I asked for a raise but instead they’re doing small cost-of-living increases for everyone — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I work for a small company, about 50 people. We’re all fully remote, and I speak to my boss — the owner —only every few years. My work is all project-based, and there’s no path for advancement (I’m a one-person department), so things just sort of roll on from year to year.

So I finally met my boss again, and — when pressed for what I needed — I said I need more money. I made my case, noted that I am making an embarrassingly small amount more than when I was hired, doing more work than ever, etc.

Got a great response: “We’ll fix it today!” Yay! And the next day the finance person said I’d hear about it by a certain day “at the LATEST.” Then the day came and went, and nothing. Couldn’t get hold of the money person, called the boss.

And I found my raise has turned into a general plan for raises for almost everybody. And it’ll be some arbitrary (likely quite small) percentage. And there’s no timeline. It will have nothing to do with me, or what I deserve, at all.

Yes, I like the idea that everybody might get more money and to have (even unwittingly) advanced that. But I brought up something I’d been thinking about for a long time, for myself, and I was so happy at the response that I broke a personal rule to never believe any boss until the thing is actually on record and happening. I feel like I got suckered, and I am crushed. I cried.

I like the job and most of the people, and the boss and I largely stay out of each other’s way, so I don’t really want to change jobs. Boss was annoyed that I was upset, so there’s not much more I can say to him. But hey, I was actually dumb enough to feel valued for a minute there.

So: Am I just being a big baby, or does this suck as much as I think it does?

Nope, it sucks. You asked for a raise based on your work contributions, and you were told everyone would get a cost-of-living raise at some future date and it still hasn’t happened.

A cost-of-living increase is a good thing! But it’s different — and almost certainly smaller — than what you were asking for, which was to revisit your salary based on the change in your contributions since you were hired years ago. A cost-of-living increase is intended to keep you at your same level of compensation, but adjusted for today’s dollars. You were asking for a merit raise to bring your salary to a higher level entirely, not just to keep up with inflation.

I don’t think you’re upset because everyone is getting a raise; you’re upset because your request to pay you for your current level of work has been ignored.

And the cost-of-living raise that everyone is supposedly getting may or may not even materialize. It hasn’t so far.

I don’t know that you got suckered, exactly (unless there’s more context with your company that makes you think that). Probably when you raised the issue, your boss thought, “Yeah, that’s a good point, we haven’t done raises in a while and we should look at them company-wide” … which misses the point that merit raises and cost-of-living increases are two different things, but that doesn’t mean he was trying to sucker you.

It would be reasonable to go back to your boss and say, “I appreciate the intention to do a cost-of-living raise for everyone, but I was asking about a merit raise to bring my salary up to market rates for the work I’m doing — so more than a cost-of-living increase.” At this point, it might also make sense to name a specific number you think is fair so that he knows what you’re envisioning.

Caveat: You mentioned he was annoyed that you were upset. I don’t know what “upset” looked like when you talked to him, and you might need to adapt based on that. But it’s a reasonable thing to say.

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