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How to Negotiate Salary with a Difficult Boss

Tips for When You Do Everything Right But It All Goes Wrong

“My meeting to ask for a raise went terribly.”

Needless to say, this is about the worst thing you can hear after giving someone advice on how to negotiate, but once in awhile it happens. Like many things in life, a test of one’s character isn’t how they live their life when things are good, it’s how they react when faced with a challenge.

Let’s look at a case study from the viewpoint of Kristin, a marketing assistant. There is a 3-step process for our company reviews:

    1. Fill out an evaluation form
    2. Have a review discussion with your manager
    3. Follow up with upper management to discuss compensation

    I have a great relationship with my immediate manager Steven, who has really supported me. We met several months ago for Step 2 of the review, and things went great. The problem is the Director of Marketing Gary, who has ignored the follow-up portion of the meeting for two months.

    I was finally able to schedule the meeting when everyone’s calendar was free, but even then Gary showed up 15 minutes late. The conversation around my performance and evaluation went well – right up until when the topic of increasing my salary came up.

    I presented data showing that I had consulted 3 sources, including Salary.com. I showed that for the position I currently hold, based on my skills, responsibilities and experience, the market rate was in the $55-$60,000 range (I currently make $46,000).

    Gary immediately got defensive. He outright reversed many of the aspects of my progress he'd praised just 5 minutes earlier, and actually told me "Well, a few of the projects you worked on were a bit scattered last year." However, when I asked him to clarify that, he couldn’t give a specific example.

    I calmly reiterated that I was proud of the work I'd done as part of the market research team over the past several years, and how much value we'd brought to the company. I supported my case with specific dollar amounts that I had calculated from our own numbers, but he brushed me off.

    From there, I said that I simply wanted to open a dialogue about salary since I really enjoy my job and could see myself continuing my career here for the long term. He told me to talk with my manager Steven and that I could always set up another time to talk, but then abruptly left for another meeting.

    Needless to say I was a bit upset. Steven and I went out for a coffee to debrief, and since I valued him as a mentor, I asked his honest opinion. He told me he never had a problem with my work, clients were happy, and that I was one of the most valuable team members. He said that my salary request was fair and that I handled myself well given the situation, adding that Gary had a reputation for sometimes being difficult to work with, so I shouldn’t take things too personally.

    When Kristin wrote to me and told me the story, my job was to step back and be objective. I told her that the marketing director:

    • Ignored the meeting request for 2 months, then was late to the meeting
    • Got defensive when presented with business data
    • Flip flopped on what he said 5 minutes before
    • Left the meeting abruptly
    • Was known for having a strong personality

    I told her from my perspective, she did nothing wrong. She worked hard, built up her case, had the support of her immediate manager, followed company protocol for performance reviews, and presented the data in a business-like manner.

    When faced with a situation like this, there are two ways you can react. The first is to let self-doubt creep in, tell yourself that maybe you’re just not worth the extra money, and bury yourself in your work, hoping that a year from now things will change and then you’ll get noticed.

    Not Kristin. She got fired up and decided to do something about it. I was pleasantly surprised to receive another email from her just a few weeks later:

    I introduced myself to another marketing firm that my company had worked with in the past, one that I truly admired. It turns out that they had a position open that fit everything I was looking for in terms of the goals I want to achieve in my career: Being part of a cross-functional team, not limiting my work to market research, and working in a smaller company with the feel of a startup.

    After several rounds of interviewing, they made me an offer of $60,000, which was at the highest end of the range for what I was looking for at my old position. However, in my interview with the VP of Marketing, he mentioned that the position would entail a bit more PR/communications responsibility than originally listed in the job description, as well as some additional travel.

    Based on this additional scope and the skills I was already bringing, I countered the offer with an ask of $65-68,000. We ended up agreeing to an offer of $65,000, including the option to have an additional salary review in just 6 months!

    So in the end, I secured an amazing new position with a really fantastic team, got a healthy raise of 40%, was confident in my ability, and turned a bad situation into a good one.