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Industry & Career

A manager's guide to having conversations about raises and promotions

My two cents on approaching this (potentially) awkward topic with tact.
A manager's guide to having conversations about raises and promotions

by Mojan Benham

6 months ago

Two-line summary

12 minute read

By far the most common topic that arises when mentoring colleagues is along the lines of: "I want to ask for a promotion, but I don't know how." In this opinion piece I share what's worked for me, and what I consider most effective from the point of view of a manager.

Table of contents


Like many, myself included, you may have entered the workforce under the presumption that hard work would inevitably lead to timely recognition. Then perhaps come time for your performance review, you waited with bated breath for good news then felt an anticlimactic lull when the subject of a raise wasn't mentioned. There's an elephant in the room: do I wait for my manager to realize what I want or do I bring it up? What if the answer is no?

Here's the thing: without knowing you, dear reader, I can't confirm whether you are in fact worthy of a raise or promotion. It's very rare that I meet someone who doesn't think they should be making more money. That's up to you to assess. What I can offer is a framework so that you have the highest chance for having a productive discussion.

Before proceeding, know that this post comes with a blaring, neon disclaimer that these are my opinions and in no way an ironclad script that guarantees success. Bear in mind that my industry experience is primarily in tech, and promotions are not always linear or even logical. With that, please use your discernment to tailor the advice accordingly.

What not to do

Let's get some faux pas out of the way.

Don't treat this as a debate to be won

From my experience, those who receive pay increases and promotions have a track record of merit that has been recognized by leadership over a consistent period of time. The event of the promotion itself is not the product of a single discussion, rather the culmination of ongoing recognition. For this reason, I don't believe that it's up to you to persuade your manager into promoting you. Rather, approach it as an observation to which you may both react, ex. "I've doubled the breadth of my ownership over the past six months and am wondering if you've considered whether this opens me up to a leadership role in the near future."

Where this tends to become an issue is when an employee already feels overworked and underpaid, then the denial of career progression pushes the conversation into an argument. My recommendation in this case is to try not to address all work-related concerns at once. If you're lacking in work-life balance, that is a separate issue from your salary. More importantly, if at the point of asking for a promotion, you and your manager are so misaligned that it becomes a debate, the root cause may actually be that you weren't having frequent enough feedback sessions.

It isn't about whether you're right or your manager is right, it's the fact that career growth is not solved in the span of a single meeting. Advocate for yourself, but play the long game.

P.S. if you are overworked and underpaid and it's not something that can be improved, the promotion will just be a different flavour of overworked and underpaid.

Don't make any ultimatums you're not willing to honour

I once knew of a coworker that attempted to leverage a competing offer to ask for a raise at his current company, and was told by his manager to accept the other offer. This coworker had no intention of leaving which created an awkward dynamic among the wider team who had been informed of his departure, only to have him stay.

It's smart to be aware of the market value for a candidate with your level of education and experience. Know your earning potential by browsing job listings or chatting with other professionals in your field. Whether you plan on staying in your current role or not, I just don't think "promote me or else" is the best approach. Even if you get your way, the lasting impression of what it took to achieve that goal may introduce friction between yourself and the leadership team down the line.

I will say that I've actually seen the ultimatum tactic work quite well at the director/VP/c-suite level, but I'd personally save that for the rare, high stakes conversation that necessitates it.

Don't bring up direct comparisons to a specific coworker

When I became a manager, it lifted a veil from what I originally believed to be a black-and-white promotion process. The issue with drawing a comparison between yourself and a coworker who recently received a promotion is that you probably aren't aware of all of the nuance that went into that decision. There are objective, high-visibility considerations like projects shipped and bottom-line impact, but there are also many contributing factors that fly under the radar: relationships with stakeholders, influence, glue work, even charisma. 

Comparisons are often perceived as petty because to the responsible manager, the decision was never between you or them. It's not as though the manager had one promotion to hand out and out of scarcity, it was given to the other person. Your true frustration is likely that your work isn't being attached to the same value that you believe is being granted to others. A better way to tackle this is to draw references from yourself to concrete job expectations (more on this in the groundwork section below). Instead of "me vs. them" it's "me vs. what is expected of me", free of nuance and a more clear, objective target.

Don't expect instant gratification

This is a simple one: most managers don't have the authority to make career changes for you on the spot. The process often involves putting together a proposal that needs to be submitted to HR and getting sign off from department heads. At many companies, these proposals can only be submitted during specific review cycles and not just at any time of the year.

Realistically, your manager may counteroffer with a growth plan to work toward your request pending future projects. You'll want to work with your manager to set realistic expectations for the timeline to expect.

HR does their homework, and so should you

Align the perspective you have of your own work with that of your manager's

Before approaching the conversation, it's important to conduct an honest assessment of how your current performance stacks against your job description. Some workplaces call it a skills rubric (as I will refer to it henceforth) or a competency matrix; basically a summary of what is expected from each job level in your department. If your company doesn't have one, it's worth raising to your leadership team and you can phrase it by saying, "I'd like to ensure my work is meeting expectations. Can we document what success looks for this role?"

You think you deserve a raise, but does your manager see it that way? For promotions, evaluate whether your work has been exemplary of the skills required at the level above you. This will also allow you to start gathering talking points about the excellence you've demonstrated in your current role thus far.

Alternatively, this exercise may be an eye-opener as to why the conversation hasn't happened organically. Let's say you feel you deserve a promotion because you've been contributing to five different projects, but in the skills rubric it requires end-to-end ownership of a project, not contribution. Perhaps you're excelling at your craft, but you have been less active as an interviewer or a mentor. Rather than relying on intuition, you'd benefit from having some objective reference point that you and your manager can both align on. 

Understand the constraints under which pay raises and promotions can occur in your organization

You can do this by consulting an employee handbook or inquiring with your HR representative. It's important to nail down these answers before you approach the conversation with your manager; otherwise, you may be asking for something outside of the realm of possibility. Here's a shortlist:

  • What is the company's frequency of re-evaluating compensation? Perhaps your company only makes salary and role changes during performance review periods. Are conversations about pay considered outside of these periods?
  • Is there a minimum time-in-role required to be considered for a promotion? Is there a minimum period since last pay increase before salary is evaluated again?
  • Does your company partake in pay transparency and if so, can you ask where your pay falls within the salary range for your role?
  • Has your company recently gone through downsizing or financial strain? Is there a clawback on raises in the budget?

Your ability to actually answer these questions will differ depending on your company culture. Some organizations have a stricter closed-door policy than others. Once you've gathered what you can, you'll be able to frame yourself more pointedly. For example, instead of saying "I'd like a pay raise" you can say "I understand that compensation is evaluated quarterly. Since it has been about a year since my last salary adjustment, is that a discussion we can have at the end of this quarter?"

Document your wins

I recommend this as an ongoing practice even in times when you're not actively pursuing a promotion. You should always keep a document with a list of your projects each quarter, with links or screenshots of the impact, company announcements or any kudos you received as a result of this work.

As a manager with many direct reports, it's not hard to lose track of evidence of specific tasks over the course of the year. Employees that maintain a wins document simplify the feedback review process.

What is it - exactly - that you want?

Get specific

If you're asking for a compensation review, you can either share your salary expectations or provide feedback on the amount that is offered; either way, have a specific number in mind. Use the salary band to guide what would be considered fair if one is provided to you. For promotions, is there a timeline that you and your employer are able to agree on? Consider whether it is enough to work with your manager toward a title change with a growth plan or if you believe it's overdue and should be effective sooner rather than later.

Is your goal decoupled from your current role?

Before reading on, take a long pause and get candid about the following question: is your goal decoupled from your current role at this company? Meaning, is your goal to achieve a raise or promotion with your current employer, or are you prepared to change manager, teams or the company to achieve it?

The answer to this question changes the tone of your approach. If, for example, you believe that your experience has prepared you to become a director and that opportunity is not available to you at your current company, you may decide to convey that to your manager. At the very minimum, it may accelerate discussions around putting together a growth plan for what that path would look like should you remain at your current job. On the other hand, you may feel as though the network and tenure you've built at your current company is worth fostering and your energy would be best served pursuing a promotion where you are.

When you intertwine your career goals with a specific company, the conversation between you and your employer is bidirectional and mutually beneficial. When they're decoupled, it's a statement that triggers a decision point. The implication changes from "this is my goal - what can we do to make it happen" to "this is my goal - are you able to meet it or should I seek it elsewhere?" 

The groundwork for a productive discussion

Make this a standalone conversation, not a talking point

Although the most organic venue for this discussion may be your weekly standing one-on-one with your manager, this meeting is often inundated with project updates that take up valuable time. Carve out a dedicated slot for career discussions. It may also be wise to consider the headspace your manager is in before scheduling this meeting. Try to find a week that is relatively calm so that the participants can give your their full attention (ex. don't bring this up on Black Friday at a marketing agency).

Give your manager a heads up

If you spring this topic on your manager unexpectedly, the conversation may not be as productive as it could be. Send a message/e-mail to your manager indicating that you'd like to discuss your compensation so that they too can brush up on policy, salary bands, etc. It can be brief -  here's an example:

"Good morning [manager]! If there aren't other pressing topics for this week's sync, I was wondering if we could use the time to discuss my compensation."

Bring your HR homework

Don't jump the gun with a slide deck on why you deserve a promotion, but prepare some talking points so that you don't come across as vague or unprepared. Go through the skills rubric for your position and jot down a couple proof points that support the demonstration of each attribute. Keep your wins document tucked away and perhaps offer to send it over to your manager at the end of the meeting. This way, you can start the conversation with your intentions and speak to specific examples should the discussion head in that direction.

Expect an ongoing discussion

Calling back to the instant gratification section, the outcome of this meeting may not necessarily be an instant yes. If your manager believes additional experience is required to get to the next level, you may part ways with a shortlist of action items rather than what you came in asking for.

Take onus of keeping the momentum for the conversation. At your next performance review, invite your manager to revisit the action items and ask if they've seen any improvement. During team planning, ask for feedback on whether the projects that are assigned to you are serving progress toward your goals.

Popping the big question

Right off the bat, know that your manager may feel as nervous about this discussion as you do. Holding someone else's career growth in your hands is a huge responsibility so if you feel awkward, you're in good company! Start by stating your intention, and be very specific and concise. For a pay increase, a sample jump-off point may be:

"From what I understand, compensation is evaluated on a quarterly basis. Since my last salary increase about a year ago, my workload has evolved significantly. I'm wondering if we can chat about how that factors into this quarter's discussions."

For a promotion:

"I was reviewing the skills rubric for my current role and based on this year's performance review, it sounds like I'm exceeding expectations with the projects I've shipped thus far. What are your thoughts on my progression to the next job level?"

Resoundingly I've heard that these statements are often met with wishy-washy, non-answers. Usually something to the effect of, "absolutely, we're really impressed with the workload you've taken on this year. That will definitely factor into the end-of-year reviews." This is where you have an opportunity to narrow your original statement. Some sample responses:

  • "It's great to see my work recognized. Is there any feedback you'd like to give me today that would help me work on this goal?"
  • "Could you provide more detail on what goes into decisions that are made in end-of-year reviews?"
  • "What would need to happen between now and then for a positive outcome?"
  • "To confirm, does this mean that a salary increase is off the table at this time?"
  • "Since it has been about a year since my last compensation review, is there an opportunity to have this discussion sooner than the end of the year?"

What if my manager says no? 

Spoiler alert: they might say no. Temper your expectations by going into it with a curiosity to understand what stands between you and your goal. You may not be able to predict your manager's response, but it is reasonable to expect to leave this meeting without feeling abstract about your path to success.

I cannot emphasize this enough: the relationship you have with your manager is equally bidirectional. A key component of your manager's job (and a large part of how they should be evaluated) is their ability to provide you with the tools to gain the experience you need to get to the next level. If the answer is no, it should be accompanied with a reason, a growth plan, frequent feedback sessions, a timeline, action items and/or concrete future projects that will allow you to address all of the above. The answer shouldn't be just no, it should be no, but...

Some people feel awkward about demanding more from their leads. Know that you can always use wordplay to soften the delivery. If you feel like you're consistently assigned to projects that help the company but don't help you gain the experience you need to get ahead, you can say, "can we use ten minutes at the start of the month to assess how each of my tasks map to my growth plan? I have a personal goal to be more proactive." If you feel like your manager delivers decisions without feedback, you can say, "I really value your input, can we set up a standing meeting so I can pick your brain on my most recent work?" Basically it's not what you say, it's how you say it.

Closing thoughts

Career growth is such a strange juxtaposition: you have to want it without seeming too desperate for it, achieve it without asking for it to be handed to you. Pay raises and promotions are some of the more sensitive conversations you'll have in the workplace throughout your career, but they're important ones.

Be objective, be specific, be prepared, and good luck!


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