How Do I Ask For (and get) A Raise? - Part 2

10 Commandments When Asking For
More Money (Commandments 6-10)

Welcome to Part 2 of this article. Read Part 1 here.

If you are an underpaid federal, state, or city worker and would like to be paid more, welcome to the club. In my career, I've successfully negotiated several pay increases and promotions. I've also given and denied several raises for the people who work under me.

Spoiler alert: we all want more money, but most of us will either never ask or never successfully receive a raise. Don't take it personally; that's the way the world goes round. But, there are a few things you can do to significantly increase your chances of landing more money at your current job.

Here are commandments six through ten for asking for a raise.

6. Thou Shalt Understand Budgetary Constraints.

There's a well-kept industry secret that you should learn and always keep in mind when asking for a raise: Money does not grow on trees. Budgets are not unlimited, and the funds in agency budgets are never, repeat, never easily accessible. It can be surprising when employees think that the process for having their raise approved is as easy as getting an investigative report or timesheet approved. This is not the way it works at all. As a basic example, agencies have division and unit budgets with funds that can only be used for certain expenditures. And the funds that are used to give people raises outside of merit increases have to come from empty positions, which means approving your raise requires your unit to give up a post.

While giving up one job might help satisfy raises for a few people, simple math tells us that we cannot keep giving current employees more money when it requires cutting your workforce. With time, giving more raises means a shrinking unit with non-shrinking workloads and responsibilities. Also, most agencies have strict rules and protocols that purposely reduce a manager's ability to give unchecked raises. For example, in my agency, the maximum raise a supervisor can approve is just a 3.5% increase in salary. Anything over this will have to be approved by higher levels. Once a pay increase exceeds 7%, the raise will require the approval of the highest-ranking person in the agency, which in my agency is an executive commissioner appointed by the governor of our state. Of course, occasional raises over 7% do happen, and sometimes positions are audited into higher positions as an option to circumvent some of the approvals required from executive personnel. I say all of this to hit home a point. When you ask for a raise, you ask your chain of command to do more than check a box or sign a paper. Truth be told, if more money was available for staff, most managers would be happy to pass it on to their team. The reality, however, is that your division's unit has likely been around for a long time, and budgets were probably stretched to their limits long before you decided to ask for a raise.

This does not mean you should not ask for more money, but it suggests that you think about how often you ask for a raise and for how much you ask. For example, there are optimal times for asking for raises in a federal, state, or city budget. You are more likely to get a 3% raise each year for three years than you are to get a 9% raise in one swoop after you have been working for three years. Try asking for less money more often.

Most agencies have more flexibility in offering more money for new employees than increasing salaries for current employees. If you accept a low starting offer, you can expect to have trouble making up money throughout your career. It is also wise to negotiate a higher salary upon being hired into an agency. Lastly, forming a new group or unit with a new budget code is an excellent time to ask for more money.

7. Thou Shalt Be Patient.

Asking for a raise is easy and takes little time, but having a raise approved and seeing it hit your bank account can sometimes take time. Getting a raise involves complicated processes and can require several people to research and sign off on approvals. Things happen that are outside of your manager's control. People involved in the process might be out on vacation or sick. Perhaps the computer systems are down, or the proper authorizations required in the payroll system are down for a few days. Also, pay periods and effective dates can cause automatic delays that can quickly postpone a raise until the next pay date. Sometimes, things will go smoothly, but don't be surprised when delays happen. It is always surprising to see an employee go from grateful to angry in a few weeks. One day, they are thankful to find out their raise has been approved, and after a few weeks of delays, they start acting like you owe them or that you are somehow stealing from them.

This kind of attitude always gives me pause when thinking about the next time they ask for more money. Being patient, displaying gratitude, and focusing on your work rather than your money will go a long way towards fostering a healthy professional relationship with your chain of command. I have witnessed many times when executive management went the extra mile to take care of an employee simply because the employee was gracious and indifferent to delays. While patience is a virtue, sometimes it pays back in cash.

8. Thou Shalt Not Take It Personal.

If you are brave enough to ask for a raise, be brave enough to accept that your request has been denied. This loss reminds me of the adage that you can't win the lottery if you don't buy a lottery ticket, but most people don't get mad, hurt, or feel surprised when their lottery ticket comes up short. Raises are different though. I get it. It can take a lot of courage to ask for more money, and not all bosses are the most inviting people. But, please don't take it personally if your supervisor denies your request for a pay raise. When I have to reject a pay raise, nine times out of ten, it has nothing to do with the employee's performance or perceived value to the unit. Seriously, I'd give everyone more money if I could; I want my team to feel valued. I want them to be happy, and I want them to get paid more working for our agency than working for some other place. I know that paying well attracts more qualified candidates and will help me build a winning team. But, most raises get denied because the money is not there, or there are other plans for the surplus money in the budget. It's that simple and that harsh sometimes. However, I want employees to remember that we are all in the same boat. You just keep working hard, and I will take care of you in any way I can.

If your request is denied, ask your boss why it was dismissed and get their advice on making a successful request in the future. Make it clear to your boss that you work for money and that your pay grade is important to you, but also maintain a good attitude when times are lean. The people who can do this will be more likely to receive higher pay or more benefits in the future.

9. Thou Shalt Remember The Grass On Both Sides Of The Fence Is The Same Grass.

I have seen many investigators come and go in my time managing an investigative division. Situations happen that create circumstances that can be unfavorable for an employee. When this happens, the employee only has two choices. They can accept the position and be okay with it or leave. I speak here from personal experience. Two new executive leaders made the job dangerous for investigators who routinely served dangerous arrest warrants. The new management became more concerned with numbers than safety, even though I made a detailed presentation on how the changes placed my unit at a greater risk. I was unhappy about the situation and knew I could either accept the changes and move forward or leave. I left, and things ended up being okay for the investigative team for a while. A few years later, several people I used to work with were shot and killed because of the same changed protocols. Nobody won in that situation, but the point is that we all understand that when we are unhappy with work, we will have to choose one of those two paths; live with the situation or find another job.

There are times when leaving is justified, but this is usually not the most effective decision, especially if we make that choice prematurely. I have already mentioned the need to be patient when asking for a raise, but I want to point something out. Many people who are unhappy with their jobs develop the idea that another company will be different or better. I have learned that this is usually not the case.

The problems you face in your current position will be there in your next job. This occurs because jobs involve working for and with people. And when people are a part of any process, things will happen that make some of them unhappy. This phenomenon is just a fact of life. When speaking about raises, the point is not to jump ship too quickly, especially if you want to leave because you think another job will be perfect. It won't be. The lesson here is that the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence. The grass is grass, and while things might look different from a distance, you'll almost always find yourself facing the same challenges, no matter where you work.

On the other hand, environments change. Sometimes, they get worse, but eventually, things will improve, get worse again, and improve. You get the picture. We would all be better off learning how to manage and influence our environments rather than leave every time a problem occurs. Life is full of challenges, and they will never go away. So, ask for your raise, but be willing to stick it out if your request gets refused. The next time, your boss might say yes, especially if you are working hard to be an exceptional employee and targeting the best opportunities for advancement within your organization.

10. Thou shalt understand leverage and use it to your advantage.

I think most people who ask for a raise feel their manager's decision to either grant or refuse the raise is a personal decision. In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth. The employee who asks for a raise is hedging their bets on their ability to perform and be worth their requested salary. But, for a supervisor, giving an employee a raise is less based on emotion and more of a logistical decision. For example, the money from the budget isn't coming out of the manager's pocket, so what do they care where the money goes, except that part of their job duty is to manage a healthy and balanced budget. Yes, the employee has to be worth their salt in order to be considered for a raise, but if you're a good employee who works hard and plays well with others, then I'm going to give you more money if there is room in the budget. However, a problem arises when everyone wants a raise, and there is just not enough money to go around. Or, consider the very predictable and almost guaranteed budget cuts that occur in local, state, and federal agencies.

While we all want more pay for what we're doing, the people who approve the budgets wish to perform better at a cheaper rate. One of leadership's main goals is to make processes more effective and efficient, producing better quality products with less money. It's a challenging mission, but there are ways to increase your chances of being paid more money.

I just gave a big hint when I said that the management team constantly has to streamline and prioritize processes to meet its goals with fewer resources. These changes in the process can be your opportunity to make more money. Earlier, I mentioned that my state agency could only provide a 3.5% pay increase and, at times, go as high as 6.8% to 7% under certain circumstances and with the proper approvals. Now, I'll tell you how I walked away with a 22% increase in pay while staying at the same level position.

Let's put together some of the principles I have mentioned and see how they worked in action. My division had three managers who each supervised a team of investigators. One of the managers moved to a different division. Instead of rehiring a new manager, executive leadership decided to stay with just two investigations managers, splitting the manager's team between the two remaining managers. Out of curiosity, I asked a member of executive management, with whom I had an excellent professional relationship, what they planned on doing with the extra position they now had. He told me about a plan to form an exceptional group of attorneys tasked with litigating profitable cases. I also learned the head of the agency had come up with this idea and that they were having trouble finding vacant positions they could use to build their new team.

A few months later, the other manager suddenly quit, leaving for a job with a different agency. I immediately met with my boss and told them I was willing to take over the whole investigative team, showing them how a new case tracking system I developed could enable one manager to do the work of three managers effectively. After about a week, a member of executive management approached me to verify I could manage the whole team by myself. I assured them that I could and would off they went to crunch numbers and make changes to our processes. I knew executive management valued having a position available to build their team, so when executive management offered me a 10% raise, I told them it was not enough money.

Passing up on their offer was not a personal mission to convince them that I deserved more money. Instead, I had purposely created a situation where giving me more money would solve one of executive management's biggest problems. In the end, outfitting their team was more of a priority than offering me an additional 12% raise, something they made happen as it would allow them to accomplish a goal they saw as a valuable asset to the agency. The head of the agency signed off on my raise without hesitation because they wanted their project to move forward. Did they think I deserved the raise? Sure. Did they give me a higher raise because I deserved it? No way. They were more focused on staffing up their new unit, so we both got what we wanted.

This situation showed me the importance of knowing how (and when) to ask for a raise. I knew I was a hard worker, and I had shown executive management that I was exceptional at my job. I never complained about my workload and offered to do even more, and I did not give them an ultimatum. I wasn't worried about what others were getting paid and made use of my knowledge about leverage and budgets before making my move to ask for more money. It was entirely within my power to deny taking on the extra work, which placed the feasibility of their prized project under my direct control. I also exercised patience during the next few months that it would take them to make the significant bump in pay work with their policies. They became inventive by using a merit increase budget, position reclassification, and fiscal year timings to make their budget work. In the end, I received an unusually high raise in my agency, which helped boost my pay when I was promoted to a director position for the same unit a few months later.

Take a look at the principles outlined in Parts 1 and 2 of this article. Study them and implement these principles when deciding when to ask for a raise. Choose a reasonable number, stay the course, and remain loyal to your unit, even if your initial request is denied. If you find the right timing and leverage, and you have spent time working hard and gaining the confidence of your superiors, then your pay day will come. Someone in the agency is always getting a raise, so make that person you.

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