A year or so ago, I had a coaching call with a junior UX writer who was interested in getting a promotion and/or getting a raise in their current role … and perhaps feeling a bit conflated on whether and how those two ideas are connected, or if they should be connected, or … well, that’s what coaching is for, right? I put my notes from that call into a LinkedIn post at the time, and I’m expanding on them here for you now.
I spent a lot of my career being an idiot: not advocating for myself, taking things as-is rather than negotiating or doing even a lick of research, and just generally not taking much interest in this whole ‘career’ side of my career. I’ve no doubt that I would have more money in the bank and have had less stress if I’d had someone explain these things to me at the start of my journey. Alas for me!
But you? You’re smarter and more focused than me. If you’re reading this, you’ve decided you should be getting paid what you’re worth, which is more. Or you want a title that reflects your experience. Or perhaps you’re in the mood to reallocate .0000000000002% of the CEO’s compensation in your direction. Whatever the case, if you’re navigating discussions of raises and promotions for the first time, it’s best to get some help and do some reading first so you don’t stumble in cold. Which you are already doing. GOOD. JOB.
Like any good content strategist, I’d like for us to start by getting aligned on terminology:
Job jargon, explained
It can be scary to admit that we don’t have a complete understanding of stuff that it seems like “everybody” knows. Hey, even Einstein had to learn how to tie his shoes, as I am fond of saying. There’s no shame in shoring up your understanding of fundamental job terminology before approaching these kinds of conversations.
What follows is my reflection of how I understand these terms to be in common usage at most Big Employers in the Tech Tradition (which I will now call BETTs) — so FAANGS, sure, but also most big enterprise companies with UX and product teams that are modeling their practices on big tech, even if their primary product isn’t a SaaS app. Keep in mind that I’m in the U.S., so there may be a nomenclature bias in that regard that I’m not aware of, but the principles remain the same.
A raise is any increase in your annual salary or in your hourly rate.
I once got a raise from $5.15/hour (minimum wage in Iowa) to somewhere around $5.65/hour at an overnight radio job I worked at for a bit after college. Big money, baby!
For salaried employees at a BETT, a raise will come in the form of either a percentage or numerical increase in your annual salary.
- Percentage: If you make $100,000 and get a 10% raise, your annual salary becomes $110,000.
- Numerical: If you make $100,000 and get a $10,000 raise, your annual salary becomes $110,000.
Same result, different methods. No one will actually call it a “numerical raise”, BTW; they’ll just talk about the specific number, i.e. “You’re getting a $6,000 raise.”
Raises generally aren’t retroactive, unless perhaps you were owed the raise a month ago and your boss forgot to tell you — it’s happened to me! If you worked there for 18 months, you had a $100,000 salary for 18 months. If you work there for another 18 months after the raise, you’ll have a $110,000 salary for those next 18 months.
Raises are just that: raises! Raises don’t necessarily have to be tied to anything other than wanting more money and getting it. But in a mature BETT with mature managers, there’s likely a whole system around who gets raises, when, and why. That’s good! We can learn systems, and exploit them — lest we be the exploitee.
Raises in your annual salary
Your salary is the number that gets divided by 24 (twice monthly pay period) or 26 (bi-weekly pay period) to determine the pre-tax amount for your paycheck.
So in the above scenario, a $10,000 raise on $100,000 might mean an additional $300 or so on your next paycheck, depending on tax withholding and other compensation and such. Nothing to sniff at, but also not the same as immediately having an extra $10,000 cash in your pocket. And if you get your raise in October, for instance, that’s only ~3 months of higher pay in the current calendar year — you don’t get some kind of retroactive bonus or backpay for the year.
Raises in your hourly rate
If you’re an independent contractor who gets paid by billing a certain amount per hour, a raise will mean getting an increase in the amount you’re paid per hour. You used to charge $125 per hour, and now you charge $150 per hour. It’s extremely unlikely that this will ever be offered to you, so you will have to ask. You will likely have a contract in place for a set amount of hours or time, and you can use the renewal of this contract if offered as your opportunity to negotiate a higher rate.
Cost-of-living raise / annual raise / automatic raises
Some BETTs provide automatic raises in the form of a “cost-of-living (CoL) increase“, which is usually a sad amount like 2% or 3% that will not cover inflation nor the annual rent increase from the multi-national oil-and-weapons conglomerate that owns the company that owns the company that manages your apartment building. But it is in the most literal sense better than nothing. While any increase in your salary is technically a raise, don’t confuse a CoL raise or other perfunctory raises (e.g. everyone gets a 5% raise for every 2 years of service) as your raise, should you feel you are owed one because of your performance, equity, fairness, whatever. Don’t let them tell you you “just got a raise in January” if everyone got a CoL raise. Perfunctory raises deserve perfunctory gratitude, but should not be something you credit the company for in your negotiations, especially at a BETT.
Using context clues, you can determine if tenure means either “total amount of time you’ve worked for this company without interruption” or “total time you’ve been in this specific titled role at this level”. Your tenure, in either meaning, might affect bonuses, potential for raises, allotted vacation time, and so on. Sometimes things happen automatically after 2 years at the company. Sometimes the expectation (from a professional development perspective) is that one’s tenure as, say, a Junior UX Writer shouldn’t exceed 2 years.
You might also just see this described informally as “time at company” or “time in role”.
For compensation purposes (raises / bonuses / benefits) tenure is generally only counted from day one of full-time salaried employment. So if you’re a 1099 independent contractor for three years, then go in-house and start working full time for six months, your tenure is six months, even though it feels like you’ve been there a while. You might hear from a manager that raises are typically discussed after a certain tenure. This might be true, and you might want to hew to that schedule, but it’s also worth investigating just how true and inflexible that rule is. If you find out you aren’t getting paid enough after 2 years or 2 weeks, you deserve a raise.
Total compensation is just what it sounds like: every dollar that is given to you in any form as compensation for your employment, including the company’s contribution to retirement accounts, health insurance, bonuses, equity, etc. This is often a bigger number than you might expect, as insurance in particular can be quite costly – this is of course not news to the freelancers! You might not see a new total compensation number when negotiating for a raise and/or promotion unless you are getting that through a new position, such as moving into a management or director-level role. It’s fun to see the great big number of your total comp but don’t let that distract you from the core number, your salary, and trying to make that as big as you can.
Tax brackets / tax rates
I am the least-qualified person on Earth to talk about taxes and tax law — please don’t ask how I know unless you’ve bought me several drinks first! But I’ve seen enough bad advice floating around out there on the specific topic of tax brackets that I thought it was worth mentioning.
In America, as personal as taxes might feel, people aren’t taxed so much as their income is. If you make more money, you will have to pay more total in taxes. But you are STILL MAKING MORE MONEY. When you hear people talk about “moving into another tax bracket“, what is actually happening is that some of their money is now being taxed at a higher rate than some of their other money. Here, let someone smarter explain it:
Individuals who make the lowest amount of income are placed into the lowest marginal tax rate bracket, while higher-earning individuals are placed into higher marginal tax brackets. However, the marginal tax bracket in which an individual falls does not determine how the entire income is taxed. Instead, income taxes are assessed progressively, with each bracket having a range of income values that are taxed at a particular rate.ALICIA TUOVILA for Investopedia. Emphasis mine.
You only get taxed the highest amount of your current bracket for the money between that bracket and the one before. So if you get a big raise, you might pay more in taxes on some of your new higher income, but you’ll be paying the same amount on the money you were making before. Keep in mind too that the IRS doesn’t care what your “salary” is — that’s an agreement between you and your employer. They’re only taxing actual money you’ve actually earned within a given period.
Don’t fall into any traps of people trying to tell you it’s better to wait until January 1 for a raise to take effect or whatever. Get the money!
You should of course talk to a tax or financial professional if you have specific concerns, or if you’re dealing with complex stuff like equity. But generally speaking, marginal tax rates mean that a higher salary is always a good thing and is not going to result in you somehow taking home less money after taxes.
Ladder / levels
A mature BETT should have a role ladder with levels of seniority (e.g. junior, senior, lead) with associated pay bands and competencies for a given position, like UX Designer. Here is a made-up ladder (that will probably make someone mad for some pedantic reason) to illustrate the basic idea:
Ladder: UX Designer role
- UX Designer (junior) – $70,000 to $80,000
- Senior UX Designer – $80,000 to $100,000
- Lead UX Designer – $100,000 to $150,000
- Staff UX Designer – $150,000 to $250,000
- Principal UX Designer – $250,000+
Here are a few inferences you could make from that list, just to show you how to read it:
- “The lowest salary of any UX designer at this company
isshould be $70,000.”
- “Employees with the title ‘UX Designer’ without any other qualifier are junior level.”
- “As a Lead UX designer, I could be making anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 in base salary, not including any other bonuses or compensation.”
- “There’s wide range in the Staff band, which might mean that’s a position people occupy for a longer period of time. Or maybe it was set wide to accommodate some existing pay discrepancies. “
There is no official, centralized authority that designs the ladders for already made-up jobs like content designer or UX designer. Other companies you’re looking at for comparison might have more or fewer rungs on their ladder, or might use different terminology to describe comparable levels. If you’re expecting to use comparable roles in your negotiations, do your homework and talk to people at that company, if you can, to make sure you are comparing apples to apples.
Pay bands and levels are like peanut butter and jelly, but there might also be different bonuses and benefits that apply at different levels as well.
Generally speaking, pay bands describe a range of potential base compensation: that primary figure that gets divided by 24 or 26 to create your paychecks, not including any bonuses (and before taxes, of course).
In the previous example, the pay band (sometimes called pay range) for a Senior UX Designer was $80,000 to $100,000. This should mean that a new hire, given the role of UX Designer and the level of Senior — which combines into Senior UX Designer on their business cards, so to speak — should not be making any less than $80,000, and is likely not making more than $100,000 in salary (base compensation). However, it could be the case that the bands are more of a suggestion than a rule, and maybe someone got in at $110,000 base comp. Or maybe the headcount and budget was set for a Junior level position, and someone took the job at $75,000 and still negotiated for the Senior title to show progress in their career journey. Neither of these are necessarily best practices, but you’ll find all kinds of quirks as you talk to people about their jobs and pay. I’m just trying to paint a picture for you.
It’s a range and not a specific number in order to accommodate varying levels of experience within a given level. It also enables hiring managers some flexibility in negotiating — if they’re eager to get you and/or you’re good at negotiating, you might start closer to the top of the band. And it gives people managers — your future bosses — potential room for offering you a raise without a promotion to reward your performance or just incentivize you to stick around.
Pay bands are really important when it comes to raises, because if you’re not yet at the top of the band for your level, that’s a great starting point for a conversation with your manager about getting there.
Geographic pay bands
Sometimes the range in the pay bands represent geographic discrepancies, where the lower end is for cities they’ve determined have a lower cost of living, and vice-versa. This really sucks as a job seeker, and accounts in some part for those roles you see advertised where the potential compensation is a huge range spanning hundreds of thousands of dollars.
A company might also have separate pay bands for remote employees versus those in range of an office, or similar.
When it comes to raises and promotions, you’ll want to know what kind of numbers you’re looking at and if geography plays a part. If your work is strong and they need to keep you, but you live in a town that could be used to film a rebooted Music Man musical, I wouldn’t necessarily assume you can’t make as much as your Big Apple or Silicon Valley colleagues. Harder, but not impossible, and you’ll never know if you don’t try.
Bonuses are any money (or equity) you get that isn’t part of your base compensation. There could be some kind of annual revenue sharing bonus awarded to all employees, for instance, where the amount of that bonus might is determined in part by your tenure and your level.
Spot bonuses are a form of bonus that directors at BETTs are sometimes empowered with to reward performance/success and encourage retention. It’s worth knowing if spot bonuses are part of your company’s culture, as sometimes that can be a stopgap way to get more money now in lieu of a raise that might not be available regardless of your performance. (Don’t let this stop you from pursuing the raise, but hey, money is money!)
A mature BETT with mature design practices should have some sort of document that describes the skills a practitioner should be competent in at a given level, or “competencies“. If they aren’t being fancy this might just be called a list of skills or skills chart or similar. You might see this presented in a tabular fashion, such as:
|Stakeholder Management||Comfortable interacting with project stakeholders outside of design team to learn about their needs and goals, and keeping them appraised of product updates.||Beginner|
|Wireframing and static prototyping||Communicating user flows and tasks in the form of wireframe sketches or visual mock-ups using design software.||Intermediate|
If this exists and you have access to it or can get it, it can be your reference manual for forming your argument for a raise or promotion, or for making a plan with your manager to get one or both.
Headcount is a gross business word that means how many of a given role (often up to a stopping point on the ladder) are available. Having headcount (or “not having headcount”) is how BETT teams talk about whether or not the budget is available to hire someone, usually full-time, for a specific role. It can also mean whether or not there is budget for promoting existing stuff. If they “don’t have headcount for a UX writer” that means they haven’t convinced anyone to make a full-time role available to hire a new UX writer.
Typically, a promotion is moving one step up on the ladder. To be promoted is to increase your level of seniority.
People might also use the term promotion, informally and just as correctly, to describe any change in position at a company that they feel was earned and represents an increase in status. For instance, someone might move from an individual contributor (IC) position into a management position and describe that as being promoted to manager, even if it means moving to a different ladder and conceivably earning the same or even less money (generally it would be more money, of course, but you never know). Or someone might get to add an honorific to their title such as “Team Lead”, with a slight change in responsibilities, which is a kind of promotion, too. That person should negotiate for a raise, but maybe they won’t or it won’t be possible.
Typically, and especially at a BETT, a promotion will also include a raise in your base compensation. If you are promoted from Senior to Lead in the previous UX designer ladder example, you have also unlocked access to a new pay band and should expect a raise. Even if the company doesn’t have formal ladders, or doesn’t share them with you, a titled promotion will almost always include a raise — if it doesn’t, ask why not. And if it does, say “How exciting!” and then ask how that number was determined, and see if you can’t find a way to make it bigger.
Promotions can be harder to find the higher up the ladder you go. There may not be appetite or headcount for someone in a more senior position for the role you have. This is a tale as old as time, and a reason many people end up moving on to a new company — they simply run out of room on the ladder.
Or the organization might be building the ladder at the same time you are climbing it, and not have a clear idea of what the competencies or pay band should even be for the next higher rung on your ladder. In some cultures, like a design agency, the ladder might be relatively short with the expectation of a role change to move “up” — such as from Designer to Art Director.
21 things to keep in mind when pursuing a promotion or raise
Now that we’ve established some vocabulary, I can share some further tips. (If you skipped the above, go back, as there’s lots of advice in there, too.)
This list is not scientific nor comprehensive. Rather, it’s everything I can think to share with you right now. Remember that I’m mostly approaching this from a U.S. perspective on full-time employment with a BETT, but many of the tips work in a variety of circumstances.
1. Set a specific goal.
Raises often come with promotions, or happen at the same time, but they aren’t the same thing. Think through which is your most immediate priority to increase your focus and chance of success.
A raise is more money. A promotion can mean new projects and opportunities, demonstrating growth as a practitioner, and potentially being closer to big career milestones like becoming a Principal or Director.
Assuming that either one might be possible, raises are sometimes easier to get than promotions, as a raise can be more about retention (keeping you there) or representing success or progress within your current role, which managers often have more leeway with — especially if you aren’t yet at the top of your pay band. Whether or not a promotion is possible might be more complicated. Sometimes this is pure headcount and budgetary reasons, and sometimes it’s internal politics.
2. Start the process before you think you’re ready.
A raise is a promise of more future money in exchange for more future work. You could get laid off in six weeks, or become injured and unable to work, or finally get a call back from that reality show — and then none of that future money will ever be yours! Getting a raise or promotion can involve research, multiple conversations, organizing case studies, or even completing specific projects or learning goals. Start now!
3. Start with your peers…
if you don’t feel comfortable starting with your manager. You could have some informal interviews with more-senior folks in the same role, or learn from peers on other teams (such as designers, developers, technical content folks) if you don’t have a strong network of folks on the same ladder as you.
4. …or start with your manager…
if you have a good relationship and feel comfortable discussing these kinds of things with them. If you have a regular 1:1, you could ask if you can add “Career growth” or something similar to the agenda. In a high-maturity BETT, compensation increases and career growth might be part of a very formal process including performance reviews and similar — a casual conversation to learn about these things before they’re popping up on your calendar can go a long way in your preparation.
5. A good manager is on your side.
Movies and TV shows like to really play up the drama around promotions and raises, but it doesn’t have to be like that. State your desire to have your title/level reflect your current skills as a goal with your manager, and ask them for help in reaching that goal. Retention, growth, and demonstrating success is as important to them as it is to you.
6. Not every manager is a good manager.
Bad managers take an adversarial, “prove it to me” posture.
In other words, some managers are going to brush you off and not be actively helpful. This isn’t impossible to overcome, but it will be more emotionally taxing and might also be a sign that getting more money or appropriate recognition could be more easily accomplished by going somewhere new. Network, network, network and find people who have overcome similar challenges — maybe even with the same manager — in your organization.
7. Make your goal a collaborative goal.
This is especially useful if you’re after a promotion. Frame questions in a collaborative way: “What kind of timeline are we expecting for this promotion?” or “What do I need to demonstrate in my work to help you make the case?”, that kind of thing.
Managers should already be interested in helping you demonstrate progress and success with your work and the impact it is having in the company, and being able to tie a promotion back to some specific wins and case studies for which they were your manager is a win for both of you.
8. Be wary of prescriptive advice.
I know these conversations can be intimidating, especially if you self-identify as “conflict averse”, but know that you got to where you are because you are smart and skilled and intelligent, and your smart, skilled, intelligent self has some instincts and useful knowledge to bring to bear in this situation.
Every situation is unique. Every manager has their own personality. Every team has their own budget. Every HR department is giving out different advice to the management class.
It’s good to get input from others, and it’s great to read and learn before approaching these conversations. But it’s wrong to assume that someone else’s conversational script, or some case study formula, is necessarily going to get you the outcome you desire. Trust yourself.
9. Learn where you are in your pay band.
Honestly you should do this even if you’re making more money than you’ve ever seen and are perfectly happy with your compensation, because it’s still possible you aren’t being paid equitably with your peers.
In a healthy culture, your manager can just tell you what the pay bands are and where your base compensation falls within it. You may have to fish around and ask colleagues, however. If you aren’t at top of pay band, and want to get paid more, you absolutely can plan to ask for a raise. That ask could be based on the quality of your performance, the amount of time in the role, being in line with colleagues (esp. design peers), being in line with the industry, and so on.
10. A promotion is not a gift — you earned it.
Imagine what level you would negotiate for if you were a new hire today. If you meet/exceed competency for a higher level than where you are now, think of the conversation less as “getting” a promotion (which invites the feeling of being gifted/awarded something) and more about having your title, level, and pay accurately reflect your skills, tenure, and experience.
11. You are always allowed to discuss pay with your colleagues.
“[I]t is unlawful for the employer to have a work rule, policy, or hiring agreement that prohibits employees from discussing their wages with each other or that requires you to get the employer’s permission to have such discussions.” – NLRB
12. If it’s not working, it might not be you.
There are lots of reasons that it can be difficult to get a raise or promotion, including simple incompetence from organizational leadership. Don’t assume that an inability to make progress means that you are bad at your job. If you were really bad at your job they would reassign you or let you go.
If it feels like your management/directors are being cagey up and down the board — not open about levels or pay bands, not offering a clear roadmap for promotion, otherwise making you feel brushed off / ignored … something weird might be going on, like a hush-hush freeze on raises. Talk to your peers. Start digging. Even if things seem straightforward, you still want to do some research.
13. Applying for jobs is a great form of salary research.
It’s time-consuming, yes. But there is nothing wrong or unethical about applying for other roles that spark your interest even if you aren’t committed to leaving. No one has to know you are doing this, and in fact you probably won’t want to come at it like “Well XYZ Company just offered me $20,000 more!” That’s just something you can know and keep in your pocket and use to inform the negotiation.
14. You might have to move on to get more money.
If the only raises available in the organization are through promotions — no tenure-based bonuses or cost-of-living raises, no raises within your pay band … that really sucks and is a sign of a less mature or unhealthy culture. And it’s a reason many folks jump ships every 12-18 months to increase their base compensation. You should not assume that this is the case in your organization, but if you have spoken to many people, including your manager, and can’t see a path forward, you would not be the first person to decide that the best way to get a raise is to get a new job.
15. Your manager might be a greenhorn.
Greenhorn is how Nebraskans say “newbie”.
In the relatively new fields of UX writing and content design, it’s very common to find someone who is working as a people manager for the very first time.
You may need to manage/lead “up” and help them help you. You could very well be the person to introduce the idea of a role ladder in your organization. You shouldn’t have to do that work, but if overall you prefer to stay on, you might have to.
16. Get help from colleagues outside of your role ladder.
These content specializations are new(ish) but the career growth conversations aren’t. Learn from peers in your company in design, research, engineering, if needed, about how they’ve navigated these conversations with their managers.
17. Don’t be distracted by bonuses.
A bonus isn’t a raise or a promotion, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a bonus!
If you got a spot bonus it’s because you’re awesome. If you just got an annual bonus it’s because everyone gets them. That should not impact whether or not you can get a raise or promotion, and is not a reason to wait to ask. (I mean, maybe wait a week or three, just for the optics, especially if the bonus came from the same director you’re about to ask for a raise, but not, like, six months.)
18. Money today is real.
Potential future raises are not yet real nor guaranteed. Potential future bonuses are not yet real nor guaranteed. Potential future internal job openings are not yet real nor guaranteed. Equity is real, but the amounts are not guaranteed. If you can get real money today, take it and keep working on the rest.
19. Job titles and project roles are not the same thing.
While it is frustrating that job titles and the words used to describe levels differ between different companies, that’s not necessarily a problem. Or if it is a problem, it isn’t yours. Stay focused on stuff that will immediately and materially affect your life, such as the level you’re at at your company and how much money you’re getting paid. Life is short, and you don’t need to spend it trying to fix an arbitrary employment taxonomy.
20. Know that you might not get it.
Getting turned down for a raise and/or promotion will suck. But it is also a learning opportunity — not in the after-school special kind of way, but in the literal and practical way of you now have more information to help you get more money in the future. Learn why you didn’t get it, and use that to inform your next steps. Manager thinks there are gaps in your skills? Ask for professional development in that area, or identify a project where you’ll get to hone those skills. Budget is super-tight, raises are frozen, and it’s going to be that way for a while? You’ve learned that you might want to start looking elsewhere.
21. Big companies can have deep grooves in their tracks
The larger the organization, and the more established and formalized their pay bands, ladders, and competencies, the less likely it will be that you’ll find room for negotiation once you’re already working there. This is bad in that it means it can be a lot of work to get a promotion and related raise, but it is good in that you should be able to figure out exactly what you need to demonstrate, and to whom, to get it. (It is also, obviously, a good reason to negotiate for as high of a salary as you can possibly get before taking your first role there.)
My friend Margo, who inspired this tip and has been a manager at some pretty big companies, recommends that folks in this situation learn more about leading versus lagging indicators for promotion — with the big BETTs putting a strong emphasis on lagging indicators like completed projects and performance review metrics.
As I’ve said, this whole area is one that I am approaching from a primarily second-hand perspective, so I’m sure I’m missing some great tips and best practices. I’d love to hear your stories about navigating promotions and raises as a UX practitioner, so send me a note!
Okay, but how do I actually do it, Scott?
Yes, okay, that’s a fair question. At this point, if you’ve worked through all of the above considerations, I think you are ready for one of those classic Google searches like ‘how do i ask for a raise’ or ‘promotion how get now please’. I just did that and these articles all seem fine, assuming you read them with a critical eye:
- How to ask for a raise – The Cut
- How to ask for a raise – Indeed
- How to ask for a raise via email
- How to ask for a promotion – Harvard Business Review
Seriously though, no tactical approach will be perfect, and every conversation will be unique. Any of the classic advice you can find in this space will likely be helpful, such as: make a list of your accomplishments, do salary research, prepare notes to help you remember what to say, consider your timing (e.g. don’t start this conversation right before a long holiday break or in the middle of a huge project with crushing deadlines), that sort of thing. Be a good thoughtful human being, make some notes on what you want to say, and get the conversation started. You’ve got this.
Thanks to Heather O’Neill and Margo Stern for their feedback on an earlier draft of this article. All errors are solely my own.