Last week, I had the pleasure of being contacted by a Seattle Times reporter who was writing an article on the topic of “asking for raises” and wondering what advice I’d share with people who were thinking about approaching their boss to ask for a pay increase.

It was an interesting exchange, and since the article in question won’t actually be out for a while yet, I thought I’d write up a few thoughts on the subject while they were still fresh.

“What do you think the keys are to asking one’s boss for a raise?”

For starters, while it may surprise you, my impression is that “asking for a raise” scenarios are becoming something of an endangered species.  In the nineties, for example, numerous books on this subject packed the bookstore shelves and I had people coming in to see me constantly to solicit advice on how best to request a bump in pay.  Then, the strangest thing happened.  These questions seemed to disappear almost entirely once the new millenium rolled around, even among my alumni clients who were steadily employed.  My suspicion is that this trend is likely based on three factors:

First, the labor market has become much more mobile and turbulent these days, in terms of average job tenures and the rise of contract labor.  As a result, it seems that fewer people end up sticking around with a single employer for the mid-to-long-term duration (several years?) it typically takes for a raise to seem viable, reasonable, and warranted.

Secondly, given the tight economic conditions we’ve faced since 2008, I think a lot of workers suspect that this kind of request would fall on deaf ears and that their employer would simply plead poverty if asked for more money — or worse, might somehow label the employee as “disloyal” or “disgruntled” for making such a request.

Lastly, I believe compensation is viewed as even more of a pride/recognition issue today than it was in years past.  I encounter quite a few folks whose attitude seems to be that if their current employer doesn’t recognize their value and proactively increase their pay, without the employee having to take hat in hand and ask, they’ll simply fire up a confidential job hunt and see if they can find another organization who will give them a better deal.  Some of the folks who try this approach abruptly discover their skills aren’t as hot as they thought they were, of course, but there are also plenty of people who discover that an “external jump” is often the easiest, fastest, and least humbling way to climb the compensation ladder these days — again, given the newfound mobility of the marketplace.

So for these three reasons, I think we’re going to continue seeing a decline in the number of employees who are asking for — and receiving — raises within organizations.  This isn’t just a temporary function of the tight economy, but derives more from fundamental changes to the nature of employee/employer relationships over this past decade.

“Hmmm.  Interesting points.  However, despite these trends, I’m sure there are still SOME folks in the position to ask for a raise.  How would you advise these people?”

Sorry, yes, I didn’t mean to imply that nobody should ever ask for a raise, if they feel they deserve one — just that these scenarios seem to be happening far less often today than one might realize.  At least based on my anecdotal observations.

As for those people who do feel the time is right to approach their boss for more money, the basic principles really haven’t changed all that much over the years.  Initially, you’ve got to summon up the courage to ask, which can be tough if you’re the kind of person who tends to be a bit uncomfortable with such things.  Might need to quaff an extra espresso that morning to psyche yourself up.  Next, once you’ve requested a meeting with your boss, you’ll want to prepare carefully for the discussion, building the best case you can as to why you deserve more money — citing things like new skills you’ve acquired since you were initially hired, additional responsibilities you’ve taken on, various bottom-line contributions you’ve made, and any other ways you feel you’ve contributed extra value to the organization.

Once you’ve stated your case, in a very logical and dispassionate way, you then request a reasonable increase (10%? 20?) to what you’re making now — and then hold your breadth.  You’ll know pretty quickly whether your appeal is likely to be successful or not, based on your supervisor’s reaction.

“That makes sense — but you’re right, until the economy fully recovers, it seem like a lot of bosses might sympathize with your request, but refuse to grant it, citing market conditions, reduced revenues, and the like.  Anything else an employee might try?”

Well, as stated above, it’s a free country and one always has the option of looking around to other employers to see if they can get a better deal somewhere else.  In some cases, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover that yes, you ARE being significantly underpaid at the moment.  And in other cases, you might find that your current salary is already right in line with market standards.  Or above them.

Before you decide to fire up a full-fledged external job search, however, some professionals might want to try one other approach with their current organization.  If your boss seems reasonably supportive to your cause, and has historically been a proponent of employee development, you might try a line of persuasion along the lines of: “I appreciate you considering my request, even if you can’t immediately grant it, which I understand.  Since my goal is to reach that level of compensation at some point in the not-too-distant future, however, I’d love to get your thoughts on what additional activities, skills, and experience I can gain that would justify the increased compensation I’m asking for.  Can we perhaps work together on a development plan that would allow me to make a greater contribution to the firm in the months to come — and that would support a meaningful bump in pay?  I’m highly motivated to improve my value to the firm and willing to work hard to produce the results that you’d need to justify such an increase…

Again, if you’re dealing with an antagonistic boss or a repressive corporate culture, this approach isn’t likely to get you very far.  But if we’re dealing with the more common case where a manager just needs more “ammunition” to justify a raise, showing them that you’re willing to partner in this type of highly win/win fashion might just result in some tangible progress.   Many managers will dig in their heels if an employee tries to pick a fight or use negative emotions like guilt, shame, and threats (e.g. “I’ll quit if you don’t pay me more!”) to secure a pay increase.  If an employee turns the other cheek and tries to work with the manager on this problem, not against them, I’ve seen some great things happen.

No question about it, though.  It’s a tricky climate out there right now when it comes to compensation issues.  Many employees feel they’ve been working their tail off for years during this recession and due to be rewarded for it.  On the flip side, many employers are still operating with a lean-and-mean mindset and will be instinctively averse to the idea of adding to their overhead costs via salary increases.  Guess that’s why there’s such a large number of Compensation Analyst openings posted these days — everybody is trying to figure out this issue and determine what the “magic number” is in terms of fair and equitable pay!