Picture this: Your heart is racing, you've got shaky hands, and you're starting to sweat a little as you walk into your boss's office, mustering the courage to ask for a bigger paycheck.
If the thought of asking your boss for a raise makes you break out in hives, don't worry. There is a cure! We spoke to two experts about the do's — and the don'ts — of salary negotiations.
We negotiate all the time
Before you even think about stepping into your boss's office, take a moment to consider the fact that you're already a professional negotiator. Mori Taheripour teaches negotiations at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and she says we're always negotiating.
"Literally, from the moment we wake up in the morning to the time we go to sleep," Taheripour says.
And whether it's choosing a restaurant with your family or asking for a raise from your boss, negotiating is just "the ability to get somebody to move just a little bit off of what they would prefer to do," says Karen Chopra, a career counselor who specializes in salary and workplace negotiations.
She says that the more time you spend preparing for your negotiation — doing research and thinking about what outcome you want — the better it's going to go.
It's something Chopra knows well. Before becoming a career counselor, she was a trade negotiator for the U.S. government, working on a little negotiation known as the North American Free Trade Agreement.
What does preparation look like?
Tell your story. "You can't just randomly wake up on a Tuesday and say, now it's time," says Taheripour, whose recent book is called Bring Yourself: How to Harness the Power of Connection to Negotiate Fearlessly. Good preparation, she says, begins with the narrative we tell ourselves.
Write down all of your accomplishments at work and highlight where you've met or exceeded expectations. Consider whether you've taken on additional responsibilities or projects, and whether the projects have added value to your company. Taheripour says to consider the moment we're in: "Are you making up for...the furloughs in your company?"
The answers to these questions, she says, become data to bring into the conversation.
The other thing this exercise does is build confidence. It's risky, Taheripour says, to walk into negotiations with low self-worth.
"If you have this lack of self-worth or lower self esteem, then your goals are going to be lower. You want less of the world," she says.
Taheripour says the opposite is also true — if you believe you deserve more, you'll have higher aspirations for yourself.
The next step in your preparation is research. If it's a raise you're looking for, Karen Chopra advises to first look at company policies to see when raises are typically negotiated — maybe it's at an annual review or at the beginning of the fiscal year. That way you can be prepared.
Then, she says, do some "research on what the company's pay scales are. Research on what the industry pays more broadly." She also suggests "seeing what information you can dig up on what somebody else might make if they were working at a different company."
Practice what you're going to say — and what your boss will say.
Chopra says it's good to think through a script: "What am I going to ask them? What might they say to me? And what am I going to do if they say 'no', what am I going to do if they say, 'I'm going to need to think about it, I need to get back to you?'"
Since many negotiations are conducted via video chat nowadays, Chopra points out that you can even have a script or talking points right in front of you.
It might also be tempting to practice in the mirror, but Taheripour says, you can go one step further. "Is there somebody that can maybe hear the conversation, or you can run some of this by, so that they can give you insight?" she asks. That way, your friend can help you anticipate follow up questions and pushback.
Set up the meeting!
A good conversation needs to be planned in advance. Chopra suggests asking your boss for a meeting to talk about your career.
"The biggest no-no is never go into this hot," says Chopra. "I have seen clients who found out that somebody else [was] making more money than they did. They walked into the boss, [and] demanded... that the pay be made equal right then right there, or they were quitting."
Chopra says that the boss felt cornered and that the person ended up quitting — and regretting it.
"Take the time to cool down," she says. "You are not going to think clearly, your boss is not going to respond well, it is not going to go well."
The other thing that both experts stress: don't do this over email. An in-person or video conversation allows you to read their body language and emotions to get a sense of where there's wiggle room and where there's resistance. It's also a moment, Taheripour says, to enjoy a connection with your boss.
Making the ask
Just because you're asking for more money doesn't mean foregoing pleasantries.
"You don't walk into your boss's office and say, 'Today's the day I need a raise,'" Taheripour says. She suggests a few conversation starters: "How's your day?" or "How's your family? Is your son still playing sports?"
When you're ready to get down to business, Chopra has a script:
"You say to your boss: 'I want to talk to you about my compensation' or my role, and you say, 'I've had a really good year here', and you pick the two or three things that are your strongest arguments for why they should pay you more or give you that promotion. A lot of people want to give them 20 arguments. That actually doesn't increase the amount of power that you have in the negotiation. Sit down and look at all of your arguments. Pick the top three or four, hone them so that it's a really short and powerful presentation. 'And based on that, I am looking for a pretty significant bump this year. I would love a 10 percent increase in my base salary,'" she suggests.
She says to keep it short and sweet. "You make your ask. And then you stop talking."
Chopra adds that the tone of these conversations should be calm. "Very courteous, no edge to your voice, keep the intensity level down. "
In this initial conversation with your boss, it may be tempting to bring a competing job offer. Chopra says this tactic can backfire.
"There are a couple of risks there. One, the boss may say, 'oh, well, I can't match that, go ahead and take that offer,'" she says. Even if they do agree to a pay increase, "The problem is, it feels like it hasn't been a negotiation. It has been coercion. They have been coerced into offering this to you, and it often sours the relationship going forward, they figure you've got one foot out the door, that the next good offer that comes along, you'll be gone."
Instead, Chopra says, consider highlighting that you'd love to stay, "but in the past two months, three recruiters have reached out to me to try to, you know, entice me into taking a different job. They haven't been successful yet, but it would be so much easier if I were making enough money here that I could look at that and go, I'm really not interested."
If, after all that, your boss's answer is still a firm no, Chopra says, then it's time to look around for another job offer. "When you get stiffed repeatedly at an organization, it's time to wonder whether somebody else might not value you more," she says.
"It's not in the budget"
If you've prepared, you know it's a possibility that your boss will give you some form of this answer.
This, Mori Taheripour says, is where empathy comes into the conversation.
"Acknowledging that these are difficult times is not a bad thing," she says. But what you don't want to do, she says, is negotiate yourself out of making the ask.
Instead, she says, consider something like this:
"I know these are really tough times and maybe we push this conversation to later, but I just wanted to raise some of these things and bring them to your attention, because I have taken on so much more responsibility."
Ask your boss to acknowledge all of the hard work you're doing, Taheripour says, and if a salary increase isn't possible now, ask to have the conversation six months in the future.
But that's not necessarily the end of the negotiation. Consider what may be available for you now. Could you have a more flexible schedule or more time off? How about education benefits? If the budget is the issue, see what else is flexible.
What if they say no?
The worst thing that can happen in a negotiation is that your boss says "no" to your ask. Right?
Not true, says Taheripour. When someone says no, she says it's an opportunity to find out how to get to a yes, or what framing might be more attractive to your boss.
"If you in fact think about negotiations as problem solving, then that's all it is," she says.
Just remember, you don't need to be a negotiations expert to do this. A little bit of prep and confidence can go a long way.
"Give yourself the space to do the very best that you can in that moment," says Taheripour.
The podcast version of this episode was produced by Clare Lombardo.
We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.
For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.