How Do I Ask for a Raise in a Recession?

Last Updated Apr 1, 2009 1:14 PM EDT

Dear Stanley,
I work for a small medical company and I have certain clinical expertise and experience that only a handful of medical professionals in my field have. in fact, there may only be five individuals in the state. My salary is about the same as others in my company who can not perform my job. I have an offer for a federal job with better benefits but lower salary. How do I go for the big raise, another week's vacation, and severance in a tactful manner? If they have to pay a temp company, it will cost them twice as much as my salary. Help!
Deserving Dan

Dear Daring Dan,

You raise an interesting issue. You sound eminently qualified and indeed deserving of a nice raise and all the trimmings that go with it. The question is: Can anybody ask for such a thing in this, the deepest, darkest, scariest night ever in the Black Forest of Capitalism? I guess I think you can. But you'd better be on solid footing, my friend, and not just whistling as you walk past the wolf. It's also a good idea to lay some rail and view this project as one that may take place over time, not overnight. If you are as valuable as you say, you will be building on a feeling in your boss that you're worth the money and perks -- if he or she can swing it with his or her senior manager. Remember that your raise has to be sold upwards and is not a unilateral decision to be made by your manager alone.

Here are the steps that you might take, gingerly, carefully, on tippy-toe as it were:

1. Lay the foundation. Have a meeting with your boss. Set it up beforehand as a formal sit down, not a leaning-in-the-doorway-with-a-cup-of-coffee-in-your-hand thing. The informal route makes it easy for him to just say, "Aw, come on, Larry (or Betty), you know how things are" and move along smartly down a different path. Don't make it sound dire, but an actual time and date on his or her calendar lets the boss know that you mean business, not schmoozing. There is, sometimes, a difference.

2. Toss the grenade while it still has a pin in it. Keeping the protective pin in the grenade means you won't have to fall on it later when it's about to explode, which is quite painful and sometimes involves career death. Simply say to Mr. Roover, "Bob, I know this is a very difficult time for me to be raising this, but I just want you to hear me out. As you know, I have all kinds of capabilities that help things run around here, a skill set that's kind of different than the other guys'. And I feel like there should be some recognition of that at some point. You can tell me when." By taking timing off the table and selling the matter on its merits, you're eliminating the "not now" card from his deck. You know it's not a question of now. But if you succeed, even modestly, it has become a question not of if but of when.

3. Back off and bow nicely. If you've done your job well, you have got the boss into the position in which he or she can say, in a dignified manner, "Well, Larry or Betty, you know it's really impossible right now, but I see your point and I guess if you'll let me think about it a little bit, we can talk about it sometime in the future." At this point you may thank you boss and retire from the field of battle. Thus endeth phase one.

4. Follow up. After at least one full month, you may now employ the lean-in-the-doorway strategy to broach the subject again in a light-hearted manner. The more informal touch here is a way of ambushing the boss when he or she least expects it. Like, she's about to bite down on that nice muffin and here you come with a smile and a self-deprecating "Have you thought it over?" At which point she will say, "No! Go away!" And you may then look very sad, say thanks, and go off to do your job with the usual excellence.

5. Maintain gentle pressure. If you continue this strategy of constant, intermittent pressure, applied while you do continue to be superb at your function, you will get your raise. There are all kinds of tricks managers can pull to get you what you want, you know. They can raise your grade, which creates room at the top of your range. They can slightly alter your title, which involves a change of compensation. If they really, really want to do it, it will be done. Your trick is to do the dance with such finesse that at no time can your manager just blow you off your feet.

What being in a recession means is not that things can't or won't happen. It means that everything is harder, that's all. But you know, nobody said it was going to be easy.