Angling for a Pay Raise

salary increase

“We all work for money — we need to be paid and have security in our lives and food and shelter and all of that. We may love our jobs and where we work…but there’s no shame in trying to be paid what the market your values your work to be,” says Kelly Marinelli, an HR consultant and member of the Society for Human Resource Management’s expertise panel.

It only makes sense, then, that the best way to make more money is to increase the value of your work. For employees who feel they deserve a pay raise, Marinelli says that the best approach is “to talk about the value you are bringing to the company.”

“In the case of tree care, if you’re a super-productive, efficient performer in serving clients, and you’re getting more clients served in a day than expected, then you’re making the company more money,” Marinelli explains. “So, bringing that information to your manager is a great way to say, ‘I appreciate everything you’ve done for me since I’ve started working for you, and I just want to have a little talk about how I’m doing, and here’s what I see about how I’m doing. I think it’s time for me to get a little bump in my pay rate.’”

It’s important to have specifics and think through what you’re going to say before initiating the discussion, says Marinelli. And she cautions against focusing just on your longevity with the company; while that’s one part of the equation, it’s not as important as emphasizing your value to the company. “My best advice is always to be ready to talk about what you’re bringing to the table,” she says.

Nick Araya, an International Society of Arboriculture master arborist and owner of TreeCareLA in Los Angeles, says that employee value is one of the two main factors that typically influence company decisions about raises. “If your value to the company has continued to grow, then your compensation should continue to grow,” says Araya. This all comes down to skill level. For example, if an employee didn’t even know how to tie a Portawrap to the base of a tree when they started on the job and now is running the ground crew, their value to the company has grown, he says. Or if someone who has been working on the ground crew for a few years takes it upon themselves to watch training videos online and now can be relied on to prune small trees, their value has increased. “It shows that you’re not there just to pick up a pay check each week; that you want to actually make that money,” says Araya.

The other factor that often influences the decision to issue a raise is the overall feeling that the employer has about that employee, he says, noting that this often comes down to the “the headache factor.” “Someone who isn’t even that good with trees, but is zero-headache and is reliable, is in many ways worth more than someone who is an amazing tree worker but who can’t be relied on,” says Araya.

Being a zero-headache worker means doing the simple things: showing up on time, bringing your lunch, not fighting with the rest of the crew, Araya explains. At his company, an employee who does these basic things is in line for a raise after a year.

He emphasizes, though, that raises for taking the initiative and demonstrating your value to the company are likely to be larger than pro-forma raises just reliably showing up. “I’ll give you a raise just for sticking around, but not an amazing one,” says Araya. Conversely, an employee who has no experience and starts at the very bottom of the pay scale at $10 or $12 per hour, but who learns and grows and two years later is climbing trees and is getting certification, may very well have doubled that initial pay rate, he points out.

How the system works

Marinelli says that different companies handle the issue of raises in different ways. “Typically that has to do with how structured a company is. A larger company is usually going to approach that process in a more systematic fashion, so they might have a yearly performance review process where goals are set and then you measure performance against those goals and there will be a budget for how much raise and bonus [money] is available,” she explains. “On the other hand, if you’re working for a smaller company, oftentimes someone will be hired in at market rate for the job that they are doing, and then maybe they’ll be reviewed at 90 days, or maybe not, and there’s more of an expectation that good managers are going to recognize good performance, and grant raises hopefully on a consistent basis to reward employees for the great work they’re doing.”

Before starting his own company, Araya worked for a large, multi-regional tree care company. He’s brought some of the compensation processes from there to his own business. For example, newly hired ground crew members are given two checklists. The first includes very basic skills (like how to hook up the chipper or how to tie a chainsaw to be sent up to the climber) that, when learned, result in an extra one dollar per hour of pay; the second, with somewhat more advanced skills, is worth another two dollars per hour when mastered. Beyond this checklist system, Araya’s company tends to issue raises annually. Whatever system is used, he says it’s best for everyone if the process is clear and transparent.

“Everyone wants a raise. There’s nobody working anywhere that doesn’t want a raise. And it can really chip away at the employees’ soul — just grind away at them — if they don’t know where they’re headed with all of it,” says Araya.

“Business owners are smart when they engage with their employees on performance, and on pay, and have transparency and consistency around that process—it makes for a better business,” agrees Marinelli. “If you communicate that, then employees know what they’re getting, and they do their best work and they feel great about it.”

If your company isn’t doing that, she suggests approaching your supervisor or manager to ask for feedback on your job performance. “Ask, ‘What do I need to do to be ready to get a raise, or to qualify for a bonus? What are the things that I can be doing to make our company successful?’” This is important because raises don’t always depend just on individual performance, but also on the overall success of the company. “If a company isn’t financially secure, or isn’t growing, that isn’t going to bode well for your potential raise,” she points out. Similarly, the state of the larger economy often plays a role, as well. “If there’s a downturn in the economy and people aren’t caring for their trees the way they normally would, because they have to buy food and pay for gas, then that’s going to affect the ability of your company to grant raises.” But even in those cases, it’s OK to ask questions, says Marinelli, noting that a good manager is going to be open to having that discussion.

One strategy that Marinelli advises against is basing a demand for a raise on what another company may be offering. “It’s always good to know what your worth is in the market, but bringing up market data to try to get leverage to get a pay increase is dangerous,” says Marinelli. “Your employer may feel that you’re a very valuable team member…but if you’re continuously bringing up how you could get more money somewhere else, they may question your commitment.”

That said, if you’re underpaid, “you need to know about it…if you’re a high-performer and others are paid better at other locations, that’s not bad information to have in your back pocket,” she adds. In such a case, Marinelli suggests, tell your employer that you want to commit to them long-term, so that maybe it’s time for an “equitable increase” in pay to bring you up to where the market is. Particularly in these types of discussions, communication is key, and delivery is everything. “They have to know that you’re committed and, if it’s true that you really do want to stay there, you don’t want to hurt that perception,” she cautions.

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