Expect so-so raises—unless you're a top worker

If your Christmas wish list includes a year-end bonus or a salary bump, it's time to step up—or buckle down.

Employers anticipate awarding average pay increases of 3 percent in 2016 for most nonmanagement employees, according to a new survey from benefits consulting firm Towers Watson. That's the same as was awarded this year, and 2014. "It's the new norm," said Peter Gundy, managing director at Towers Watson.

But there are some bright spots, particularly for high performers. Towers Watson found 87 percent of employees are eligible to receive annual or short-term bonuses this year, up from 86 percent last year—and 85 percent received a bonus this year, up from 81 percent in 2014. Employers are also planning to award bigger pay raises of 4.6 percent on average to their best-performing workers.

"They're trying to differentiate all of the increases that they're giving toward the highest performers," said Gundy.

Those flat 3 percent raises may not do much to offset higher costs of living, so start looking now for line items in your budget where you can cut back or reassess, said Bruce McClary, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. That can help you make the most of whatever pay increase or bonus that comes your way.

Think ahead about short- and long-term financial goals—for example, put part of a raise to boost retirement contributions or a bonus to pay down high-rate credit card debt. "Use that to get ahead instead of letting it evaporate by spending it all on unplanned purchases," McClary said.

Then, do what you can to make sure you're on the boss' short list for that bigger pay bump. "Deliberately work to increase your visibility," said marketing strategy consultant Dorie Clark, author of "Stand Out."

Participate in internal social networks, where bosses are apt to look for innovative ideas, she said. Or take a leaf from politics and "power map"—identify individuals who influence your boss. If you can make a good impression on them, too, through projects or committees or at events, then your boss could be receiving positive feedback about you from multiple sources, Clark said.

Of course, it's also smart to keep track of your own contributions and achievements ahead of performance review season. Try to attach specific metrics on how your actions have benefited the company. "That makes it easier to translate into the language of bonuses or salaries," said Clark. "If you save the company $1 million, it seems a little stingy of them to deny you an extra $20,000."

If a bonus or raise isn't forthcoming, see if you can get a sense of how others fared, said Clark. Was there some broader tamp-down (say, a bad year in general for the company), or are you the only one not getting a raise? That, along with your career track and job duties, can help determine if it's time to hunt for other opportunities.

Networking isn't a bad idea, regardless. It's a good hedge to have contacts elsewhere in your industry if you're ever laid off, said Clark—and you might end up with an unsolicited job offer that gives you leverage to get better pay at your current workplace. "Psychologically, it's good for you to know in the back of your mind that you have options," she said.