Get a raise in the recession

People are afraid of asking for a raise now more than ever. In fact, the recession is providing a good excuse for employees to not ask for more money, and for companies not to give any. But high performers can and should be compensated.

To get a raise, you first need to be aware of the three contingencies raises are based on:

Past Performance (and the learning curve)
All jobs have learning curves. What took you eight hours a day at the start of your position will slowly taper off until you start to get bored six months in. Good employees realize this and try to shorten the learning curve as quickly as possible by completing stellar and quality work right away. How quickly you’re able to shorten the curve often determines how quickly your first review and raise will be.

Future Opportunity (and taking on more responsibility)
Once you master your initial set of responsibilities, it’s time to start looking for more. You should first look for the low-hanging fruit; tasks that have been overlooked in which you can easily shine in. This might be tracking and measurement, or the suggestion of a weekly meeting. Whatever it is, you should make sure your superiors know you are looking to do and be more.

Second, you should also be strategically thinking about your next step and title in the company. If you want to expand your design role to include rendering in addition to drafting, you should try to take on as many rendering projects as you can before your review. New titles (and the accompanying compensation) aren’t awarded to people who haven’t already been doing the work. In other words, don’t wait for the title to impress.

Many companies won’t have such opportunities for advancement, however – either they aren’t willing or aren’t able – and that’s when you should start looking for a new job.

Market Value (and how adaptable are you)
There are a ton of social media jobs out there right now. There are also a lot of people who can’t execute on social media. Which leaves the people who can in a great negotiating position.

For those positions that don’t carry such great demand – say, journalists – you’ll need to figure out how to keep yourself and your position relevant. This doesn’t mean saving the entire journalistic profession, but being creative in the responsibilities you take on. It’s good to think of yourself in both positions at once, however, since the market varies and changes from year to year.

Once you understand the three contingencies, it’s time to put together an action plan:

1. Be proactive. Bad companies will put off your review on purpose. Good companies will too. There’s no reason for employers to pay you more if you’re not asking for it. Be proactive in checking in with your boss throughout each month, and scheduling reviews often. It’s often helpful to schedule your next review at your current one (“I’d like to meet again in three months to talk about the possibility of a new title and an additional raise.”) When you set up a meeting with the expectation that you’ll be discussing a raise, the conversation becomes easier.

2. Research and prepare. Even if you don’t show your boss, prepare a document of your past accomplishments and proposed future responsibilities. This gives you a list of relevant talking points during your meeting. In that document, include a salary number and back it up with research on what other people in similar positions are making. I recommend listing the number a bit larger than you expect so that you have some negotiating room and can meet your employer in the middle.

3. Practice. Just because you have everything written down doesn’t mean you won’t stumble in the meeting. Practice phrasing some of your key accomplishments and especially practice stating how much salary you’d like. Just say it aloud a few times to make it less scary.

4. Negotiate. Negotiating for a raise is incredibly hard, made even more so by the fact that your boss has probably just finished a glowing review, and it seems like an especially inopportune time to ask for more. (Or is that just me?) But not only is it the right time, it’s the only time. Go for it! Some employers will tell you right away whether the amount you’re asking for is something they can do, others will want to check and get back to you. Be prepared for either possibility.

5. Negotiate again. It’s very rare for a company not to be able to give a high performer a raise, even in the recession. When more money really is impossible – say, when you work at a University and they’ve declared that not only will there be no raises, but there will be pay cuts – you should still ask for more. You don’t have to ask for more money, but make sure you’re asking for more of something.

For instance, a smart woman I know negotiated additional paid time-off in lieu of more zeros on her paycheck. Just be careful that you’re not setting a precedent that the ability to work from home, gain additional stock options, or attend a conference is how you want to be compensated in the future. Unless, of course, it is.

What do you think? Is it difficult to get a raise in recession? If you’ve been successful, what were your strategies?