Employee: "Morning boss, thanks for seeing me. I've just been wondering, uh . . . with the economy and all . . . er, I don't suppose you'll be giving any raises this year?"
Instant rejection. That's how you imagine it, as you sit at your desk and compare cost-of-living increases with a paycheck stub that hasn't changed in two years. You want a raise. You know you're doing good work. Your workload has almost doubled since the last round of golden handshakes. But just when you're getting up the nerve to ask, an inner voice of caution speaks up:
Ask for a raise? When unemployment figures rising in some parts of the country?
When your company's quarterly earnings just dropped another 10 percent and "downsize" and "deadwood" roll off the corporate tongue like a theme song?
Turn off that inner voice. It's holding you back. And so is your childish perception of your boss as a bad-tempered authority figure. Those are outdated images, says Adele Scheele, a New York-based career consultant and columnist for Working Woman magazine. Getting a raise in the '90s may be mostly up to you.
"It's true that companies are being pinched by the downturned economy," she says. "But the bigger news is that organizations have changed because the nature of hierarchies doesn't work anymore."
We're dropping the schoolroom model that says you just have to pass to get promoted every year. "Don't expect that you'll get a raise just by doing your job," she says. "To get more money today, you have to change your attitude."
And bosses agree. "Business and industry are in an incredible squeeze today and we have to perform more with less," says Janet Sanford, president and publisher of Visalia Newspapers Inc. "Maybe companies in the '80s gave raises just for breathing but no more. People who want raises should not look to the company -- they should look to themselves."
"The high-flying spending of the '80s is over," says Noeleta Lacey, whose Lacey Shorthand Reporting Corp. in Los Angeles has a staff of 35. "Today, to get a raise, you've got to earn your keep. If someone is really on the ball, with an incredible awareness of company needs and ideas for cost-saving techniques, then they should speak up and they will be rewarded."
At giant Arco Towers in downtown Los Angeles, the message is similar. "There's nothing wrong with an employee asking for a pay raise," says John H. Kelly, vice president of human resources. "However, Arco and many other companies already have formal systems in place to review and reward outstanding performance. We encourage our employees to focus on two things -- doing the best job they can in their current position and taking the initiative to develop and broaden their skills and experiences."
Some executives are looking at alternatives to paying out more money. Bill Burke, chief operating officer for Fitch Inc. design and business consultants, says he has "sort of moved from Santa Claus to Simon Legree, in terms of office perception."
Mr. Burke oversees a creative staff of 150 in Boston and Columbus, Ohio. "The toughest role any boss has to play is dismissing an employee or having to say 'no' to a raise request," he says. "We don't like it, but we really don't have the financial resources we had in the '80s. I find myself thinking, 'Gee, I don't really want to give someone a double-digit increase unless I have to.'
"On the other hand, good people can always find another job and I don't want to lose them."
His advice to both sides is to look for win-win situations. "We are discovering there are different ways to provide compensation. Maybe you can take half your expected raise in salary and another half in a work tool like an upgraded computer, or some flex time or a training course. The key is keeping what you do off the salary cost line."
Tough economic times, says salary negotiator Jack Chapman, may be the best time to ask for a raise because individual performance becomes a priority in a company that's laying off people. "Someone who has the chutzpah to call attention to their work," he says, "is going to be valued more than the drone who's just creeping back and forth every day hoping he or she doesn't get fired."
Once you've made up your mind to ask for a raise, it's time to consider how to do it. Annual performance reviews have become automatic in many organizations, but many employees don't know how to seize the moment. Strategic and psychological planning is required.
Says publisher Janet Sanford: "I'm amazed at how unprepared many people are for their performance reviews. I would be strategizing as to how to talk to my boss, how to explain mistakes, how I've exceeded the job I'm expected to do."
Be aware that asking for a raise is an emotional experience. People aren't nervous just because they're afraid the answer will be "no money," says Ken Goldstein, an economist with New York's Conference Board, a business think tank.
There is more than money at stake. There is ego.
"If you are a good, effective, go-getter employee, of course you should make a case for yourself," he says. But opening up a discussion of your performance involves facing both your accomplishments and your failures.
Adds Mr. Goldstein: "People with a good healthy sense of who they are and what they are worth are not intimidated by this process. These are the people who get the raises and promotions."
Getting psychologically geared up is the first part of negotiation preparation. Next is your ammunition. Some suggestions from experts:
* Take a list of what you've accomplished since your last job review and, though it sounds risky, a list of failures, says economist Ken Goldstein. "If you screwed up, say so and explain what happened, why it happened and present the plans or programs you've put in place to ensure it won't happen again. "
* "Think of yourself as your own small business, not a passive employee," advises Catherine Burke, University of Southern California professor of public administration and consultant in management and human resources. "When you're asking for a raise, you are putting a price on your services. Do some research before you go in, to see what people are paid in your company and comparable organizations."
* Start with some good news, says Robert Calvert, editor of Career Opportunities News. "Ask for a raise after you've done something successful and come prepared with statistics. Go in with body language that says you intend to get the raise."