How to ask for a pay rise during the pandemic (and actually get one)

Nastumi Chikayasu

One of the first things cut from companies’ budgets during lockdown was the annual pay rise. By July 2020, a third of employers (35 per cent) had decided to scrap pay-rise budgets in response to the economic implications of the Covid-19 crisis, according to research by insurance firm Willis Towers Watson. Rather than offering a three per cent average bump, companies decided to postpone or freeze salaries, and four in ten businesses (39 per cent) decided to reduce annual bonuses.
Employers surveyed by the insurer in the UK, France and Germany have already quashed any chance of a post-coronavirus bonus bonanza. Budgets in 2021 are going to be lower than pre-Covid levels, they said. And this was before companies faced a second wave of coronavirus and economic uncertainty. Given the current climate, the prospect of asking for a pay rise may seem futile. It’s not.


Once you have researched your company’s financial state and established how much people are paid in equivalent roles in your team and the wider market, you must find the right time to have a conversation with your boss. That time is now, says Kim Scott, former Google executive and author of Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean and Just Work: Get Sh*t Done, Fast and Fair.
Scott says you don’t need to threaten to quit to get a higher salary, but you will negotiate with more confidence if you know that you could get paid more somewhere else – so know your market value. “If you are part of an underrepresented group — so if you’re a woman, if you’re Black — the odds are that even if your company certainly doesn’t intend to have a biased pay scheme, there’s bias in the market,” she says. “Odds are you are underpaid [compared to your peers].”
If you are in a lower pay bracket than someone in an equivalent job at your company and you are a high performer, the onus is on your company to explain why.
Although it’s an easier option, waiting for the pandemic to be over to ask for a pay rise may be a costly decision. People that don’t ask for a raise risk allowing resentment to build up, which is not just a waste of time, but also an issue when you eventually have a conversation about money. Scott calls it “feedback debt”.


“You feel underpaid, but it’s awkward to raise it, so you don’t bring it up. And you get angrier, but you’re concerned that you’re angry, so you don’t bring it up. And then when you finally do bring it up, you hit rage. And we rarely communicate at our best when we’re feeling rage,” Scott says. “So if you like the job, if you like your colleagues, then it’s really important for your performance, and also for your company, that you’re paid fairly.”
Have a best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) in mind if your request is rejected, Scott advises. Developed by Harvard University negotiation experts Roger Fisher and William Ury, BATNA is an exercise that helps you determine what you’re aiming for in a given scenario (and how to leverage the next best thing, if what you want doesn’t work out). It can help to determine your ideal salary, what you’d be willing to accept, and your bottom line.
Sometimes, the outcome of these conversations can make it clear that you have no future at a company. But even in a pandemic where there are more job seekers than posts, managers will try to stop top talent from leaving. Even if there is no budget for a raise, you can still kick-start a longer conversation.
“You want to have a Rogerian argument, where you understand your boss’ point of view, and your boss understands your point of view,” says Scott, “as opposed to a negotiation that feels more like an arm-wrestling match.”
Natasha Bernal is WIRED’s business editor. She tweets from @TashaBernal
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