I remember a former manager of mine squirming painfully in her chair the first time I even mentioned the idea of a promotion and then barking unintelligible nonsense about prorated quotas or something like that as she ushered me out of her office. It wasn’t any fun for me, and in hindsight, I imagine it wasn’t any fun for her, either.
But employees keep asking for raises, and managers continue to be notoriously bad at managing their team members’ career advancement expectations—especially considering that the topic is always on the mind of promising employees.
A few months ago, we asked both our IT Manager and frontline IT communities what they want to discuss in one-on-one management sessions. The biggest gap between the two groups was in career development, with more than twice as many staff-level respondents saying they wanted to discuss where their professional lives are headed. You can see the poll results in the figure below.
So why are managers so leery of these conversations? Like so many other issues, it boils down to money. There’s never enough, either in your personnel budget or in your employees’ pockets. And nobody likes to be set up as the bad guy who has to say “no.”
I’ve learned that the best approach is to put yourself in a position to say, “No, but I’ve got something else to offer you.” Give employees who are looking to move up some other incentive—prestigious projects, high-level mentoring relationships, plum entries for their resumes—instead of money that you just don’t have right now.
I know, you’ve heard this advice from the HR department and your own boss so often that it just seems like a cop-out that isn’t going to satisfy a monetarily driven employee. I spoke to a couple of HR executives, and they consistently told me they understand that, ultimately, people do want to get ahead financially, and money can be a make-or-break issue.
The catch here is timing and preparation. You have to manage your employees’ career development expectations before they get to the point where they are purely “monetarily driven.” People are only going to ask for what they think they can get. If you foster a team climate where money is the only motivator and benchmark for success, you’ve basically dug your own grave.
“Money’s important to all of us, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not what retains people,” said Barbara Ford, vice president for human resources with CNET Networks, TechRepublic’s parent company. “It’s a sense of growth and value within the company.”
Here are a few pointers that I’ve found useful over the years in staying ahead of the curve when dealing with employees’ desire to get ahead, or at least not letting it make you squirm. I’ve included some tips from the HR executives I interviewed, as well.
1. Pay people fairly for the work they do
There’s a huge difference in someone who wants to make more money and someone who has a reason to think they’re getting ripped off. If your company doesn’t already check the going market rate for job classes and key skills, push hard to implement that process. And if you find some inequities, correct them before employees come asking. It builds trust between you and your team, and it gives you a sense of confidence when you have to tell an employee “not this time.”
2. Remember, you ask for raises too
I’ve never understood why some managers get so defensive when employees ask for more money. Your only problem is if the team member isn’t ready to step up to the plate and earn it, and that’s almost never the case (if it is, you have deeper problems than just saying “no” to a promotion request).
“You have to understand that’s natural—people need to look out for themselves,” said Judy Weil, Executive Director of the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA). “You need people who are serious about their work and moving forward. Those people are going to be more valuable to you next month than they were the last.”
3. Don't make money your first topic of conversation
My anxious former manager that I mentioned earlier learned only a couple months after our first conversation that I wasn’t looking for a raise. I just wanted to supervise a few production resources so we could hit deadline and I could go home at a reasonable hour. But invariably, managers default to money as the prime topic of career advancement.
“Managers will always default to the money…it’s the safest thing to do,” Ford said.
It’s an easy mistake to make—everybody likes money, and it’s easy to count. But once you set the bar at a dollar sign, any creative efforts to work around budget problems will seem like an irritating cop-out to the employee.
4. Make sure your employees are becoming more marketable
This seems at first like creating a climate for defection, but remember, you get dibs on their time. “Advancement really keys thoughts about money, which really often has little to do with it,” Weil said. “What’s important to most people, particularly people early in their careers, is developing skills and knowledge that will make them employable.”
I’ve certainly found that employees who feel trapped in their current positions tend to become fixated on money and are fairly intractable when it comes to discussing options to raises. So make sure your people are getting training and working on projects that increase their visibility, both inside the company and in the job market.
5. Find out what key team members like more than money
I’ve got to break slightly here from current management theory that dictates that your employees “own their own motivations.”
Weil expressed this theory by saying that “Organizations need to set expectations and provide resources, and then it’s really up to the individual to take advantage of those opportunities.”
If only that were true, then you wouldn’t need to have project status meetings.
Clearly, you can’t make someone step up to a responsibility or role that just doesn’t appeal to them. But I’ve also seen too many capable employees who get caught up with the idea of a big paycheck and rush into new opportunities—say, management—that make them crazy.
If team members express an interest in management, and you think it’s just because that’s the obvious path toward more money, then put them in charge of a code review and see how they like managing through pinged egos and misinterpreted comments. They may love it; they may decide that mastering a couple of more platforms or languages is really the way to go. Help them test the waters first, and you may find they are more content with their salary than they thought.
6. Make sure your team is happy with their work
Outside of major changes in their family life, few employees will come to you with an urgent need for more money—building up a salary base is a career-long process. And happy employees are patient employees. Do everything you can—employee recognition programs, seminars, in-house workshops—to keep your staff productive and moving forward.
Ford put it best: “If managers can organize responsibilities around where people want to develop, that keeps them satisfied for a while, and eventually something will come up.”
7. When you have to say no to a raise, be decisive
People do need to get paid, and no management preparation will ultimately spare you from one day having to tell a persistent employee that the money’s just not there. “Sooner or later, it may come down to ‘It’s just not in the company’s best interests,’” Ford said.
My best advice: Don’t spend a ton of time trying to break down budget lines and revenue projections trying to rationalize the decision to employees. They’ll invariably find some outlay that is far less worthy than their own salary (and in all candor, they may well be right). That’s just business. Focus on the positive aspects of their work, and alternate opportunities that exist for them in the next six to 18 months.
Lastly, remember that it’s not the end of the world if an employee leaves your team or company for a better salary somewhere else. It shows your current team members that you are serious about helping them develop as professionals and enables you to attract new, upcoming talent that helps keep your team fresh.
Who knows, you might even find your replacement for when you get that next big promotion.
Ken Hardin is a freelance writer and business analyst with more than two decades in technology media and product development. Before founding his own consultancy, Clarity Answers LLC, Ken was a member of the start-up team and an executive with TechRepublic.com and ITBusinessEdge.com.