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I’m getting a promotion — with mystery pay — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’m a senior-level individual contributor at a large organization, and I’m in a bit of a pickle. About a month ago, I was informed that I’m being given a promotion, and my role is expanding to include managing a team of people doing work similar to what I do, in addition to still doing the core technical work I was doing before. I’m excited about this change and the opportunity to move up in my organization!

Here’s the problem: My promotion is supposed to be effective starting less than two weeks from now, and I’ve received exactly zero information on how much I’ll be paid in this expanded role. Every time I ask, I’m told that HR needs to review the new position description, and they’ll recommend a salary based on that. This is to ensure pay equity across our large public organization, which makes sense. But I truly have no idea what to expect, since there’s not a matching role anywhere in the organization.

Now, the change has been announced to the people who will be reporting to me, and to higher-level folks in my department. On the day my new role officially begins, I will be on vacation, off the grid and out of cell range. They also plan to announce the change to an even broader group of people at a big meeting that I’ll miss while I’m on vacation. It’s feeling like this train is hurtling forward without a key part of the equation being squared away! I’m getting increasingly concerned that they’re not going to come back with a firm number until, say, right before I leave on vacation, or even worse, while I’m on vacation and truly unreachable. At that point, I won’t be able to negotiate or push back at all.

I can’t make HR go any faster (probably), but I’m trying to figure out how to navigate this. I’d never accept an actual job offer without knowing the salary! And based on the draft position description, I think this new role will be a big increase in work, responsibility and stress. In order to take that on, I really want at least a 10 percent raise from my current salary — especially since our standard annual raises are quite small and don’t keep pace with cost of living increases. Is there a way I can tactfully raise it with my boss, without making it sound like I’m only in the job for the money? How do I effectively advocate for myself here?

Agggh, this is so frustrating. You’d never accept a job with a new company without knowing what you’ll be paid, but somehow companies get existing employees to accept promotions all the time without first agreeing on a pay rate.

If we could go back in time to when the discussions were progressing without pay having been nailed down — and definitely when you realized it was close to being announced/considered final — ideally you would have said, “I’m very interested, but I can’t say yes until we’ve had a chance to discuss pay.” And if that didn’t work: “I’m concerned things are moving forward without us having agreed on pay. I understand HR needs to make a recommendation, but I don’t want to finalize things until we’ve been able to have that discussion.”

But sometimes the way companies handle internal moves makes it hard to realize that the train is leaving the station … and once you do realize it, things have already moved forward to the point that people think it’s a done deal.

That makes it harder to negotiate when pay finally does get discussed, because (a) you’ll have less leverage since there will be a lot of political pressure not to say “oh, never mind” at that point, (b) it might be unclear whether staying put is even an option at that point, at least without torpedoing all future chances for advancement at this company, and (c) you risk your employer feeling misled, like you should have raised this earlier if it was going to be an obstacle. (To be clear, the latter point is BS. They should have raised it earlier, and it’s on them that they didn’t.)

But you can still speak up now — and should, because otherwise you’ll have close to zero leverage when they do finally give you a number. Say this to your boss (or to the manager of the new position, if that’s a different person): “I didn’t realize we’d still be waiting on HR to come back with a salary offer, and we still haven’t had a chance to discuss pay. I don’t feel comfortable moving forward without knowing what the salary is, since this is a significant increase in responsibility. Can we either get that number in the next few days, or is there a way to slow this process down until we have it?”

Your boss might be annoyed that you didn’t say this earlier, especially if you knew they were planning to announce the promotion. That’s legitimate, and all you can really do is own what happened — “I did ask several times earlier, but I didn’t realize how quickly things would move or that it would be announced as final before we’d discussed pay.” You could add, “We wouldn’t expect an external candidate to take a job without nailing down the salary, and I don’t think we should with internal moves either.”

You mentioned that you’re concerned about seeming as if you’re only in it for the money. Frankly, we’re all only in it for the money. That’s why we work! But you can express excitement about the job itself while still asserting your need to be paid fairly for a significant increase in responsibility.

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