Asking for a raise isn’t easy, especially if you are inexperienced, in the early stages of your career, or are a young person starting out in the workforce. Questions and doubts plague your mind: “What happens if I’m turned down?” “Could I lose my job instead of getting more money?”  

These worries are often enough to stop someone from asking for a raise at their first job. Having doubts is not a bad thing, though, and asking questions before acting is simply looking before you leap. The problem arises when you have so much self-doubt you never actually take action.

How are you supposed to ask for a raise at your first job? For that matter, how do you ask for a raise at any point in your career? Below we’ll discuss why it isn’t necessarily your skills or experience that warrant a raise, but your drive, your arguments, and your potential future at the company.

Asking for a Raise isn’t a Zero-Sum Game

Our first instinct is to assume buyers (employers) and sellers (employees) are always in a zero-sum competition with each other. The buyer wants the lowest price possible, and the seller wants the highest. Both buyer and seller believe the other party will, given half a chance, try to exploit them in the pursuit of maximising their own personal interest. 

With this zero-sum psychology, negotiations open and proceed from a position of mutual distrust. At some point, if the seller does genuinely want to sell and the buyer to buy, an agreement might still be reached. But if one side has any kind of negotiating advantage over the other, it’s unlikely both will walk away happy with the final arrangement. 

One of the problems here is that many young people are more willing to take risks to avoid loss than to achieve gains, a trait called loss aversion. The gain here is getting a raise, while the risk is damaging our reputation.

When we’re inexperienced, we think we’re approaching raise negotiations from a disadvantage, which immediately puts us into loss aversion mode. While in this mode, we’re less likely to take a risk to achieve a gain, which is why asking for a raise seems like an impossible task.

This is compounded by the assumption of a zero-sum game. Few good employers actually have this attitude, so if we think about asking for a raise, believe it’s a risk to do so, and have an innate distrust of the other party, we’ve already set ourselves up for failure.

Raises Promote Long-Term Success

What sets humans apart from other animals is our ability to think ahead. Happy, healthy and successful people (with the broadest possible definition) tend to be those who are better than average at denying the pull of an immediate gain in the pursuit of a larger gain that will be harvested in the future. 

The same can be said of businesses. Sustainable companies achieve long-term success by not adopting a zero-sum mentality in how much they pay their employees. They know if they keep salary expenses as low as possible, they might be more profitable in the short-term, but not longer-term. They’ll always lose their good employees to someone willing to pay them more and find it harder to hire their preferred candidates. 

This is why any normal employer does not enter salary negotiations with a zero-sum approach. It’s actually in businesses’ long-term interest to give employees raises and bonuses.

Of course, nobody is perfect, and every employer is an organisation imperfectly implementing imperfect systems. Sometimes an employer needs a nudge in the right direction – awarding a raise. 

Asking for a raise as a young person with no experience

If there is reasonable justification for a raise to be requested, there is a high chance the average employer will consider granting it. In the worst-case scenario a request will be declined, with a reasonable explanation of why, and it is very unlikely to be held against the employee who made the request.

So, if you’re a young person wondering how to ask for a raise at your first job, try to think like your employer. They want long-term success for their business, and you want incentives for long-term employment. Don’t think about pay raises as risky requests or zero-sum games. Think of them as prioritising long-term gains over short-term gains, both for yourself and for the business. 

Do I Actually Deserve a Raise?

Why do you want a raise? Asking and answering this question fully and honestly will help you approach the request with confidence and well-reasoned arguments, without being confrontational. By not asking yourself directly if you deserve a raise, you risk asking for a raise when you may not, in fact, deserve. 

Thinking about the following questions will help establish if you are making a reasonable request, especially if you are an inexperienced young person still building professional skills:

  1. If I was happy to accept my current salary at the time it was offered, what’s changed? The market? The value of my work to the company?
  2. Why am I now worth more to my employer and deserve to be paid more at this juncture? 
  3. Did my employer initially invest in me by paying me a salary despite me not having the skills or experience to do work of a value that returned the investment? If so, have I now added enough value through my work to justify them increasing that investment in me?
  4. Have I passed milestones we agreed would trigger a salary increase? Are those objective or subjective milestones? If subjective, am I sure I have a strong argument I have really passed them?

If you answer those questions in a way you are confident established you deserve a raise, it could well be time to ask. But also take time to consider your request from the point of view of your employer. They have to be able to justify your raise from a commercial perspective.

When Does an Employer Give a Pay Raise?

It’s the job of company owners and managers to create and maintain a healthy balance between the money that comes in, revenue, and the money that goes out. Even non-profit organisations have to do this.

Employers are more apt to give raises when the following factors are satisfied:

  1. What’s the market rate for someone of similar experience and/or skills in a comparable position at a comparable company?
  2. What’s the commercial value of the work someone does? 
  3. Is a particular employee worth more or less than the market average for some reason? Eg. They are especially good, or efficient at their job? Or have a lot of potential that makes it worth investing in them now with a view to a future return on that investment?

If you have a well-reasoned argument why it’s time you had a raise, and the amount of money you are asking for doesn’t conflict with any of the factors just outlined, then you should go ahead and ask for that raise. 

Asking for a Raise

When asking for anything, from a raise to a bit of cake from a friend, our chances of success hinge as much on how we present the request as the reasonableness of it. The chances of getting a ‘yes’ on a raise request will definitely be higher if you go about it the right way, even if you’re an inexperienced young person working at your first job.

Asking for a raise as a young person with no experience

A few good tips on how to ask for a raise:

Do it at an appropriate time, in the right setting

Collaring a busy manager in the middle of a working day and asking for a raise is unlikely to go well. That doesn’t mean waiting for the ‘perfect’ moment that may never come, but use some judgement to avoid especially bad moments. Go through the correct channels in the right way. Request an appointment or bring it up in the context of a suitable pre-existing appointment, like a periodical appraisal or feedback session. 

Avoid being confrontational or sounding like you are delivering an ultimatum

It’s our natural instinct to defend ourselves against perceived aggression, whatever form that may come in. A confrontational approach to asking for a raise, especially if it sounds like an ultimatum, is likely to trigger a defensive reaction, no matter how reasonable the actual request. Instead, ask for a raise in a good natured, calm and well-reasoned way. You won’t look weak, as asking the request is, in itself, a show of confidence. 

Offer an upside

Asking for a raise is a kind of negotiation, and basic human psychology means negotiations involve give and take. You might think you have already earned a raise, and you might be right, but that doesn’t mean there is any harm in offering something from your side. Giving something in exchange for what you are requesting to take plays positively into the psychology of negotiation. 

Also, asking for a raise as a junior employee is a sign of ambition you intend to grow within the organisation. Why not offer to take on some reasonable added responsibility alongside your raise? Or gain a new skill by completing a course or certification process? That not only offers an upside to the employer in exchange for granting your request for a raise. It also strengthens your own position. 

Be prepared to draw a line in the sand

While most good employers will be inclined to agree to a well-argued request for a reasonable raise, there are inevitably exceptions. As an employee, you have to use good judgement and decide at what point you will not compromise. The reality is, you’re only in a negotiation if there is a point at which you are willing to walk away. 

Decide calmly and logically where your ‘line in the sand’ is. You need to be able to turn down an offer, or lack of offer, that fails to meet your minimum criteria. That doesn’t mean adopting a confrontational approach to negotiations and laying down your ultimatum. Far from it. But having a line in the sand, and the personal financial health to be able to stick to it, is necessary if you do find yourself in a position you feel you shouldn’t accept. 

Why I Gave Raises, Why I Denied Them

A few years ago, I was co-founder of a start-up that at its peak employed 15 people. Three employees asked us for a raise; we granted it to two. One was because an employee we were keen to keep hold of had a better offer from elsewhere. The second was a junior employee who was showing real promise.

The third request we declined because the employee tried to renegotiate terms we had only recently agreed upon, and he hadn’t done anything to stand out as a worker. Put simply, we weren’t convinced this raise was a good long-term investment for our business, and he didn’t present an argument otherwise.

What does this mean for a young person thinking about their first pay raise? Think about yourself in relation to the business. Sell yourself, your eagerness to learn, and your skills as an asset to the company. Try to objectively establish a reasonable argument you deserve a raise. Employers will often agree to it if you make a strong enough case, and if the raise doesn’t break with established organisational structures or norms. 

Skills and experience do factor into pay raise decisions, but they aren’t necessarily the most important factor.

Data is On Your Side

Numerous studies indicate employees who job-hop earn more than those who stay with the same company. The average salary increase secured by moving from one company to another is around 10%, while the average annual pay rise staying in the same company is around 3%.  

The positive side of this is that employers are heavily influenced by the threat of losing a valued employee. Not least because replacing them will be, in most circumstances, far more expensive and disruptive than paying a current employee a little more. 

If you are happy progressing your current employer, keeping your salary increases apace with job-hoppers will often require some initiative from your side. If you have a generally good employer, and your requests are reasonable and approached in the right way, they should have a positive outcome.

Remember to keep your skills sharp, dynamic, and useful. The more you better yourself by learning new things, the more valuable you’ll be to yourself, and to an employer. There’s some truth to the old saying “if you don’t ask, you don’t get.” Don’t be afraid to ask, keeping in mind the points we’ve discussed here. 

John Alexander Adam writes for Universal Owl on topics relating to finance. An entrepreneur, he has one successful exit behind him. John has almost 10 years of experience as a writer and editor on consumer finance, investment and tech topics.

He currently writes and consults while studying for his purple belt in SEO and conversion science. In his spare time, he enthusiastically pursues hobbies he’s not very good at, such as football, squash and raising a small child.

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