The need to negotiate salaries isn’t a new challenge. In fact, I remember in my first tech role in the early 2000s, plucking up the courage to be forthright with my line manager, to say that if I couldn’t get my salary up to £20,000 after several years’ increasing seniority within the company, then I was going to have to look elsewhere.

While it’s true that, as you climb the career ladder, you’re less likely to find yourself in the position of “I need a wage increase to pay the bills”, everybody’s feeling the pinch at the moment. Skyrocketing inflation, an energy price crisis, and post-Brexit/COVID shortages mean that unless you’re a high-level executive, your day-to-day way of life is being significantly impacted by changes which are outside of your control.

Yet we work on regardless, and with a recession and The Great Resignation being at the front of everyone’s minds, if anything we’re working harder to pick up the slack when companies can’t afford to hire or backfill. Increasing your workload with no commensurate change to your pay packet is just as bad as failing to secure a salary increase; possibly worse, as by sapping your energy further, it also robs you of one other commodity - free time. It’s no wonder that “quiet quitting” has become such a talking point.

If you want it, go for it

This was one of our hot topics on an episode of Tech Team Weekly earlier this year, embedded below (and slightly more expletive-laden than normal):

At the time, the Governor of the Bank of England had spoken out against workers asking for pay rises in-line with rising costs, warning that it could spark a spiralling increase in inflation. (I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you believe bankers to be the best moral compass when it comes to saying what people should earn.) Yet repeated increases to the UK’s energy price cap, so significant that they’ve resulted in a shift in government policy, can’t go ignored.

Historically, there are some places in the world where it’s not culturally the “done thing” to ask for more. The Brits certainly fall into that category, but it’s compounded among other demographics too: for instance, women are generally less likely to ask for a pay rise, ostensibly due to a history of being snubbed when asking for them.

To an extent, the advice is “don’t ask, don’t get”. If your company has a process for requesting or reviewing your salary, then pursue it, especially if your accomplishments show you to be a valued, indispensable member of the team. Don’t forget that this can be judged not just on the scale of your achievements, but also the volume of them: there’ve been at least 3 or 4 occasions when I’ve left a company and they’ve hired multiple people to fill the role(s) that I was doing. What does that say about where my salary should have been at before? (It’s a breath of fresh air at my current company, Makers, where I’ve seen hiring taking place specifically to help with relieving the workload of existing staff members.)

The worst that you can happen is that you learn where you stand - and you can judge whether you might rather pursue alternative options elsewhere. It’s a sad fact of life that the easiest way to get a salary increase is by changing companies; just like mobile phone providers, the best deals are often only for “new customers”. This often comes to the fore when organisations are hiring, and their current employees observe the salaries that are being offered to new starters who are doing the same job as them. If, as an organisation, you’re not also prepared to realign your existing team’s salaries to match these rates, don’t be surprised if they accept better offers in the near future.

Isn’t there a better way?

I’m not the Governor of the Bank of England (yet), nor am I the person holding the purse-strings for a company’s salary budget. But it doesn’t take a financial genius to notice that wage crises have a larger impact on our organisations than simply the bottom-line:

  • When somebody leaves, even if you’re fortunate enough to afford to backfill their role, you can’t quickly replace the knowledge and experiences of that leaver.
  • Disruption to productivity - not just from a person quitting, but in going through the process of screening, interviewing, recruiting and on-boarding - can leave its mark on a team for many months.
  • With candidates being in high demand, often juggling multiple job offers, you may have to pay more to secure somebody’s replacement - often ending up paying more than the original person was asking for in the first place! (And that’s even before you take recruiter fees into account.)
  • When one person leaves, often others will follow, meaning that these financial challenges are often compounded.

It feels like, realistically, it’s in companies’ best interests to do better than they’re doing now. Particularly in difficult economic times, there should be an expectation - ideally in employee contracts - that salaries should automatically include cost-of-living increases in-line with inflation. Otherwise, if you only give a small number of increases to a subset of your workforce, you’re asking everybody else to swallow a net decrease in their earnings. If this seems like it won’t scale, at least consider whether one-off discretionary payments (for instance, aligned with increases in the energy price cap) could help to offset peoples’ concerns over whether they can even afford to not look for another job.

Key takeaways 📝

  • Failing to give inflationary pay rises shows you are devaluing your team.
  • All we can do as individuals is ask the question, with supporting evidence.
  • Meeting reasonable pay demands is cheaper than replacing an unhappy ex-employee.