How to Handle a Job with Low (or No) Pay Increases

Jason writes in:

I have been working at the same job for the past seven years. It pays well and I am able to save about a third of my income between 401(k) and Roth and house down payment savings. The problem is that my salary is barely moving. I get great reviews but then I get only a “cost of living” raise that’s actually less than the increase in cost of living. I’m basically getting paid less in real dollars than when I started. Wondering what I should do and if I should move on.

The first thing you should always ask yourself is this: Have you been doing things that will create a strong resume for you and make you a tempting hire for other businesses? Do you have skills that will transfer well in your field? Do you have impressive projects to put on a resume?

Regardless of what you do with your current job, your focus should be on making sure that you have a great resume to shop around. If you’re in a position where you don’t have value to other employers, then you’ve ceded a lot of power to your current employer. You’ve made them into your only option, and that’s never a good place to be in.

So, your first action step should be to give your resume a polishing and evaluate it realistically to see if it’s ready to get you anywhere. If it’s not, start investing as much of your time as you can on projects that are resume-worthy and classes and certifications to build up your skill set.

You should also start taking steps to raise your profile within your field. It is never a bad idea to start building lots of relationships within your field, especially outside of your current place of employment. Start going to meetups related to your career in the area. Get involved in social media related to your career path, particularly in areas where you can show off your skills a little (like an online community focused on your areas of expertise).

These steps are twofold. They’ll obviously help you if you decide to switch to a new job, but they’ll also give you some leverage with your current workplace. You’re increasing your personal value, which means you have more poker chips with which to stay in the game.

What about your current job, though? As you go through the steps of preparing yourself for a potential move, take stock of your current organization. Do you enjoy the environment at the current workplace? Is the management flexible and treats you well, or are they cruel and uncaring? Do you have good relationships with your coworkers, or is the place poisonous? Does the organization as a whole seem to be on solid ground, or are things looking shaky? Do you enjoy the projects you’re working on or do you find them boring?

If you feel that your current place of employment is a good place to work and has some stability, then it makes more sense to keep working with them. If this is the case, have a sincere discussion with your manager – remember, if you’re in this situation, your manager is probably someone you get along with and trust to some extent, or else you’d be wanting to get out of there.

Simply lay out the situation. You’ve been a good employee for a long time. You have a competitive skill set and a lot of experience. You feel you have earned more compensation and, all things being equal, you’d prefer to stay with your current organization if they show you that your efforts are rewarded with a notable increase in compensation. If you’re unsure what you should be asking for, take a look at what people are getting paid with similar levels of experience at positions like yours in your area by using job listings. (Remember, this is only good leverage if you’re a good employee. If you’re not a good employee, they may decide that a new face in your position is a better value for their dollar. If you’re below average, paying you the average might not be the wisest idea.)

Your current workplace would have to be in a very poisonous position if your manager did not understand this. If your manager actually balks at this concept, then it’s a sign that you should be moving on.

What you should expect is that your manager will agree with you to some extent and then he or she will seek to reward you with additional compensation. Be aware that this might not be immediate. There are perhaps conversations that need to occur and budgets that need to be evaluated before you can get a raise. Your best route during this process is to occasionally touch base with your supervisor on the progress of getting a raise. If you begin to feel that you’re getting the runaround and nothing is going to change – being patient is good, but patience does have its limits – then it’s time to start seeking new employment.

If you find yourself in a scenario where new employment seems to be the best route, whether it’s due to uncertainty about the future of your workplace, unhappiness with the environment, or a lack of attention being given to your compensation, then the next step is to start looking for a new position.

The honest truth of the matter is that most jobs are won through relationships, not through applications. Most of the time, winning applicants are referred to a business by a current employee and it’s due to that personal reference that the position is won.

So, your first step in this process should be to ask around through your trusted professional relationships as to whether there are any appropriate positions out there for you. If you’ve got some strong relationships, have been helpful within those relationships in the past, and have a good reputation, it’s likely that at least one of those people will be able to point you toward a job that you could apply for within their organization or an organization that they have ties to. (In fact, this is exactly how I applied to every professional job position I ever held; it started with a professional relationship.)

Sometimes, you’ll find that this happens very fast, especially if you’re referred to a job at a smaller company. Small companies tend to be very agile with their hiring and can sometimes have a job offer for you on the table in just a day or two. At other times, you’ll find that the wheels turn very slowly. You apply and then wait for months and then have a phone interview and then wait for a month and then have another phone interview and then wait a month and then have a face-to-face interview and then wait for a month… you get the idea. This tends to be true for government jobs and jobs with very large corporations, in my experience. There’s no need to be impatient here, especially if you happen to like most aspects of your current job.

If you have a job offer in hand but you still like your current environment, go back to your supervisor with your job offer in hand and give them a chance to match it. This is the appropriate thing to do if you have a good relationship with your current employer and like your current work environment. Give them a chance to match your offer, and if they do, stay where you are. If not, well, you have a job offer in hand!

Another route, particularly if you have a lot of downtime at your current job, is to launch a side gig to supplement your income. If you have an unfulfilled interest or passion, a side gig can be a great way to bring that passion to the table and channel some energy through it in order to earn some income. Side gigs can take on all kinds of shapes and sizes – my father’s side gigs included small-scale commercial fishing and vegetable farming, for example, and my mother’s side gigs involved meal preparation and child care, while my own side gigs included building websites and fixing computers and my own children have an after school side gig on Youtube. You can start this process right now by brainstorming ideas for side gigs, then writing up business plans for the best ones.

The thing to remember in all of this is that your loyalty to a company has to be earned, not given. If a company does not treat you well, then you don’t have to continue working there out of a sense of loyalty. If you’re not being compensated in a way that’s reasonable compared to your experience and efforts, it really is okay to ask for a raise and, if you don’t get one, to look into moving on. Just make sure, before you start, that you’ve got a skill set and a professional network that will make it easy for you to move to a new job, or else you’ve given your current company all of the leverage.

Good luck!

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