IT HAS got to be one of the most awkward conversations in the workplace - asking the boss for a raise.
You're essentially saying you're worth more than you're being paid and giving the boss a chance to disagree.
Even if your supervisor sides with you, a raise often isn't as easy as adding another zero or two to a paycheck. To grant the raise, the boss might have to grovel before her manager for more money on your behalf.
Beyond awkwardness, the slow recovery from the 2001 recession and the weak job market have made many workers reluctant to make demands. Last year's salary increases were the lowest in the 27 years that Hewitt Associates has been tracking raises.
"Last year was a good time to ... keep your job," said Ken Abosch, a business leader with Hewitt, a Chicago human resources consulting company.
In 2003, the average salary increases for those at the bottom rung to the top of the ladder ranged from 3.3 percent to 3.5 percent, Hewitt found in its survey of 1,276 companies. Additionally, 8 percent of these employers reported a salary freeze.
But cheer up. Raises this year are expected to be slightly higher, and only 2 percent of companies anticipate pay freezes, Hewitt reported.
Now may be the time to ask for a raise.
"If it's been more than 18 months to two years, it's time to bring it up," said Mikelann Valterra, author of Why Women Earn Less. "People wait too long to ask for a raise."
Here are some tips:
Know your worth. This is where the homework kicks in. Figure out how much someone in your position and with your skills should earn.
Talk to friends, co-workers or relatives in the same field about what someone with your level of experience should earn. Check professional organizations for salary information for your field. Online sites, such as www.salary.com, can give salary estimates, Valterra said.
Don't forget, geography counts. An accountant in Baltimore, for instance, will command a lower salary than a bean counter in pricey San Francisco.
Also, find out the kinds of raises your employer typically hands out.
The more information collected, the easier to pinpoint how much of a raise to request. Workers should suggest the size of the raise, rather than leaving it up to the boss, experts said.
Ask for more than you want to give room to negotiate, said Carol Summerfield, president of Sigman & Summerfield Associates, a Towson recruiter. A willingness to accept a lower amount will make you seem like a team player, she said.
Timing is everything. Don't ask for a raise when your boss is harried or standing in the cafeteria line. Instead, set up a meeting so the two of you can have a discussion without interruption.
If your company hands out raises the same time each year, arrange the meeting six to 12 weeks before then, when budgets are just beginning to be discussed, said Bill Coleman, senior vice president of compensation for Salary.com.
Prove your worth. You won't convince anyone that you deserve a raise by saying you haven't had one for 18 months or that Wally in the next cubicle takes home a bigger paycheck and surfs the Internet all day. You won't score points, either, by saying you need more money because you had a baby, bought a bigger house, or other expenses are rising, experts said.
You must show how you add value to the company, experts agree. For example, show how you increased the company's sales or saved the employer time or money.
Keep a job diary, noting your accomplishments throughout the year so it will be easier to recall them during a job review, Coleman said.
In fact, a good time to ask for a raise is right after you've had a major accomplishment at work, some suggest.
Don't threaten. The meeting with the boss should be a calm conversation, outlining what you bring to the company and discussing your goals. It could be that you're at the top of the pay scale for your position, but the company could move you to a new post with higher pay, experts said.
Unless you're willing to follow through, don't threaten to quit if a raise isn't forthcoming.
Also, don't use an offer from another company as leverage with an employer unless you're willing to take the other job. Otherwise, the ploy might backfire and your boss might end up congratulating you on your new position.
Sometimes, too, a boss might view this flirtation with another company as a sign of disloyalty or feel blackmailed into giving a raise, Summerfield said.
"They don't trust [the worker] anymore," Summerfield said. The worker might get the raise, but be the first to be laid off the next time the company goes through rough times, she said.
"Employers have very long memories," she added.
Prepare to hear "No." If the boss needs more time to think about the request, don't leave without setting up a time to meet again for an answer, experts said. And, brace yourself for rejection.
"It almost never works the first time," said Richard Bayer, chief operating officer of the Five O'Clock Club, a career counseling organization. "This is a campaign."
If the supervisor gives the thumbs down, ask what you can do to merit a raise and make an appointment in three to six months to assess your progress, Bayer said.
Or, if the employer can't swing a raise, suggest alternatives.
Request an extra week of vacation or ask the company to pick up the cost of continuing education and training, experts said. Working parents might opt for a more flexible schedule or a discount at the company's in-house day care, Valterra said.
Of course, if the employer won't budge at all or maintains a salary freeze, a worker might consider another option.
"Maybe it's time for the person to look for another job," Summerfield said.
To suggest a topic, contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose- @baltsun.com.