your employer is paying you the salary they see as proper compensation for the role you were hired to do—no less and no more. So asking for a raise or promotion without doing more is a quick way to get shot down. Promotion-based raises are based on real-time data showing that you can do more, not a promise that you’ll prove it to them after they promote you.
What you can do: Level up! Start showing that you can do the work of the position you’re aspiring to by taking on more responsibility and learning new skills. Track everything you’re doing so that you can bring actual numbers to your meeting when you do ask for that promotion.
Show how your raise would benefit the company
This sounds counterintuitive, but the best way to secure a raise or a higher salary in a negotiation is to show the company how it helps them. Show us how much value you add—and put an actual number on it. You can also tell us how the raise would benefit you, but be sure to express some empathy for your boss and the company. Clearly explain how your expanded work role would help the company reach its objectives. Never say things like “I deserve this raise,” “I’m worth it,” “It’s time” or “I’m long overdue for a raise.” Hard truth: If we thought any of those were true, we’d already have given you the raise.
Worried your boss has forgotten about you or is ignoring you when it comes time for raises? Ask for a meeting to discuss your salary, and then follow it up with an email reiterating what was discussed. If no action is taken within a month, follow it up with another email or check in with your boss verbally. Sometimes busy managers just need a reminder, so don’t be afraid to be vocal and politely advocate for yourself.
What you can do: Keep a paper trail of all your achievements, and calculate how much money you saved or earned the company, as well as how much you’re on track to do so in the future. This data will be your biggest asset in a salary negotiation.
You’re more likely to get a raise at the beginning of the fiscal year
Asking for a raise is a popular New Year’s resolution, but it’s one you should ditch. Many companies budget using a fiscal calendar rather than the traditional Jan. 1–Dec. 31 calendar the rest of us operate on. At the beginning of that time period is likely when your manager will have more flexibility with their budget and more money in that budget—making it a better time to ask for a raise, or a higher salary to start if you’re in the interviewing process. (Editor’s note: Companies operate on different fiscal calendars, often starting in October, May or July, so check the timing of your company’s fiscal year.)
What you can do: Time your ask toward the start of the fiscal year. This isn’t make-it-or-break-it timing, but it may help tip the scale a bit in your favor. If you need to ask for a raise at a different time of year, that’s fine, but remember that a little empathy goes a long way. Ask your manager how you can help them meet their budget goals for the upcoming quarter and year. After showing them how you can help, then ask for a raise or promotion.
Ask for a raise or promotion after a big win
Did you just successfully complete a major project? Land a huge contract? Did the company experience peak sales? Now’s the time to talk about your salary (assuming, of course, you’ve already started that conversation with your manager months ago). This is based on a principle called the “recency bias”—whatever is most recent will stand out the most in your manager’s mind. So even if you’ve had a stellar and productive year, if the most recent “news” is a huge corporate loss or a project failure, that’s going to be fresh on your boss’s mind.
What you can do: I know I say this a lot, but it’s important: Write everything down. You are your own best advocate. Document all your achievements and accolades, and don’t be self-deprecating or play down your role. It’s not being prideful or bragging to acknowledge everything you’ve done.
Focus on the total benefits package, not the salary number
People understand this on a general level, but I think it’s harder to grasp on a personal level—based on the number of times I’ve been asked why someone’s salary isn’t the same as their co-worker’s or isn’t what Glassdoor says it should be. The truth is that salaries are complicated math based on the job title and responsibilities, years of experience, type of experience, size of the company, location of both the company and employee, age of the company and other benefits offered.
What you can do: Your manager and HR have much more leeway in creating a lucrative benefits package than we do simply adjusting your salary number. Be open to other benefits when negotiating—things like good health care, vision and dental, paid maternity leave, extra retirement savings, stock options, employee assistance programs, gym memberships, unlimited PTO, unlimited work-from-home and other non-monetary benefits.
Understand that your skill set alone isn’t enough
It’s true: Raises and salaries should be calculated based on measurable performance goals … but this is the real world, and we’re not robots. I have spent most of my career in the aerospace industry, with a lot of people who think their skills should be enough to earn them those top-range salaries. This “take me as I am or leave me” approach rarely works—very few employees are that valuable. Being too needy, annoying, messy, argumentative, cold, gossipy or having poor hygiene aren’t necessarily fireable offenses, but some of them can cross the line into unprofessional work habits. And if your manager doesn’t like you, they’ll be a lot less likely to give you the raise.
What you can do: Make an extra effort to read social cues and be kind and helpful. Practice good hygiene and good manners. You don’t have to become besties with your boss, but a little likability can go a long way when it comes to salary negotiations.
Source your own salary data
One of the best things you can do to prepare for a salary negotiation of any kind is to go on career sites (I prefer Salary.com or Payscale.com), look up comparable rates and bring that data with you to your meeting. The trick is to make sure you’re using the sites correctly. You should enter in all the variables, including your location, job title, experience, skills, size of company and so forth, to get the most accurate comparisons. Simply saying, “Look, Microsoft pays software engineers $190,000 in Washington” when you’re an entry-level software engineer in Ohio isn’t going to help, and it may even make you look naive or dense.
What you can do: Don’t rely on the salary data provided by HR. Take the time to look up some realistic comparisons from outside sources. Don’t lead with these numbers during salary talks, but use them during the negotiation process to help adjust the final number.
Be very careful what you tell HR
So many people think of HR as workplace therapists—listening to problems, offering advice, mediating conflicts. And while that is certainly part of our role when dealing with workplace issues, too many folks take it a step further and tell us very personal things. Over the years, I’ve heard everything, including affairs, addictions, divorces, medical issues, mental illness, family problems, fertility issues and even criminal problems. A good HR manager will never use personal info against you and will keep it confidential, but not all HR people are good. And even the well-intended ones may inadvertently let that information color their decisions sometimes. This is true especially when it comes to promotions, raises and salaries.
A good example of this is pregnancy. It’s against the law to discriminate against someone for becoming pregnant, but practically speaking, there are a million reasons to deny someone a promotion or raise, and an unethical boss may simply do just that. I hate that this happens, and I try to never let it happen on my watch, but my advice to anyone who is thinking about becoming pregnant is to keep it to yourself as long as possible—and certainly wait to announce it until after any salary negotiations are over.
What you can do: Unless the issue has something to do with a protected class (like a disability) or is directly affecting your work and you need to ask for FMLA or other accommodations, don’t tell us. Err on the side of keeping your personal life personal. If you really need to talk to someone, find a good therapist. In fact, you might be able to have it covered through your employee assistance program!
Don’t ask us why you didn’t get the raise
If you’re denied a raise or promotion, it can be tempting to ask “Why not?” or “What did I do wrong?” HR will never answer those questions honestly. Instead, we’ll say something generic like: “It didn’t align with company goals at this time,” “The timing wasn’t right” or “Thanks for checking in; we’ll reach out for future opportunities.” I often wish I could be honest with people, but it’s too much of a liability issue, and we are bound by our legal department.
What you can do: Instead of rehashing the decision that’s already been made (they won’t change their mind), focus on moving forward by asking for feedback about how you can improve. This information will be essential for your next salary negotiation.
About the expert
- Rebecca M., SHRM-SCP, is the Director of People for an aerospace company. She has nearly 15 years of experience working in human resources and as an HR management consultant.
- ADP Research Institute: “People at Work 2023: A Global Workforce View”