What to Do if Asking for a Raise Backfires

Author: Charlotte Cowles Source: The Cut

When asking an employer for money, the conventional wisdom is to demand the highest amount you can possibly say out loud (or type in an email) with a straight face — plus more. The worst that can happen is they say no, right? As my friend Jess once told me, “If they don’t laugh at you when you name a number, then you didn’t ask for enough.” She has a business degree and makes more money than I ever will, so I figure she knows what she’s talking about.

But that approach can also backfire — sometimes spectacularly, as it did for Anya, 33, who recently put in for a modest raise at a company where she’d been doing contract work for two years. “I’d always gotten positive feedback, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask,” she said. But when she did, the company didn’t just decline. It launched an in-depth evaluation of the revenue her work was generating, determined it wasn’t enough, and canceled her contract entirely.

Asking for more money has blown up in my face, too. Last year, an editor reached out to see if I could do some writing for his small publication — a low-stakes situation, it would seem. I was busy, so I named a much bigger fee than normal, as I didn’t want to add the project to my plate unless I was well compensated. I assumed he’d counteroffer and we’d meet somewhere in the middle, but instead he said yes — and then wanted me to deliver unrealistic results (namely, very high-profile interview subjects) in return. I felt guilty about letting him down, but his expectations were just … no. After trying to make it work, we finally agreed to part ways.

In both of these cases, Anya and I thought we’d get a simple yes or no, but wound up with messy, costly, and time-consuming results — a negotiator’s worst fear. For all the conversations around asking for more and the importance of transparency about finances, there seems to be a crucial missing piece: What happens when asking for more money goes sideways? How can we parlay it into a decent outcome, or prevent it from happening in the first place?

The first answer may be obvious, but it’s critical: Thorough research can nip a lot of these problems in the bud, says Alexandra Dickinson, a career and negotiation expert who leads membership strategy at SoFi, a personal finance company. “Do your due diligence about both yourself and the marketplace,” she explains. “You can start with salary websites, but I also recommend talking to at least six people — three women and three men — who are familiar with the work you’re considering and can offer advice on what you should ask for.”

Then, determine how much your work is worth to the people you’re approaching. “If you can put a dollar amount on your sales or other accomplishments, great,” Dickinson says. “But otherwise, look at the value you’ve created for your team, your manager, and your company. Also, consider the value that you helped save. For example, maybe a colleague left and their role didn’t get filled so you picked up the slack.” The more specifically you can quantify your strengths, with actual stats and examples, the more solid your case will be. (For example, Anya might have mitigated her situation by soliciting more direct, quantitative feedback from her employer before asking for a raise — although in her defense, her employer should have offered it to her, too.)

Next, there’s the tricky part of making the ask. Claire Wasserman, the founder of Ladies Get Paid, an organization that provides career resources to women, agrees that this can be a double bind — you want to aim high, but not so high that you seem naive or overprice yourself. “It all depends on how you communicate,” she says. “Some salary coaches recommend waiting for the employer to name a figure first, but if you know the market and have data to back up your value, then I say put it out there.” If you’re not sure whether the company can afford that figure, then she recommends making it an open-ended statement. “I’ll start high, and then I’ll say, ‘But I’m willing to negotiate.’ Or, ‘Depending on your needs and the scope of this project or job.’ You want to indicate that it’s a starting point for the conversation.”

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