When and How Should I Ask for a Raise?

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This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

 

Ask Mission Central: Question Seventeen

“I have a friend who recently volunteered to take on more responsibility at work, but he didn’t get a raise. He is comfortable with that, and says he took on the new role for the experience and opportunities it may provide down the road. But I think that they should pay him more for more work. If I volunteer to take on more responsibility at work, should I also ask for a pay raise? If so, how should I go about doing that?”

—Austin
Highland Park, MI

 

Answer

Asking for a raise can sometimes feel like asking Ebeneezer Scrooge to add some coal to the fire. A miserly boss can make work miserable.

 

Then there are people like Dave, my friend’s boss. This friend just got a raise. Dave wanted to reward his hard work after a difficult year; my friend has helped carry the team through the COVID-19 crisis. But Dave didn’t just reward my friend. Back when the pandemic started, he also made arrangements for all of his full-time employees to still receive their normal wages, even though many of them could not work as usual. On top of that, my friend recently got married, and Dave found a creative way to cover some of the wedding costs. Dave is a good man. He runs a profitable business, and he routinely goes beyond what could be reasonably expected in how he serves his team.

 

Most of us have bosses who are somewhere between Scroogelike stinginess and Dave-like generosity. That raises the question: What is reasonable to expect? What should we ask for from the person who writes our paycheck?

 

Why Do You Want a Raise?

Before trying to answer that question, as a disciple of Jesus, ask yourself, “Why do I want a raise?” There are Scripture passages that encourage bettering one’s situation if it’s possible. However, these passages are directed to those who are on the bottom rungs of the social ladder: first century slaves in the Roman Empire. Although their situation was markedly different than the chattel slavery practiced in later centuries in North America, Roman slaves still faced many difficulties and injustices. Paul writes to those who are believers: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (1 Corinthians 7:20-21 ESV). Getting free from bondage is a good thing.

 

In contrast, disciples who enjoy a modest life in freedom receive no word in Scripture saying they should better their circumstances, but instead are encouraged to practice contentment:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.

1 Timothy 6:6-9 NIV

Yikes! Paul is not mincing his words. We should take seriously the “trap” that he describes, and question whether any of our desires are “foolish and harmful.” At times, Christian teachers try to be even-handed about money by saying that it’s neither good nor bad; it’s all about how we use it. But Scripture teaches that pursuing wealth as such is a path fraught with spiritual dangers, where we run the risk of “ruin and destruction.”

 

Our faith is predicated on recognizing our need for a God greater than ourselves; wealth can delude us about our supposed capacity to provide for ourselves apart from his grace. Jesus spoke of “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19 NIV) and Proverbs reminds us that “Those who trust in their riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf” (Proverbs‬ ‭11:28‬ ‭NIV‬‬). The danger of wealth is the danger it poses to our heart. Will we practice faith in God’s provision, seeking the comfort of his love, or be driven elsewhere to look for so-called “security”?

 

For all that, it could be that you still want a raise, and rightly so! Enjoying provision for one’s basic needs is good, but in an advanced economy, “basic needs” can get complicated: car repairs, health insurance, utilities, taxes, and other bills land in our mailboxes and email inboxes. Wanting enough to cover these needs, and to set something aside in savings, is not a bad thing. If even that measure of financial stability still feels out of reach, go get that raise!


When To Ask

Asking for a raise at the right time is important. Think about things from your boss’s perspective. She’s responsible not just for the well-being of employees, but also for the success of the organization. If a business is raking in the profits, it’s easy to wish the higher-ups would spread the wealth by raising wages. But the margin between success and failure is pretty thin for many businesses, especially small ones. Some bosses really do have to weigh the benefit of paying their employees better against the risk of the company going under and not being able to pay them at all. Do you have a sense of the bigger financial picture for your company? If you’re in the non-profit world, do you know how stable your organization’s funding is? Asking for a raise when finances are tight could be a misstep.

 

Timing your request relative to your own performance can also help. Mistakes are part of learning any job. Don’t ask for a raise right after you’ve made a big one! Instead, take advantage of the glow following a real workplace victory, or, like you’ve suggested, when your boss is endorsing your competence by giving you new responsibilities. Some workplaces have a traditional review process, such as an annual meeting with your supervisor to look over your performance from the past year and to discuss the future. An annual review is a natural juncture for putting in a request for a raise. Your boss might even be expecting it.

 

Would You Give You a Raise?

At some level, when you ask for a raise, you’re telling your boss how to do her job. You’re saying, “It’s in your best interest to change compensation for one of your employees; here’s why.” So, before you ask, consider this: If you had your boss’s job, would you give you a raise? Why?

 

Thinking a little bit about economic forces can be helpful when you perform this mental exercise. In an industry where it’s easy for workers to move from company to company, it’s a wise thing for a company to pay competitive wages. Otherwise, their people will leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. Even from a hard-nosed business perspective, it’s worth the money that it takes to compensate people well, because of the contributions those people make to the success of the enterprise.


In an industry with less worker mobility, or where there are more qualified workers than there are jobs available, it becomes harder for a business executive to justify raising wages. If you’re going to ask for a raise in that kind of environment, you should know that you’re asking your boss to do something hard. She has to answer to owners or shareholders for how she is using their money. If the owner is a generous boss and decides to take on the risk of compensating people well even when it flies in the face of conventional wisdom, more power to them! (Here’s looking at you, Dan Price.) Otherwise, you have to ask yourself: If there’s someone just as qualified as you out there who would do your job for less than you make now, how can your boss defend the decision to pay you more?

 

How to Ask

Your exact answer to that question is what you should bring with you to the conversation with your boss. Your boss can defend the decision to pay you more . . .

  • For all the same reasons she decided to give you additional responsibility
  • Because of your proven track record of great performance
  • Because of the ways you contribute to the success of the whole team
  • To make it easy for you (and your experience) to stay with the company long-term
  • In light of competitive compensation norms elsewhere in the industry

You should convince your boss to give you a raise by saying back to her things she’s already said to you. If she really appreciates your presence on the team and the specific benefits you provide, she’s probably said so in some way. If you handled an important project this year that everyone is thankful for, your boss is probably thankful, too. The reasons to give you a raise should not, for the most part, come as a surprise.

 

One exception might be if your boss is out of touch with industry norms. Using a resource like the PayScale Index or ChurchSalary (for church or ministry jobs) can help you judge whether you are underpaid relative to other people in your position. If you are, that can be a helpful data point to bring to the conversation.

 

Get Specific

If you’re not sure how to start the conversation, consider saying something like this, “I’m thinking about the things you’ve said about my performance. You said I did really well with [this] and [that]. You’re asking me to take on [this new responsibility]. I’m really thankful for my role here, and I want to embrace these new challenges. At the same time, I’ve got to be honest, I was hoping we could have a conversation about compensation as it relates to the new role.”

 

It can be helpful to ask for a specific amount. Getting your boss to say, “Sure, I’ll give you a raise” doesn’t mean much if they don’t say how much! Again, ground your own request in terms of what’s reasonable, as you best understand it, for the industry, your specific company, and your specific role and performance history. Also consider whether forms of compensation besides salary matter to you, like additional paid time off.

 

Caveats


Racial and Gender Pay Gaps

Inequalities related to gender and race interlace work and life at many points in our society, including compensation. The reasons for these inequalities are more complex than we can explore here, but it’s worth having in the back of your mind when you are thinking about asking for a raise. If you are underpaid, it’s possible that race or gender does play a role. If you believe this to be the case, you’ll have to feel out whether it is wise to bring it up as part of the negotiation. If you do so, it changes the category of conversation from a negotiation about performance and pay to a confrontation about justice. Confrontations about justice are needed, but, as you no doubt already know, they can come at a cost. It may be better to get the raise first, and then have a different, separate conversation with your boss about concerns you have regarding race or gender in the workplace. 

 

When Asking Backfires

For no reason you could anticipate, it’s possible that asking for a raise will backfire. Even though it’s unfair, some bosses are offended by requests for raises. A skittish boss might be afraid you are thinking about leaving the company to pursue work elsewhere, even if you aren’t. Or, your boss might simply reject your request, leaving you with a lingering awkwardness that provides no tangible benefit.

 

You know your boss better than I do, so you can judge whether any of these scenarios seems likely. At the same time, you really can’t know until you ask. For many workers, these possibilities are far less likely than another one: Not asking, and missing out on a raise that would have been given. While practicing contentment in God’s provision for you, taking the risk to ask for a raise often does pay off.

 

 

Photo from Micheile on Unsplash

 

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