Five steps to get that raise

Do your research, pick your moment, and no gushing.

Brandi McBride knows a thing or two about raises and promotions. The 26-year-old has had a meteoric ascent on Capitol Hill, rising from receptionist to legislative director in less than four years. The secret to her success?

"It's important to set goals for yourself, but it's equally important to share those goals with your employer," she says.

That advice could apply to just about any profession. As the economy shows signs of heating up again and the end of the year winds down, many career counselors say now may be a good time to ask for a raise, promotion, or year-end bonus.

Just don't get greedy. The average salary increase this year is running about 3.5 percent, one of the lowest in years, according to separate surveys earlier this year. And bonuses are highly variable. Two-thirds of companies don't offer them. On Wall Street, where annual bonuses are expected to rise 10 to 15 percent over the last year, according to Johnson Associates, they're an annual ritual.

"Compared to the industrial world, where base salaries go up 3 percent and bonuses rise 7 percent, Wall Street is paying well," says Frank Glassner, chief executive of Compensation Design Group Inc., another New York compensation consultant. "But like any industry, if you didn't perform, you will clearly be taking home a lump of coal."

Chances are that your boss hasn't voluntarily showered you with six-figure bonuses or even offered you more than the annual cost-of-living raise. You don't get what you don't ask for. So it's up to you to make the first move, experts say. And no matter how good you are at hard-nosed negotiating, when it comes to asking for a raise, doing it right is definitely an art. With that in mind, here are five ideas to consider before broaching the subject with your employer.

1. Have your ducks in order

Asking for a raise is not something that has to be taboo. Get comfortable with tooting your own horn. "The first thing that you must make certain is that you deserve it," says Dick Dauphinais, president of Strategic Compensation Partners in Kittery Point, Maine. "You've got to demonstrate to your boss your value to the company and how you've made money for the company."

Of course, you can't march into a meeting with your boss armed simply with your opinions. You need to back it up. That means analyzing and cataloguing what you've accomplished in the past year, writing it down, and then preparing for that all-important meeting.

It's also a good idea to bone up on industry standards. One good source is salary.com's salary wizard (which also can be located at csmonitor.salary.com).

"You also need to find out the going market rate for your job by checking local salary surveys, asking peers in the same field, and contacting industry associations," says Rick Beal, a senior consultant with Watson Wyatt Associates in San Francisco. "If you have hard data that proves you are not paid up to scale, you then need to be prepared to define a range of increase you think is fair."

2. Know the business climate

It's also important to know the current economic environment - not only in the national economy but also in the company. "If business is booming, then seeking your fair share of the wealth is understandable," says Mimi Greenberg, president of MRG Associates, an executive search firm in New York City. "But if you're employed by a start-up or a larger company actively looking to slash costs, it may not be a very good time to ask for a bump in your paycheck."

As for the US economy, recent surveys show that after the steady increases in payroll employment, companies are becoming more optimistic about the business outlook. The economy has managed to grow at nearly a 4 percent clip this year despite sharply rising energy costs.

Of course, timing is everything. Seek out the boss a few months before the annual review. If you wait until the annual review, your compensation may have already been decided, and it may be harder to make changes to what's already somewhat set in stone.

3. Rehearse

Know what you want to say to the boss and practice saying it out loud. Remember, you are selling yourself.

"You need to enter the meeting with confidence, not arrogance, and refrain from making brash demands," says Ramon Greenwood, a senior career counselor at Common Sense At Work, based in Arlington Heights, Ill. "And never try to make a case for a raise on the basis of need. You should make your case based only on what you have contributed toward your employer's goals above and beyond what is expected from your position."

Some of the biggest mistakes you can make include failing to prepare yourself, threatening to leave, and basing your request on personal reasons. "Never whine and don't be unreasonable or act unprofessionally," says Mr. Glassner of Compensation Design Group. Above all, underscore your loyalty to the organization and suggest your potential for even greater contributions based on demonstrated performance.

"I think that part of my success stems from my devotion and loyalty to my boss and my former boss," says Ms. McBride. "The other part stems from my willingness to do whatever is asked of me and doing it with a positive attitude."

4. Prepare for the worst

According to CareerBuilder.com, one of the largest online job-search websites, less than 1 percent of people who ask for a raise get it right away.

"The meeting may raise your profile with the boss, which can result in a raise later," says Watson Wyatt's Rick Beal. "Take the initiative and ask to meet again in three or six months - or after you've accomplished a certain milestone."

If your boss won't give you a raise, ask for other things such as more vacation time, a laptop computer, or other equipment. If you are turned down, express disappointment, shake hands, and calmly walk away. The composed manner in which you take the rejection may give your boss the impression that you have something else lined up - even if you don't.

5. Be gracious

If the final answer is "yes," express appreciation, but do not go overboard. Work twice as hard to prove your boss made the right decision. "Start right then and there earning that next raise," says Mr. Greenwood of Common Sense at Work.

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