Should You Play the Sympathy Card at Work?

To get more money or just to hang on to your job, you may be tempted to play up personal hardship.

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If you're like many Americans, you're making a solid income that now seems smaller in the face of food- and gas-price inflation and education costs and mortgage payments.

Should you play the sympathy card? Should you ask your boss for a raise, because, say, your son "needs new shoes"? Should you ask for a four-day workweek because gas is really pushing you over the edge and "the commute is killing the family budget"?

How do confession and hopes for sympathy play out professionally?

A reader recently wrote to the Financial Times's "Dear Lucy" column to ask about the best way to hang on to a job at a company that's been making cuts: "Losing my job now would be bad timing, to put it mildly—I have a young child, a pregnant wife, and an eye-watering mortgage. How can I make sure the axe does not fall on me? Should I attempt to play the sympathy vote with my boss?"

I posed the question to management whiz Alison Green, a.k.a. Ask a Manager, who had this response (the emphasis is mine):

In my opinion, the safest route is always to make any pitch for a raise based on your value to the company, and leave personal financial needs out of it. After all, the company isn't expected to pay more money for the same work to someone supporting a family of four versus someone single and without kids. Employers aren't responsible for individual financial decisions that employees make. (And that's a good thing. If you base your raise request on commuting costs and your high mortgage, what happens when your boss then notices that you bought a Nintendo last weekend and splurge on expensive suits too often? You don't want to open the door to making your personal financial choices anything other than private and personal.)

That said, I do think a pitch based on personal needs can work if—and only if—you're a really valued employee. If you're great at what you do and your boss would be devastated to lose you, you might get results if you go to your boss and say, "I love working here, but I'm not able to come out financially ahead with my current salary."

I actually had an employee do this recently and ended up increasing his salary because I wasn't willing to risk losing him over it. But the key is that he's really good at his job. I can easily imagine not being willing to budge if I got the same request from someone else, if I were more willing to lose them.

I also wouldn't appreciate feeling emotionally blackmailed by an employee who was clearly trying to play the sympathy card. In fact, one of the reasons I was willing to give the raise to the employee I mentioned is because he didn't go for sympathy at all—he actually came to me and said, "I want to be honest with you about the fact that my financial obligations are making it hard for me to stay here. I don't know if there's anything you can do on your end, and I understand if there isn't."

Anyway, ultimately, I think it's a high-risk approach and in general people are better off basing raise requests on their increased worth to the company.

corporate culture

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