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A reader writes:
This past May, I went to my manager to discuss a raise. I told her that I had been approached about two job opportunities that are paying about $15,000 more than what I'm making now. I'm happy in my role and not looking to make a change--and I told her that--but at the same time, that is a significant discrepancy in pay. I've done my own research and spoken to other people in my field and the consensus is that I am being underpaid.
She was very receptive when I spoke to her and thanked me for bringing the matter to her attention. She even said to me that if she was the one to hire me (the manager who hired me is no longer with the organization), she would have brought me in at a higher salary. She told me that there was an operations meeting at the end of the month and she would talk about seeing if they could get me a one-time increase on my base salary and then she would also make a case for me to have a good merit increase in June. Although she guaranteed no results, she mentioned that she'd go to bat for me. The expectations were that I would probably not get everything I was looking for salary-wise but that there would be an increase coming my way. I'm happy with the organization, the perks, and the flexibility in the role, so even if I didn't get all the way up to $15,000 more, I'd be happy.
I heard nothing back from her, so about two weeks after that operations meeting, I approached her again as a followup. She brushed me off and said that merit increases would only be discussed at the end of the year and said nothing about that one-time increase she had mentioned in our first meeting. I was a bit taken aback so I didn't say much and just left her office without getting answers. Do you have any advice about how I should proceed? Should I ask her again about my salary or discussions of a raise or should I just leave it and wait for her to get back to me? I really don't want to leave my job, but at the same time I do work hard and I think I should be paid fairly for the work that I do.
She's handled this badly. It sounds like she talked to someone above her about increasing your salary and was told no, and that the only way to address your salary would be through the company's regularly-scheduled merit raises. At that point, if she truly felt that you were underpaid according to the market and the company's own pay structure, and if she thinks you're a high performer whom she doesn't want to lose, she should have pushed her case for raising your salary to market level in order not to lose you. And if she was unsuccessful at doing that, then she should have come back to you and explained the situation.
Instead, she's blown you off, which is the exact opposite of what she should have done. After having the initial conversation in which she agreed you should be paid more, she owes it to you to follow up with you in a real way, even if it's just to explain that she can't get the company to budge. (And ideally, at that point she'd also talk with you about other ways to keep you satisfied in your job, if money isn't at her disposal.)
The way she's handling this is really poor: While she might not be able to avoid telling you that you're not likely to get a significant raise outside of the company's normal salary evaluation procedures, she's exacerbated that blow unnecessarily by also signaling to you that she doesn't think the matter is worthy of a real discussion--which for many people will make it a much bigger blow. (And if she actually is planning to push for you to get a significant, higher-than-usual raise when merit raises are discussed, then she should be telling you that, not leaving you to feel blown off.)
As for how to proceed, I think you need to decide how much of a dealbreaker your current salary is to you. It sounds like you were happy with your job and your salary until you got approached about two higher-paying jobs. (And keep in mind that you weren't actually offered those jobs, as far as I can tell--you were invited to apply for them, which is different; people get recruited for jobs all the time that they that don't ultimately get, especially in this market--so remember that those are jobs that you haven't been offered and don't know much about, versus a job that you actually hold and know you enjoy.) So how much of a stand are you willing to take on salary? Are you willing to walk away over it? Salary negotiations often do come down to who's most willing to walk away--meaning how willing you are to take another job and how willing your employer is to lose you over money. You want to know how strongly you feel about this and what you're willing to do if you don't get a resolution you're happy with.
Once you're clear about where you stand, you can certainly talk to your manager again. Say something along the lines of: "When we talked about my salary in May, you agreed that I should have been brought in at a higher salary and said you'd try to get me a one-time increase to bring me up to market rates, separate from regular merit raises. I'd like to talk about where that stands."
If she blows you off again, say, "I'm confused. This seems very different than what you and I discussed in the spring. I understand that things change, but can you help me understand why this conversation has such a different tenor than previously?"
Ultimately, if she's not willing to go to bat for you--or if she doesn't accomplish anything by doing that--then you need to decide if you're willing to live with that, or if you want to pursue other jobs. But I really wouldn't bring those other jobs up with her again as leverage--first, because the subtext to any salary negotiation is "I might look elsewhere if we don't come to terms on this," and so you don't need to say it out loud, and second, because if you do say it out loud, you risk the response (spoken or unspoken) being, "Well, go pursue them." Make your case for a raise, see what happens, and then decide if you're willing to live with the outcome or not.
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