Conversations about Pay: Evaluating Employee Earnings in America Today
- Human Resources
6 min. Read
Last Updated: 04/09/2018
Table of Contents
No matter your industry or expertise, two truths likely apply to compensation: You’d love a raise, but hate to ask for it. After all, we’d all like our bosses to proactively reward our work, demonstrating their appreciation with unsolicited salary bumps. Unfortunately, pay increase discussions are necessary, and can be fraught with panicked anticipation and intense negotiation. Perhaps that’s why research suggests that only 26 percent of women and 40 percent of men feel comfortable asking their employer for more money.
Although the majority of Americans may feel anxious about requesting a raise, many certainly do – and some succeed. We decided to gauge how experiences and emotions related to salary discussions differed among demographic segments. We asked more than 1,000 workers about their own raise discussions and desires and then studied their responses in light of their attitudes, age, experience, and income. Our findings reveal compelling contrasts in how Americans talk about money with their employers, and the emotions that drive these compensation conversations. Read on to learn how most workers approach their desire for more compensation.
Salary and Satisfaction
Because pay is clearly a crucial concern for many workers, one might assume higher incomes equate to greater job satisfaction across industries. While that proved largely true in our findings, an interesting exception emerged among the highest bracket of earners.
Although the percentage of those satisfied with their employment steadily improved through the $80,000 to $99,000 group, satisfaction actually dropped more than four percentage points for those earning $100,000 or more. This trend resonates with recent research suggesting any correlation between earnings and increased happiness tapers off around $80,000 a year.
The highest earning cohort also proved exceptional when asked if they felt their salaries were fair. While more than 7 in 10 respondents in the lowest earnings group felt their pay was unfair, that proportion declined with higher annual pay until those earnings were six figures. In fact, more than half of those making $100,000 or more thought their compensation was unfair.
The Emotions of Asking for More
While nearly three-quarters of those surveyed asked for a raise previously, their feelings following these discussions differed greatly. While the majority felt at least moderately satisfied with their raise request conversations, nearly 15 percent were not at all satisfied with their experience. When asked if they would initiate another discussion of this kind, nearly 43 percent said they were likely to do so, while another 12.1 percent rated that prospect “extremely likely.”
Interestingly, willingness to initiate a raise discussion did not correlate with considerations of quitting on the grounds of salary. Almost 53 percent of those who were unlikely to request a raise said they’d consider quitting because of pay, but over 51 percent of those likely to start a raise conversation said the same thing. The number of jobs that respondents have held did seem to influence the likelihood of a raise request, however. Our data related to number of jobs included all job changes, not just those made in response to salary concerns. But as the number of jobs increased, so did the percentage of respondents who were unlikely to initiate a salary discussion.
The Timing of the Talk
As with most delicate discussions, timing is an important consideration when broaching the subject of higher pay. Among respondents who were most satisfied with their raise discussions, approaches differed significantly by gender. While women were most likely to initiate these conversations in the morning, the largest percentage of men chose the afternoon (after lunch) instead. Meanwhile, the end of the workday was the least popular option for men who were most satisfied with their raise discussions and tied with the afternoon for the least likely time among women.
Beyond the time of day in which our most satisfied respondents made their requests, over 61 percent said their discussions occurred in the context of an annual review. This finding contradicts the opinions of some experts, who suggest requesting a raise three months before a yearly performance assessment. According to their reasoning, this timing allows superiors to consider a pay increase in the following weeks, and grant it by the time the annual review rolls around. According to our data, that advanced timing may not be necessary.
The Emotions of Negotiation: Experience and Age
Among those who’ve never requested a raise before, nearly 80 percent said their primary emotion related to a compensation discussion was fear. Conversely, those who were most satisfied with their past discussions reported a far more varied range of emotions about initiating another conversation. Though fear was still the most dominant feeling among this group, more than a quarter of them said the prospect made them feel happy as well.
Generational differences were also quite pronounced: 60 percent of baby boomers said the thought of starting a raise discussion made them happy. Younger folks did not share their optimism, however; 75 percent of Gen Xers and nearly 70 percent of millennials felt fear about initiating a pay discussion. More agreement emerged regarding the appropriate amount of time to wait between raise requests, though. About half of respondents believed a year was required between discussions, and another 32 percent said six months was long enough.
The Top Raise Reasons
When asked which factors justified a raise request, respondents emphasized performance above personal circumstances. The top two reasons related to additional or exceptional work, while the third and fourth place factors concerned education and interpersonal skills, respectively. Interestingly, these merit-oriented raise justifications did not concern the relative compensation of colleagues or standard pay rates elsewhere in a given employee’s industry.
Lower-rated reasons involved the company’s means to pay more following recent growth or comparison with the pay of a co-worker in an equivalent role. Participants ranked family-related concerns even lower, suggesting pay discussions should not revolve around an employer’s sympathies. Many experts confirm this view, discouraging workers from demanding more money based on financial need.
Haggling Before Hiring?
Requesting more pay during the hiring process can be just as nuanced as a raise discussion with a current employer. However, a substantial number of respondents said they asked for more than they were initially offered, especially among the top-earning brackets. More than two-thirds of those who made at least $60,000 said they’d done so – including three-quarters of those earning between $80,000 and just under $100,000 a year.
Concerning the size of the increase requested, more respondents favored significant but modest proposals. The most common request was 11 to 15 percent above the initial offer, although 6 to 10 percent and 16 to 20 percent were also popular demands. If granted, these requests could be substantially larger than pay increases employees receive once they begin work. According to one recent analysis, the average raise for current workers is roughly 3 percent.
A Better Way to Get Employees Paid
As our results make clear, American workers differ greatly in their sentiments and strategies related to requesting a raise. However, virtually all groups surveyed reported some difficulty or doubt about the prospect of asking for more pay. In light of the broad concern these discussions generate, perhaps we should all feel a bit more encouraged in our own pursuit of additional earnings. Although few enjoy conversations about compensation, this discomfort alone should not discourage our efforts to receive what our work merits.
While discussions about salary largely entail some degree of anxiety, this doesn’t have to be the case when it comes to actually paying employees. If you’re a business owner or human resources professional, Paychex offers tailored HR and payroll solutions for companies of any size. This means you can focus more on making your business run better, while we handle these complicated yet necessary tasks.
Paychex collected data from 1,002 employed Americans. 48.8% of our participants were female, and 51.2% were male. 12.0% of our participants were in the income bracket of less than $20,000, 27.2% were in the income bracket of $20,000 to $39,999, 28.3% were in the income bracket of $40,000 to $59,999, 16.9% were in the income bracket of $60,000 to $79,999, 7.8% were in the income bracket of $80,000 to $99,999 and 7.6% were in the income bracket of $100,000 or higher. 7.5% of our participants were baby boomers, 16.7% were Gen Xers, and 75.8% were millennials. 21.5% of our participants had worked 1 to 3 jobs, 41.5% had worked 4 to 6 jobs, 19.7% had worked 7 to 9 jobs, and 17.3% had worked 10 or more jobs.
Participants ranged in age from 18 to 64, with a mean of 34.8 and a standard deviation of 9.8 years. Demographic groups with less than 20 participants were excluded from individual analysis.