What Your Manager Is Thinking When You Ask for a Raise

The five questions whirring through your boss's head after you ask for a pay bump.

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Alison Green
You've researched the going rate for your work, documented your accomplishments from the last year and put together a case for a salary increase, and now you're sitting across from your boss, having just uttered the words, "I'd like a raise." And you might be getting a little panicky as you wonder what your boss is thinking.

Despite what you might fear, it's probably not, "The nerve of this guy!" Most commonly, when you ask a manager for a raise, your manager is thinking about the following five questions.

1. Am I worried about losing this person? The subtext to a request for a raise is always "I might go somewhere else if you turn me down." Even you don't actually mean that, your manager is going to assume that you do. So the first question your manager will think to herself when you present your raise request is, "How much would I mind losing this person?"

2. Does this person deserve the salary she's asking for? You might be a great worker, but if your salary request would put you outside a reasonable range for the value of your work to the company, your manager isn't likely to say yes. So it's key to make sure that you know the market rate for your work before you approach your manager.

3. Do I have the money to say yes to this request? Your manager might want to give you a raise but not have the money in her budget. Or your company might have an organization-side freeze on raises (something that's been increasingly common in the last few years). Or she might be able to secure a raise for you, but at the expense of raises for other people who also deserve them, or by using up political capital that she was planning to use on something else.

4. What would this mean for other people's salaries? Good managers strive to ensure that people are being paid comparably for comparable work. If your salary request would bump you up significantly above what your peers in the company are making, she might not be able to justify it. Many companies have salary bands for exactly this purpose: specific ranges that each position can pay. Going outside the company's salary band for your position is difficult to do, although not always impossible.

5. What's likely to happen if I say no? Much of the time, this is what it comes down to. Does your manager believe that you'll look for higher-paying work somewhere else – and find it? Is she willing to take on the hassle of finding and training a replacement? Or does she believe you'll stick around even without a salary increase?

If you're a great employee and you have a good manager who recognizes the importance of having a strong team, that good manager will want to retain you (as long as the salary you're asking for is reasonable and warranted). But it's important to also realize that there are plenty of employees whose performance isn't so stellar – and in those cases, their employers often wouldn't mind seeing them leave. If you're in that category, your manager might rightly respond to you with, "We're not able to adjust your salary, and I understand that means you might leave to find more money somewhere else."

Knowing how your manager views your performance is key in understanding how she might be likely to react to your request, and how hard you should or shouldn't push for it.

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.