Young women entering the business world are often advised to find a savvy mentor who can guide their progress up the corporate ladder. So you might think that having 24/7 access to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company would provide a huge advantage. However, this may not be true for the two daughters of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.
Based on recent events, for example, one can imagine the following discussion in the Nadella household:
Daughter: "Daddy, my responsibilities have greatly expanded in the past couple of years, but my salary has remained the same. Should I talk to my boss about a raise?"
Satya: "No, dear, you really need to have faith that the system is giving you the right raises as you go along."
Daughter: "But, Daddy, if I'm being underpaid, shouldn't I ask for what deserve?"
Satya: "Women who don't ask for raises actually have a kind of superpower, because it makes them someone that others want to trust. It creates good karma which will come back to you."
Given the extensive news coverage, by now you have undoubtedly heard the actual comments upon which this hypothetical conversation is based. But to refresh your memory, here is what Mr. Nadella said at a conference which is billed as the largest gathering of women technologists:
"It's not really about asking for the raise, but knowing and having faith that the system will actually give you the right raises as you go along. And I think that might be one of the additional superpowers that, quite frankly, women who don't ask for a raise have. Because that's good karma. It'll come back, because somebody is going to know that is the kind of person that I want to trust."
What CEOs really think
This inane comment, which came towards the end of a rather relaxed on-stage interview with the female president of Harvey Mudd College, likely represents an unguarded moment in which Mr. Nadella gave us a glimpse of what CEOs actually think: "I wish that our employees would stop whining about pay and just take what we give them."
Similarly, the "superpower" to which Mr. Nadella refers is the tendency of many women to be accepting and unassertive in matters of compensation. This makes them "the kind of person I want to trust" because they seldom cause management any discomfort. But while these compliant souls may be trusted, they are definitely not rewarded.
Unfortunately, women often buy into this "good little girl" persona from the beginning of their employment. Unlike their male counterparts, they fail to negotiate starting salaries and simply accept whatever offer they are given. Because they are also more reluctant to ask for raises, over time their pay falls farther and farther behind.
Which brings us to Mr. Nadella's reference to karma. According to Wikipedia, karma can be defined as "that which explains the present circumstances of an individual with reference to his or her actions in the past". And in that sense, karma is indeed at play here, because if you fail to ask for what you deserve, odds are you will never receive it.
After 22 years at Microsoft, Mr. Nadella's total annual compensation is now reported to be in the neighborhood of $7.6 million. So here's the obvious question: did he reach that lofty level by taking his own advice and trusting the system? Or did he demonstrate self-confidence and assertiveness by negotiating his salary at appropriate points during his career? There's no way to find out, of course, but I know where I'm placing my bets.
To be fair to Mr. Nadella, he did apologize for his remarks. Unfortunately, in his first stab at contrition, he simply said he had been "inarticulate." ("Idiotic" would have been more accurate.) But in the version that appeared after a thorough scrubbing by the PR folks, he changed his tone and reversed course.
Here's the final apology:
From: Satya Nadella
Sent: Thursday, October 9, 2014 5:24 PM
To: Microsoft – All Employees (QBDG); Retail: All FTE
Subject: RE: Empowering Others
All – Today I was interviewed on stage by Maria Klawe at the Grace Hopper Conference – I encourage you to watch the video. It was great to spend time with so many women passionate about technology. I was honored to be a part of it and I left the conference energized and inspired.
Toward the end of the interview, Maria asked me what advice I would offer women who are not comfortable asking for pay raises. I answered that question completely wrong. Without a doubt I wholeheartedly support programs at Microsoft and in the industry that bring more women into technology and close the pay gap. I believe men and women should get equal pay for equal work. And when it comes to career advice on getting a raise when you think it's deserved, Maria's advice was the right advice. If you think you deserve a raise, you should just ask.
I said I was looking forward to the Grace Hopper Conference to learn, and I certainly learned a valuable lesson. I look forward to speaking with you at our monthly Q&A next week and am happy to answer any question you have.
Here's how you REALLY do it
Here's my advice to anyone, male or female, who gets queasy at the thought of saying to their boss, "I would like to talk about my pay." First, you need to understand that managers are hardly ever surprised, much less offended, when an employee raises the subject of a pay increase. That doesn't mean you'll get what you want, but it does mean that the subject is hardly taboo.
Second, you must do your homework and develop a solid business case for your request. I addressed the specifics of this process in a commentary earlier this year (link to my commentary on "How to Ask for a Raise"). And finally, just screw up your courage and do it! Worst case, your boss will say no, then you can politely ask when the best time would be to discuss the subject again.
By the way, should Mr. Nadella happen to read this piece, I would like to assure him that I have absolutely no ax to grind with either him or his company. In fact, just last week I purchased a new Microsoft Surface tablet, which has ironically made it much easier to write this column while I'm on vacation.