How to have the “Pay increase conversation” in the workplace

Written by Obie Odunukwe

Have you ever found yourself wondering if you are underpaid? Questioning if you are appropriately compensated for the skills and contributions you bring. You are not alone, even more so for women. According to the United States Department of Labour, educational attainment for women between the of ages 25 to 64 in the labor force has risen substantially over the past 20 years. However, a report by Jessica Schieder and Elise Gould for Economic Policy Institute (EPI), shows that gender pay gaps continue to exist within occupations even when years of experience, hours worked, and education are taken into account.

Being a woman with a background in Human Resources, I have had lots of conversations around this topic with friends and friends of friends. Through these dialogues, I have come to learn that there are three steps to consider before having the “pay increase” conversation with your performance manager. Before I divulge the “steps”, please note I am writing for those currently in a position that has significantly changed or evolved from what they were hired to do, or those who believe they are not being compensated dollar for dollar with other colleagues doing the same or similar jobs.  

Step 1: Define

To solve a problem, a proper definition of the problem/issue is key. At this stage, you are trying to determine if you have a case. Ask yourself important value questions, such as “has my role significantly changed,” “did I take on more senior level responsibilities,” “have I been functioning in this capacity for a sustained amount of time.” If you answered yes to all of the above questions and can clearly outline examples against a timeline e.g. six to 12 months, then you have a case.

On the other side, if you believe you are not compensated on par with others performing similar roles, first, compare your current job responsibilities with a similar role in your organization and try to understand if the discrepancy is based on performance, a differentiating skill you do not possess or geography. If this is not the case, make key correlations between what you do and the other role e.g. do you work on the same types of projects with similar budget, impact, stakeholders etc. Your case is stronger if you also deliver results or operate at the same level as the comparable job.

To build your case, gather relevant internal and external data, you can gather external data from glassdoor.com, payscale.com, and salary.com. Look for comparable jobs within and outside your organization, find the pay information, qualifications required for the role etc. Also, outline the value-add you’ve brought to your role over time e.g. 12 months; this is essential if your role has changed significantly with increasing level of responsibilities from what you were hired to do. One thing to avoid is building your case around a specific colleague in a similar role by comparing yourself to them. Instead, put most of your effort into clearly articulating your value add to the company and showing the correlation between your level of performance and your desired target pay.

Step 2: Communicate

Now that you have a case and have built a clear objective backed by as much data as possible, it is time to communicate. This whole process does not get easier as you progress. Explaining to your performance manager you deserve to be “properly” compensated is one of the most nerve-racking moments in life. However, it gets easier if you have done your homework as outlined above in step one, as this improves your sense of confidence and adds credibility to your argument.

It is important to know what speaks to your audience (this may be just your performance manager or a pay review panel). Think to yourself, what information would best help my audience reach the verdict I am hoping for. This may mean using more numbers and statistics to show correlation where appropriate or focusing on your sustained level of high performance in a role that has taken on an increased level of responsibilities. As a mentor once told me, “the numbers never lie”.

Finally, create speaking points to help you keep track of what you plan to discuss, this list can include how you plan to introduce the topic, signs that show you are under-compensated, results of your research from step one, and finally your desired outcome. In the end, I always say practice, be prepared to answer questions posed by your performance manager or to repeat your case over and over again. However, the process of communicating unfolds - over coffee, performance review or presenting to a committee - ensure you convey your message in an authentic and objective voice.

Step 3: Brace

After your discussion or presentation, listen and prepare yourself for whatever the outcome may be. It may be positive, neutral or negative. As much as I have not heard a lot of negative outcomes from my circle, I don’t want to rule out a negative response.

If it is positive, kudos to you for a successful mission. I define neutral as when you get the runaround, you know: “let me discuss this with XYZ and get back to you” and you never hear back.

Usually, I have heard only positive or neutral outcomes, whatever the case may be, brace yourself and prepare for your next course of action. In the case of a neutral or negative outcome, you may choose to seek other employment opportunities internally or externally or follow up appropriately on the matter.

All the best!


Obie moved to Canada in 2007 as an international student to study business at the University of Windsor. She has a passion for mentoring and community involvement and has been active as a mentor in the Ryerson Top 200 program and also volunteers with Partners for Mental Health. She currently lives and works in Toronto and loves traveling, reading, broadway and tennis.