How to ask for a higher salary (and get it)

Have you ever found yourself at the end of a performance evaluation, disappointed with the raise your offered? I have, and early in my career the PE would end with frustration, but nothing more. It didn’t take long, however, for me to realize the fate of my salary laid in my own hands - I had to ask for it if I wanted more.

It took some practice, but I learned how to do it comfortably and effectively. And after some time, I started mentoring and coaching other women to get actively involved in their salary negotiations. Here’s my strategy.

Many women are uncomfortable negotiating salary

I got a call at 5:00 one afternoon. “I need some coaching right away,” said Sarah, a woman I mentor, “I’ve applied for a new job and I’ll be having a compensation discussion but I’m terrible at negotiating.”

“Great! When do you meet with HR?” I asked.

“Tomorrow morning.”

I hear a variation of the salary question all the time from women I mentor (although usually not the night before a key meeting!).

Over the years, I’ve noticed that women hesitate to ask for more than they’re offered largely out of fear.

Fear of being labeled aggressive or demanding, or fear of seeming ungrateful are some reasons women have a hard time negotiating their salaries. I’ve also heard women doubt their worth and question if they really deserve more money.

My advice to these women is simple: you need to move past your fear and become your own fiercest advocate.  Light bulbs go on when I tell them the approach many of their male counterparts are using.  

The first thing men are doing differently is asking for more. A Muse article summarizes work done by Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide.

Babcock found that 57% of the men negotiated their salary, while only 7% of women did. And when people negotiated, they saw an increase of over 7%. Whether or not you consider 7% worth getting into a negotiation about, remember that this gap continues to widen every year.

What else are men doing? They’re setting expectations that they will get a raise, and how much they expect. They are having conversations about the topic which many women hesitate to do.

Sarah’s situation: too much responsibility, too little pay

Sarah had been with her company for two years and had recently applied for a new position in the same department. HR told her she got the job, but they would only approve a 10% increase. She already felt she wasn’t getting paid adequately, and wanted a larger raise with the additional responsibilities she was going to take on.

In her company, HR manages all salary discussion in alignment with a compensation team (not the business unit leaders or the line managers), which was why she had scheduled the meeting with the HR lead for her group in the morning.

She called me that night after realizing she didn’t feel ready for the meeting. We put together a simple plan to help her get ready.

Start by doing your homework

We had a little time, so my first response was to tell her to do some homework. I told her to start on GlassDoor to find the salary range for the position by looking at similar open positions and the salaries listed.

Then, I asked her to review her accomplishments so she would be prepared to highlight what she specifically delivered in terms of contributions and results. We discussed the additional responsibilities in this new position, how much time they would take, and why this level of responsibility would warrant a higher salary.   

All of this talk about the new position cemented her enthusiasm for it, so we talked about opening the meeting with HR by reiterating her commitment to the company, her impact on the organization, and her strong interest in the job. This would start the conversation on a positive note.

Then, prepare to negotiate

It was time to prepare her for her negotiations. First, we talked about the different approaches she could take in her compensation discussion.

We practiced different ways to talk about her value until she was comfortable that this was an essential part of the discussion, and not bragging. We also talked about whether she would be most comfortable being more direct (e.g., I am expecting a 20% raise) or less direct (I am expecting the best increase you can offer).

Since she was the one who would be sitting across the table from HR, she had to be comfortable with her approach.

Then, I sent her three links I’ve found helpful, knowing that different tips work for different women:

By the time we hung up, we had talked through several phrases she could use, potential questions she might be asked, and various ways to close the conversation. Sarah was ready to for her discussion with HR.

How did it all work out?

Sarah called me after her meeting to give me an update. She told me the conversation started with HR telling her “You will only get a 10% increase, and it’s not negotiable.” Ouch.

But, she was ready. Sarah responded with the GlassDoor data and the salary range that other companies have this position listed for, both of which were higher than the 10% offer.

She talked about her recent contributions to the organization and her increased responsibilities. She closed by saying, “based on my contributions and all of this data, I expected an increase well above 10%,” just as we had practiced. She then asked for a 20% raise.

The meeting ended with the HR representative telling Sarah they didn’t want to lose her. They asked her to send her salary expectations, and they’d make a case to the compensation team.

“The fact that I was able to move HR from a non-negotiable 10% to a let’s see what we can do gave me the confidence to challenge the status quo,” Sarah reported back to me.

A few days later, Sarah called to let me know that she was offered the job at “double the initial percentage increase.” She was thrilled with getting the 20% increase she wanted and was worth.

A few months later, she called to let me know that she got approval to expand her team. Her experience with the salary increase gave her the confidence to continue to ask for what she wanted.

She said, “Just like with the salary discussion I realized if I didn’t ask, I won’t get it. I might or might not get what I want, but the worst they can say is no.” A good lesson for all of us to remember.