4 Key Mistakes We Make When Asking for a Raise

We all experience difficult conversations at work, but the most difficult of all might be asking your boss for a raise. It’s an imposition to ask for a raise. For some, it can even be embarrassing. And for most, it’s deeply anxiety provoking. That’s why according to one poll of workers in the UK, it seems that people are far more comfortable breaking up with a romantic partner than asking their boss for a raise. (The poll didn’t get into what happens when your boss is your romantic partner…)

Anyway, because of this, we often mess up badly when asking for a raise – and in some very interesting ways. I recently spoke with human resources executives on the receiving end of these conversations to get their take on the top 4 mistakes people make when asking for a raise.

Mistake #1. Making the Wrong Argument

The first mistake people often make is to use the wrong argument for why they need or deserve a raise – and more often than not, the reason that argument is wrong is because it’s too personal. When you ask for a raise, you need to talk about what you’ve done for the business. Period. The money you’ve saved… the projects or clients you’ve brought in… the praise you’ve received… or the reputation you’ve acquired. What you don’twant to do is let your private life enter the equation and make the “ask” too personal.

For example, you don’t want to talk about your new baby and the diapers and playpen you’re going to have to afford. Or you don’t want to talk about how much doggie day care now costs since you’ve adopted yet another dog from the local shelter. It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a house, a new car, investing in the market, or caring for your ailing grandmother. These may be valid reasons you need money, but they’re not valid reasons to ask. The “ask” needs to be about you and the firm and your accomplishments. Period. And when people fall off the bandwagon and get too personal, they’re rarely effective at accomplishing their goals.

Mistake #2: Mess Up on Your Timing

A second common mistake is missing the mark in terms of timing. In most circumstances, for example, you don’t want to ask for a raise 6 months into the job – though the HR executives I spoke with joked about how that seems to be a bit of a trend among some of the millennials they manage, who are anxious to move up the ladder ASAP – and in many cases feel they simply deserve a promotion because…well, because… they just do.   But it’s not just asking too early; it could also be about asking at the wrong time. You don’t typically want to ask for a raise, for example, during cost-cutting, or when the company is in a significant downturn — unless you somehow explicitly acknowledge the context and set the groundwork for a future possible “ask.” You might say something, for example, like: “I’m aware of the cost-cutting we’re doing, but I feel I’m quite underpaid at the company and in the industry given the value I bring to the firm, and I’d really like to revisit this conversation next quarter if you’re willing.”   And, finally, you also want to ideally time your “ask” to be after accomplishments you’ve had, as opposed, to say, a failure.

Mistake #3: Miscalculating Your Level of Self-Promotion

A third common mistake is missing the mark with your level of self-promotion. You don’t want to oversell yourself and act in a conceited manner, or else your boss might actually tell you to take a hike and go find another firm willing to pay you for your incredible skills. In fact, one HR executive recalled telling a particularly boastful employee just that: if a certain firm was willing to pay him 40% more, perhaps he should just go take that job. At the same time, you also don’t want to undersell yourself either, and that too is another common tripwire observed by the HR executives I spoke with. It’s often hard to have this type of conversation: for some, it even feels like an imposition. And then the tendency is then to soften the request – almost as a form of politeness or apology – wondering if there “is any chance” we “might possibly” – “at some point” – “consider the potential” of a raise.   Though in the moment it might feel more comfortable to qualify the “ask” in this way, you can also see how timid you come across, and how unlikely it is for you to ultimately receive what you deserve.

Mistake #4: Whining

Finally, you absolutely don’t want to come across as a whiner, or – even worse – as belligerent – when asking for a raise. And so when asking for a raise, research is your best friend: you want to be as fact-based as possible – keep track of your accomplishments; keep emails from happy clients and customers; track trends in your industry. Make your argument as dispassionate, professional, and data-based as possible. And be friendly and constructive. When you whine or complain, it elicits defensiveness from the get-go –and makes it far less likely for you to achieve your objective.

In the end, most of us would rather get our teeth pulled — or, in the case of our UK friends, break up with a loved one, than ask for more money at work. But these are important conversations to have. And if you can follow these tips, and get up the courage, you’ll be well on your way towards making your mark and getting a little bit more of what you deserve.


Andy Molinsky is a Professor of International Management and Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School. He is the author of GLOBAL DEXTERITY (HBR Press, 2013) and REACH: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence (Penguin, forthcoming – early 2017). Follow Andy on twitter at @andymolinsky.

Related Posts

When to Stay Inside Your Comfort Zone

When to Stay Inside Your Comfort Zone

Learning to stretch outside your comfort zone is critical for learning and growing, advancing in your job and career, and achieving your personal and professional goals.

Read More

How to Not Let Fear Drive Your Decisions (Hint: Ask these 3 Questions)

How to Not Let Fear Drive Your Decisions (Hint: Ask these 3 Questions)

As Helen walked up the stairs and towards Dean Johnston’s office, she realized she had probably walked up these same stairs a thousand times – though never for a reason like this.

Read More

How to Really Teach Global Leadership

How to Really Teach Global Leadership

The future for MBA graduates is clear. Regardless of the country in which they build their careers, they will come into ever closer contact with foreign markets.

Read More

3 Secrets for Silencing Your Inner Critic

3 Secrets for Silencing Your Inner Critic

“I’m no good at this.” “I’ll never be able to raise that kind of money.”

Read More