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5 Reasons Employees Are Afraid to Ask for a Raise

Greg de la Cruz works in the tech industry and is the author of two published titles on Amazon.

Some people fail to get significant pay raises just because they're afraid to ask.

Some people fail to get significant pay raises just because they're afraid to ask.

I have never explicitly asked my boss for a raise.

Whatever the hindrance was for me, I’m sure that fear played some factor, although it wasn’t the only reason I never got around to asking. There were a few times when I felt overburdened with my work responsibilities that I was on the brink of broaching the subject, but I was always fortunate enough with the bosses I had, who proactively raised my pay and pleasantly surprised me with their acts of recognition and acknowledgment of the “work” that I did. They did what they could to “keep me happy.”

But not having to ask for a raise is a luxury. Especially for young women in the workforce, it’s hard for some workers to get noticed and, accordingly, hard to attain compensation that’s commensurate to their accomplishments, skills, and workload.

It’s hard enough to get your boss to notice the good work you’ve been doing (especially if you’re the silent type and don’t speak up too much in meetings), and it’s likely even more difficult for you to muster up the courage and determination to walk into your boss’s desk and talk about a sensitive subject.

A topic of conversation that’s almost always behind closed doors for the benefit of both parties—after all, you wouldn’t want your co-workers eavesdropping while you ask for more money, and your boss probably wouldn’t want to encourage others to come forward for the same reason.

Why is it hard for people to come forward and ask to get paid more? Is it just a matter of being afraid to get rejected? Are there ways to prepare ourselves better?

Why Do People Find It Difficult to Ask for a Raise?

A survey conducted by PayScale Inc. of 30,000 workers reveals that 43 percent or less than half of workers had ever asked for a raise. And of the 43 percent, only 44 percent or 19 percent overall got the raise that they wanted, with 11 percent overall not getting any raise at all—so that comes around to roughly 3,300 workers getting rejected or dismissed by their bosses when they dared to ask for a pay bump.

But you know what the more alarming number is on the survey? It’s the 57 percent or the 17,000-plus workers who never experienced asking their boss for a raise. What’s the inertia that’s keeping so many people from even talking about the subject with their boss? Were their bosses simply unapproachable? Was their work environment one in which such a thing was not accepted as normal?

Gender-Based Income Gap

The gender pay gap is a topic that would take more than just one article to cover, because it is both a very pressing and complex issue, and it goes way back in history. One of the things that exacerbates gender-based income inequality is the inability of organizations to lift women workers up the organizational hierarchy.

A 2019 McKinsey survey found that for every 100 men getting their first promotion, only 72 women were promoted. This was a study of over 68,000 employees, covering 329 organizations in the United States. This inequality in promotion opportunity was referred to as the “broken rung” or missing the first step into management.

And it’s not because women have been lacking in terms of asking for a raise. A 2018 Harvard study confirmed that women do, in fact, request salary increases just as much as men do—but they’re just not getting them as frequently, nor as much as their male counterparts would.

This study contradicted findings presented in many well-known works, such as in Lean In written by Sheryl Sandberg, Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock, and a dated study out of Harvard, Nice Girls Don’t Ask. The latter work claimed in 2003 that: “Women often don’t get what they want and deserve because they don’t ask for it.”

An in-depth analysis of why women don’t get raises as well as men do is reserved for a future article that will do this topic justice. For now, let’s examine a few reasonable fears you might have that are preventing you from moving forward.

5 Reasonable Fears When Asking for a Raise

People are not irrationally holding out on their right to ask for more compensation. Workplace and societal norms have both played a role in disabling or hindering workers from making the most out of their right to negotiate the terms of their employment. Here are five reasonable fears you might have when asking for a raise.

1. Awkwardness and Taboo

Fear: Talking about money and finances is awkward and taboo

The very idea of talking money matters to someone else is a usual non-starter. The inability to properly communicate about finances itself is a common cause of divorce or separation among couples. Asking for a raise is a topic mostly, if not solely, about money. Some workers might think that it’s mainly about their value in the company that’s being negotiated, but really, many external factors play a role, such as the employer’s financial health, their willingness to invest, labor market trends, etc.

It’s easy to back out of the conversation just because it’s difficult to put yourself in a room with your boss where you talk about money—more specifically, the money they are willing to pay you. Especially if you don’t know much about other topics with your boss aside from work, discussing money can be planets away.

Solution: Come to the meeting prepared. This is a meeting that you initiated, and so it’s just right that you do your homework. The overwhelming advice from the most reliable sources on the internet, such as Harvard Business Review and Forbes, is that you come to the self-initiated meeting with a number (usually a range), and you practice your spiel. The key is to not talk too much—deliver your message succinctly, and when prompted for the magic number, let it out.

2. Not Knowing How to Ask for a Raise

Fear: You don’t know how to ask for a raise, especially since you don’t do it often or might never have done so in your career.

Asking for a raise is not something you do every day, and not even something done every year for many—and, based on the figures presented earlier, more than half of all workers haven’t even done it. Therefore, it’s safe to assume that most workers do not know how to ask for a raise.

Solution: The common advice from the best sources—HBR, CNBC, Indeed, etc.—is to practice. Having that number at the top of your head as in Rebuttal No. 1 is important, but you also have to come into the meeting as if you had already done so.

Saying as few words as possible (without sacrificing essential content such as how much you’re asking for, why you deserve it, and a rundown of your accomplishments) is equally important. Be firm. You can be flexible or at least appear to be, but confidence will help get the message across, and it is because of practice that you’ll come in with confidence.

3. Quid Pro Quo

Fear: To be expected to grant a favor or advantage in return

This is a common reason especially among women, for not being able to ask for a raise. Claire Wasserman of InStyle says that “some may worry about harming the relationship with their manager by expecting more; others may fear a quid pro quo arrangement.” When a woman asks for a raise from a male superior and he grants it, some work environments might have this silent rule that the former is bound to fulfill some favor for the latter in the not-so-distant future.

What was thought to just be an idea out of television shows and movies, the #MeToo movement in Hollywood which started a few years back, exposed male superiors who either impliedly or explicitly asked for sexual favors from female newbies in their industry, in return for giving them a role in this or that movie.

In general, the favor being impliedly or expressly asked by the superior may not always be sexual in nature. The superior could leverage the granting of the raise for the subordinate to “pick up his dry-cleaning” or something far more onerous that.

Solution: Raises are meant to be merit-based. Big companies have a built-in annual performance review process designed to give top performers a pay increase and for the bottom performers to either stagnate or receive a significantly less pay hike. If you’re in a situation that doesn’t have a recurring performance evaluation process in place, come into the meeting knowing that you’re asking for a raise from your boss based on your merit.

This is where preparing a rundown of your accomplishments comes in handy. The preparation stage will help convince you that you indeed have some merit to be given the raise. If in your process of compiling your achievements you feel like you could do more to deserve the raise, then maybe that’s a reason to hold off (at least temporarily).

You shouldn’t approach the salary increase discussion with a mentality that you’re going to have to do your boss any favor. You should be in a state where you are convinced that you deserve the raise based on merit—not because you have to do or give something in exchange. “You’ve already earned it” should be your state of mind.

4. Your Worth and Self-Promotion

Fear: Feeling that you’re not really worth the money you’re asking for

Some people fail to ask for a raise because the very thought of self-promotion terrifies them. The very idea that they’ll talk to their boss to seemingly brag about all the good things they’ve done, and the possibility that their own boss would gaslight them—is just too much for some people. Your fear that you might not be worth that much to your employer could cripple any motivation you might have to ask for a raise.

Solution: This is where looking up how much other people in your job function and within your industry get paid for. This could also inform the ballpark figure that you came in with, but this is also a good way for you to know “how much you’re really worth” in market terms.

It’s one thing to just toss out a number that’s, say, 10 or 15 percent higher than what you’re already making, and it’s another to have industry knowledge of what people like you get paid these days. Armed with that knowledge, you’ll have an objective view of what you’re worth and all notion that you’re just promoting yourself or tooting your own horn might just go out the window.

5. You’re Not Irreplaceable

Fear: Your boss might start looking for someone who’s worth less

This is a very rational fear to have – and this might just help inform you if the organization you’re working for is worth staying. I’ve also known a few people in my own work journey who were eventually edged out by management just because they were already paid “too much” (but the official reasons were some corporate bullshit).

There are legitimate ways that your boss or employer can push you out, knowing that they can hire someone to do your job for a lower price. All sorts of labor law bending happen, such as claiming that your position has become redundant—only for them to hire an entry-level guy a month later that does 80–90 percent of the work that you used to do.

I am not surprised at all that this fear keeps popping up among workers who are hesitant to ask for a raise—they may just be comfortable where they are, and they might be afraid to open a can of worms.

Solution: If there is any indication that you are being edged out because you dared to ask for more, then maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. Chances are you weren’t going to get better opportunities there in the future anyway—and what you did was just save yourself some time.

Going back to the 57 percent of the people who had never asked for a raise in that PayScale survey—how many of those workers do you think were in a work environment where management just wasn’t into investing in its own people? It’s a harsh reality, but some companies are willing to see good people leave just because they know someone cheaper will come along anyway.

What Do the Experts Say When Asking for a Raise?

Need more nudging to get yourself to talk to your boss about giving you a raise? Let’s see what a few experts say on the subject:

  • Kevin O’Leary: In a CNBC interview, Mr. Wonderful says that “If you’re doing a good job, you want to start asking for more… They expect you to ask for more. If you don’t ask for it, you won’t get it."
  • Harvard Business Review (Christine vs. Work): “Timing is everything. With large companies you may only have a couple times in the year where you can actually ask for a raise. In smaller companies, it may be more merit-based, so make sure that you act on the heels of a big success…”
  • Debra Corcoran: “People don’t pay you more for coming to work again. They pay you more for doing more for them… the more you outline your responsibilities… the more money you can ask for.”
  • Casey Brown: “No one is paid what they’re worth; they’re paid what their company thinks they’re worth… clearly define and communicate [your] value.”
  • Debra Kaplan: “The anxiety we feel about a raise often results from a struggle with self-esteem, feeling inadequate or unworthy.”

If You Fail to Get a Raise, Should You Switch Jobs Instead?

There is an argument to be made when switching jobs in order to get a good raise. Very recent research done by Chris Kolmar of Zippia.com found that wage growth for job switchers was 47 percent higher than those who stay at their current job. Further, his research revealed that on average, women receive 14 percent higher wage growth when changing jobs.

And so, is the verdict in? Should you switch jobs in order to get a raise? Perhaps more than thinking that switching jobs will give you the pay bump that you’ve always wanted, it could more importantly mean that you’re seeking a workplace and a role that suits you more.

Or perhaps a “change of pace” or a good reset. The norm is that the next place that’s hiring you isn’t normally going to pay you less than what you had in your previous job—the question would be, is the job right for you? Is the pay bump worth all the hassle in adjusting, finding your place, and proving yourself all over again?

Knowing Your Worth and Knowing the Environment That Suits You

As a parting message, above everything that’s been said in this article and what’s out there, the bottom line is for you to know your worth, both in intrinsic terms and market terms. If you’re comfortable with what your employer is paying you with the non-monetary perks in mind, such as good work-life balance, friendly colleagues, and a healthy work environment, then maybe you don’t have to rush the process of asking for a raise.

That said, remember that too many people don’t get a raise just because they never asked. Keep assessing the value you add to your company and compare that with the compensation they’re giving you and what others who are similar to you are given. You can get paid better and be happy where you are—maybe all it takes is just for you to walk into your boss’s desk and pop the question.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz