How to get a raise, even when the boss won't negotiate

Rob Walker
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Send your workplace conundrums to, including your name and contact information (even if you want it withheld). The Workologist is a guy with well-intentioned opinions, not a professional career adviser. Letters may be edited.

I graduated from college two years ago and have been at the same company ever since. When I started, I was told that the salary was nonnegotiable; all entry-level employees start at the same hourly rate. I had a strong first year at work. Also, I regularly worked overtime, so I was making about 15 percent extra over my base pay.

I was promoted early (it usually takes two years), and got a raise, but lost my eligibility for overtime pay. So I make less now than when I started. When I tried to discuss this with my boss, management, and human resources, they all told me nothing could be done and that my salary would get back to where it started next year if I got a raise after my next performance review.

I've now had my review, and received the highest rating. But my boss said that she has no information about salary and isn't the right person to discuss it with. It seems to me like the company really does not expect us to negotiate or even discuss our salary. Is that the strangest thing you've ever heard, or am I missing something here?


That's really frustrating. And certainly your boss claiming to be unsure about whom you should talk to is rather strange. It's not as if you're asking about some esoteric issue; salary is kind of a big deal.

For some help, I talked to Daniel Shapiro, founder and director of the Harvard International Negotiation Program.

Your first move is to get more information. Set up a meeting with H.R., Mr. Shapiro suggested. Treat it as purely informational: Don't complain about your boss or demand a raise. Just focus on getting someone to explain the compensation system, how employees are valued, and what opportunitiesfor advancement or increased pay are available now or will be in the future.

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Your job is more intense. Your pay and title haven't kept up.

"You could learn a lot," he said. Maybe your boss isn't giving you the whole story. Or perhaps there are more innocent factors: Your company's entry-level salary may be high for your field.

You might also talk to trusted colleagues to see if others have had the same experience. Next, do some research outside your company, Mr. Shapiro said. Find out what your firm's competitors would pay a person like you.

When you've got a handle on all this, arrange a separate conversation with whomever turns out to make decisions on salary issues — and get creative. Is a bonus a possibility? What about more time off? Improved benefits? A raise tied to specific goals in a definite time period?

"People typically see negotiation as an adversarial game," Mr. Shapiro said. "Shift the nature of that conversation, so that it's collaborative." You can frame your effort as seeking input in finding a fair resolution. Point out that you're paid $X, but for these reasons you believe you are worth $Y. Then, he said, ask something like, "What advice do you have for me about how to think through this salary dilemma?"

The idea, Mr. Shapiro said, is to "make the employer an ally."

At the same time, you should probably start thinking about what you'll do if the company really won't budge. Unless you're willing to accept being paid less than believe you deserve, that means exploring alternatives elsewhere.

When an office joke isn't funny

During a recent team meeting, a new co-worker made a joke about divorce that made our roughly 20-person team burst into laughter. His joke insinuated that divorced people are failures.

As far as I know, I am the only person on our team who has been through a divorce. I didn't feel insecure before, but now I do, knowing that my entire team was amused by his wisecrack.

My employer pays a lot of lip service to being a hospitable and inclusive workplace.

I don't necessarily see this joke as discrimination, but how is this different from a similar joke about religion, gender, or race?

E. R.

Your colleague was thoughtless. But I'd try not to let this balloon into a larger problem. I assume he had no idea you'd been through a divorce and didn't intend any offense. I also assume it was a one-off, and he doesn't inject divorce-specific standup material into every meeting.

Unlike the other examples you mention, "divorced person" is not a category protected under laws aimed at workplace discrimination. This doesn't change the fact that the remark bothered you. So if you want to clear the air, you might tell him something like this:

"I know you didn't mean anything by your joke the other day, but I'm actually divorced. And I'm sure that other colleagues have, at the least, divorced parents or siblings or friends. For the record, lots of divorced people are quite successful. But the subject is not really funny to those affected."

Keep your tone as mild and matter-of-fact as you can — because you're basically doing him a favor. If the guy is just a jerk, he may say you're being oversensitive. But he'll probably be momentarily mortified, and ultimately grateful. Forgive him, and move on.

This article was originally published in The New York Times.

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