How to Negotiate a Raise (or other perks) in a Recession

Photo:  Guiri R. Reyes
With unemployment staying stubbornly high at 9.1%, those who are lucky enough to have a job might be feeling kind of stuck (though some are still planning to leave). They don’t want to jump into the unemployment pool, but they feel undervalued and unfulfilled in their job. Rather than staying at a crappy job, why not try to make the one you have better?

I know, money doesn’t make life better. But it sure can make it less bad, right? If I’m doing a job that’s not ideal but doesn’t make me want to kill myself, and I’m not willing to roll the dice in this economy, getting a raise or some other perk can certainly make life more enjoyable. Here are a few ideas.

Negotiate a raise
First off, are you a valuable and exceptional employee? Think critically about this one, because it’s easy to delude ourselves into thinking we’re the best at what we do. How do you add value (showing up everyday does not count)? Always keep in mind that your employer is, despite what you might think at times, a rational actor who makes business decisions based on numbers and value. If you are not adding real value, you can’t really ask for a raise.

At the same time, you might be adding value in areas you didn’t consider. I liken it to the person who has a really weak resume, not because they don’t have any experience, but because they haven’t thought about all the things they’ve actually accomplished. I’ve worked with many people on their resumes, and it’s amazing how often you see a list of duties and tasks instead of a list of accomplishments. Take an honest but really in-depth look at what you’ve done in your job for the last 6-12 months. Write down a list of projects, and break it out by month. If you need to break each month down too, in order to get a better idea of what you accomplished, do it. Get granular. It will help you recall what projects you’ve completed, and it will get you thinking about how that added value to the team or company. Numbers and dollar amounts (numbers of new clients, new accounts, new ideas, increased revenue, decreased expenses, decreased time to complete tasks, etc.) are best. Numbers speak volumes.

Remember when you interviewed for the job? You didn’t say, “You should give me this job because I really don’t like not having a job and I really want this one.” I know you didn’t, because no one gets hired that way. You put together a list of accomplishments and showed, in black and white, why the company needed you and what you were going to do for it. That’s how your raise negotiation should go – just like you are interviewing for your job.

Once you’ve compiled a list of what you’ve done to add value and stand out over the past year or so, pick the top three or five examples. Be ready to present them to your boss or manager, not in a formal presentation necessarily, but off the cuff when asking for a raise. Don’t use comparisons with peers, don’t focus on what other companies are paying. Bosses don’t care about that. They care about how you are making their lives easier and, again, numbers matter.

One side note: If your company is really getting crushed in this economy, asking for a raise might not be appropriate. This will vary from company to company though, so you’ll have to feel this one out yourself. If rumors are spreading that things could get really nasty, tread lightly. If your sales are way up, and you are just killing it, the company might be eager to keep you on despite a gloomy fiscal outlook. Don’t sell yourself short and skip asking because the company is shaky, just be cautious in your approach.

Negotiate a different perk
So, you’ve either tried to get a raise and it didn’t work (hey, sometimes it doesn’t, but you have to try), or you’ve decided not to go that route for whatever reason. There are other perks you can pull off that will enhance your professional life. One is classes or continuing education. Education is huge because the skills you acquire move with you from job to job, they can be personally enjoyable, and they can be easy to pitch when positioned right.

When I worked in DC for a consulting firm, I was talking with my boss about prospective clients. He mentioned an organization in Honduras that he wanted to pitch, so I was sure to mention that I spoke some Spanish. His eyes lit up and he said, “Are you fluent?” “No,” I said, “but if I took classes for 3-6 months I know I’d be back up to a working level. That would definitely help us when putting together pitch materials and it might also help them to know we have another Spanish speaker on our team when they consider our proposal.” He said that was interesting and that it was something we should talk more about. I kept bringing it up with him, and showing him class material, until he approved the class. I busted my ass in the class, made sure I got an A, and later got him to pay for one-on-one tutoring (more expensive and much more effective).

So instead of a raise I got to pursue a hobby and expand my professional credentials. That not only improved my quality of work life, but it also would work in my favor down the road. When I asked for a raise about a year later, I’d made myself more valuable to the company by expanding my skills (we got the Honduran client) and, after paying for classes, increased how invested the company was in me as an employee. Getting the raise was much easier as a result of the language classes – win win!

I used language classes as an example, but there are a ton of other options including big ticket items like grad school (remember the guy who buys video games for a living? He’s now getting his MBA, mostly on the company’s dime). Be strategic when asking for any perk or raise, and be sure you can sell yourself as deserving. If you approach the negotiations armed with a clear list of things you’ve done to add value, your sell will be way easier.

Good luck!

PS:  Got a success story where you pulled off a successful negotiation? Let’s hear it!

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Tim Murphy is the founder of - the first free web app to help you track school and job applications.

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