Here’s my best advice for getting a raise, from a CEO who worked in HR for 25 years

"The best salary negotiators don't keep their supervisors in the dark about their successes."

Rosina L. Racioppi is the CEO of WOMEN Unlimited.
Courtesy Rosina L. Racioppi

I have 25 years of human resources experience, and I've been CEO of WOMEN Unlimited Inc. since 1998. Since its inception, we've worked with over 75 Fortune 500 companies and more than 200 large to mid-size organizations to help give women the skills and confidence they need to close the corporate leadership gap.

A 2019 Women in Business report by Catalyst found that only 29% of senior management positions were held by women, and in 2020 that number held steady. It is also the highest number ever recorded in history.

In 2020, a report from staffing firm Randstad US revealed that 60% of women say they've never negotiated with an employer over pay. That creates a gender opportunity and a salary gap that compounds over time.

It's clear the problem was serious even before the pandemic. In December alone, women lost a total of 156,000 jobs, while men gained 16,000 jobs, according to the National Women's Law Center. And, of the net 9.8 million jobs lost since February 2020, women have accounted for 55% of them

My team and I work with 300 to 500 women every year to help them hone in on how they create value for their organizations. While all of our programming was entirely virtual last year, what didn't change was our goal: to give these talented and dedicated women the clarity to help them build confidence and raise their hands for bigger opportunities. During our programs, an average of 60% of the participants receive promotions every year. In total, we've helped thousands of women get the raises they deserved.

Amid the career and financial upheaval that has affected so many of us in the last year, especially for women, my best advice is don't be afraid to advocate for yourself to be paid what you're worth. And while my focus is on women, these tips can be implemented by anyone looking to make a change.

Here is my time-tested, 5-step strategy to make your case.

Step 1: Decide when to have the conversation

Over the course of 25 years at WOMEN Unlimited Inc., I've observed that women often agree to take on extra work but avoid conversations regarding pay. That's in line with a 2018 Harvard Business Review study that found women will often volunteer for "nonpromotable" tasks more than men. 

My experience has taught me that discussions about compensation should happen approximately once a month. Whenever you notice a broadening of your role, it is important to schedule a meeting with your manager to proactively discuss how you will be compensated for your increased responsibilities. 

The best salary negotiators don't keep their supervisors in the dark about their successes. Instead, they draw attention to their wins over the course of many months or years, developing a reputation for being essential to your company.

Step 2: Show your value through stories and results

Before you ask for a raise, generate a list of the actions you have taken to bring value to your team and the company's bottom line. That's why it's essential that you effectively communicate to your boss the positive impact that you are having on the company's bottom line.

This is easier in some roles than others. There are what I often refer to as "star" roles, which usually work directly with profit and loss, versus "supportive" roles whose output is not as easy to measure. Supportive roles are often creative or people intensive and can include marketing, HR, and advertising. Because there are no sales figures, the impact of this type of work on the company's revenue is often not clear to a company's management.

In the first half of my career, I worked in the HR department. I was the youngest person on the management team, as well as the only woman. As I was leaving a meeting that I thought went very well, I received a piece of feedback from a senior leader who took me aside and said, "Everyone thinks they could do your job." 

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This was a wakeup call. I knew that I had to adjust the way that I presented my work, how I shared my point of view, and how I saw myself within the organization. While I didn't directly drive new profit for the business, I knew that I was still making an impact through personnel management. 

I decided to start building stories around the initiatives I undertook, like improving our approach to talent development and making an effort to estimate their financial impact on our bottom line. These facts and anecdotes made it easier for my colleagues to see that my work was having a real impact. As a result, they were able to get a better sense of my true value to the company. I tell the business leaders in our programs to do the same.

Step 3: Get around objections by talking benefits

The financial impact of the coronavirus means that even the most deserving employees may have to wait a little longer for a salary bump. If your supervisor says that a raise isn't possible this year, think about asking for other forms of compensation and recognition in the form of benefits.

You might ask for a more advanced title, a larger workspace (if you are not working remotely), or more vacation time, or consider looking into stock options. Engage your manager about what resources the company might be open to offering.

In addition, if your manager agrees that you are going above and beyond in your role and deserve a raise, but the business can't afford to pay more right now, you may be able to secure a promise for a salary increase at a later time.

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Step 4: If you're not breaking through on salary, aim for a promotion

You might deliver a perfect summary of your accomplishments, a complete picture of how you have affected the company's bottom line, and only request a title change from "junior" to "associate." Your supervisor may still say no.

One of the best ways to get through these periods is to look forward. Stop trying to boost the salary of your current role and commit to achieving a promotion in the future. Many promotions do come with raises, after all.

Stop trying to boost the salary of your current role and commit to achieving a promotion.

Don't assume that a promotion is earned through long hours on the job or decades of experience. If you want to be promoted, consider how your new role would have a positive effect on the company. I usually advise the women I work with to take the time to assess their strengths and weaknesses. Let your manager know you have an interest in taking on more responsibility and initiate a conversation with them to understand how you should focus your efforts.

Gather opinions from several of your colleagues and managers and mentors, rather than relying on the perspective of just one person. You can use the information you uncover to create a "road map" for your personal skill development. This should include a list of people who can give you an honest assessment of yourself and your role in the business, and help you chart the course for a well-deserved promotion.

Step 5: Don't be afraid to walk away

Remember that a raise negotiation is a 2-way street. If another company thinks you are worth more than your current company does, don't be afraid to pursue that opportunity. When my children were younger, I accepted a position as a part-time HR director. The president of the division didn't agree to my goal salary when I took on the role, but mentioned the possibility of a pay raise after my first 3 months on the job. 

At the 3-month mark, I met with him to discuss his thoughts about my performance and whether he would go ahead with the raise. I did not receive the pay increase. As a result, I chose to leave and accepted a new position somewhere else. 

When the president found out that I was leaving, he was surprised. I explained to him that I had made my salary expectations clear from the beginning. The lesson is this: Don't waste your time in any environment that undervalues you, and be prepared to move on.

Rosina L. Racioppi is the president and CEO of WOMEN Unlimited Inc. She holds a doctorate in education from the University of Pennsylvania, and has served as a member of the Forbes New York Business Council. She started her career in human resources and is an active member of the Society for Human Resource Management.

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