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How to Deal

Managers Should Keep their Promises about Offerring a Raise

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By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, September 3, 2009; 12:00 AM

Last fall, I was tasked with a great deal of extra work that was technically outside of my job description. I completed everything diligently and with a good attitude. Around November, my boss said he was going to try to work out a raise for me after the first of the year. (My last salary increase was almost 3 years ago). I have not heard anything else about the raise. Would it be appropriate for me to ask about it? I work for a very small company, and although we seem to be weathering the recession well, I do not want to seem greedy at a time when the economy in general is so bleak.

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I have learned from experience that it is in terrible form to dangle the possibility of a raise or bonus before an employee and then not follow through ¿ either with the money or a good explanation for why it is not coming.

The reason people get so worked up about compensation is that, let's face it, it implicates our fundamental sense of security. In terms of Maslow's hierarchy, financial scarcity threatens to undermine the two most basic human needs: safety and physiological wellbeing. Without adequate income, we lack proper nutrition and health, we feel ill-prepared for the contingencies of ordinary life.

With this in mind, I wish that managers on the whole made promises regarding compensation more responsibly. The problem, as in your case, is that the individual manager's selfish need to be liked, to be regarded as magnanimous and nice, often overrides his or her empathy for the person who might or might not get a raise. If your boss had not promised to "try to work out a raise" for you, you would not be as disappointed as you are now and you most definitely would not be wondering whether you are being greedy for wanting to be paid more.

Pay increases should be given with a promotion in responsibility and/or title, in acknowledgement of a positive trend in performance, or (although it is increasingly rare these days) in response to market pressures that could divest the organization of valuable talent. I therefore take issue with the idea that your completion of discrete projects that are outside of your job description necessarily calls for a raise. Unless these additional responsibilities are a permanent addition to your job description, which it sounds like they are not, then a bonus or some other form of finite recognition would have been more appropriate.

Be that as it may, a possible raise is what you were promised. I would assume by this point that your boss either forgot about your raise or he is hoping that you have forgotten about it. Either way, it is entirely appropriate for you to ask what happened. But this is separate from the bigger question of why you have not received a pay increase in three years. Unless this is part of an across-the-board budgetary decision about which the leaders of your organization have been transparent, or you have been rated poorly on your past three annual appraisals, then you deserve an explanation.

I imagine that part of the trepidation you feel about having this sort of conversation stems from a fear of seeming clueless or disloyal. Precisely because you are thoughtful and loyal, you worry that, by asking for a raise, you are essentially asking the organization to assume needless financial risk at your expense. It might help you to find the courage to have this talk if you consider that your organization, however small, is still a business. It is up to the leaders of your business to calculate what is worth doing to keep you engaged and productive. By letting them know that you would like to be considered for a raise, and why, you are merely providing them with an additional data point to factor into their analysis. They must ultimately decide what is worth investing in you, even as you must decide what is worth investing in your job. It's just business, after all. It only feels emotional because of the basic human needs that money supports.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.


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