Now's the Time; Here's the Technique - to Tap the Boss for a Raise

The hot market in job prospects could mean a warm reception the next time you ask the boss for something ... like a raise.

Demand for goods and services is up; new employees are hard to find; and the boss knows that job hopping is now encouraged. In other words, you're someone worth keeping.

"It's a fabulous time to press for something better at work," says John Challenger of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm.

After dropping to a 24-year low in May, the unemployment rate edged up last month to 5 percent.

As short-term contract employment steadily replaces the lifetime job, employers feel increasingly uncertain about the longevity of their staff.

"I have been in business for 18 years, and I have never seen such a fluid marketplace with opportunity stamped all over it like today," says Jean Davis, a psychotherapist in Evanston, Ill. who provides career counseling.

Short on staff, long on money

Indeed, many companies can't meet demand because of labor shortages. With managers desperate to both lure and retain employees, some employees are pouncing on new opportunities.

Downsizing and layoffs persist in some industries, but in services and skilled manufacturing jobs - such as health care, information technology, and computerized machinery - positions go wanting.

Career counselors, experts in negotiation, and self-improvement gurus endorse a broad array of ways to wheedle "yes" from the boss.

One simple but potent suggestion: Work hard.

"In this economy, we think an opportunity will fall out of a tree into our laps, but there is no easy road. It's hard work," says Diane Lewis, president of Career Dimensions in Chicago.

Approach your boss after completion of an impressive project. Don't wing it. Be prepared, even to the point of writing out a script in advance - detailing your points of discussion and the possible responses.

Buttonhole the boss when you're ready to flaunt a catalog of your accomplishments and detail the brilliant masterstrokes to come.

Make sure you stay on good terms with your boss. This not only helps you go up but helps prevent you from going out.

'What a great tie you're wearing'

When a manager lets an underling go, it is usually due, in part, to a soured relationship, says Mr. Challenger. "The most important fact is you have to keep that relationship with your boss in good repair, not in some sort of sycophantic type of way, but make sure he or she is aware of your accomplishments," says Challenger.

If higher pay tops your agenda, research what your peers get elsewhere. Many libraries carry surveys and JobSmart on the Internet (www.jobsmart.com) features salary profiles for myriad jobs. But don't box yourself in by pitching a figure. Let your boss make the first proposal. Keep your focus on your value, let him or her attach a dollar sign to it. That becomes a number to build on.

When negotiating, try to keep the conversation on matters of mutual interest. Avoid points of personality, and forestall hard negotiating positions. Focus, not on your needs, but on how your proposal benefits everyone.

Don't demur or be demure

Make your pitch factual, as if you're making a sale. Describe your accomplishments and their outcome in detail.

This is not a time to be shy. Nor is it an excuse to dramatize. This is a rare opportunity to state factually, calmly, authoritatively your value to the company.

And it's important to showcase your work. Managers increasingly give raises based on performance, experts say.

"Companies are putting more and more emphasis on paying for top performance and keeping a tight lid on the wages of other employees," says Challenger. If your boss says "no," be ready to ask for something else: more staff, better benefits, a nicer office.

Still no raise? You're still ahead.

Remember that, usually, you lose nothing by asking. Your wishes and ambitions are now on the table, and you've had a chance to discuss your contributions in an acceptable forum.

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