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The Do's and Don'ts of Promotion Discussions

(Warning: this article may be unsuitable for professionals who believe that the process of getting promoted is fair)

Employees are like milk. That’s right, milk--or any other commodity for that matter. Like commodities, employees are purchased in an open marketplace that operates based on supply and demand. When demand for workers exceeds supply, employees have the upper hand and salaries tend to rise, along with job security. When supply exceeds demand, corporations have the upper hand, making salaries stagnate and creating the potential for layoffs.

While no one likes to be thought of as a commodity, I believe that thinking about yourself in this way can be useful when it comes time to have a promotion discussion with your boss. As you prepare to make the case for why you should be promoted and get a raise, ask yourself, “How does a commodity get a raise?” Then ask yourself, “How does a commodity NOT get a raise?” Knowing the answers to these two questions can help you focus your discussion on the things that actually matter to the marketplace and avoid focusing on things that will get you nowhere.

Commodities Don’t Get Raises Based On:

Fairness: The gallon of milk at my local grocery store can complain all it wants about the fact that it’s priced at $3.50. Perhaps it thinks it should command a price of $3.99, and feels like it is not being treated fairly because it’s a really hard-working gallon of milk. While I may sympathize with it, I still won’t be willing to pay more for it than the market price tag on the shelf.

Similarly, arguing that you should get promoted based on “fairness” won’t get you very far because it’s an argument that’s all about YOU and how YOU are feeling about the situation. Getting a raise, however, is not all about you but rather what you have done for your organization. So shift the conversation away from how you are feeling about “fairness” and towards the reasons why your contributions to the organization merit promotion.

Competence: competence is expected from commodities—and employees. Milk should look like milk, smell like milk and taste like milk. If it doesn’t it gets thrown away. Thus, making the point to your boss that you are performing your job with competence is a great argument to keep your job; it’s not a great argument to advance to a better job.

Need: You may need a raise to pay off debt, improve your situation, feed your family or purchase a car, but those factors don’t have anything to do with the value you are providing in the marketplace. I’ve never heard of a successful promotion discussion where the employee’s key argument was “because I need the money.”

Commodities Do Get Raises Based On:

Points of Difference: Plain nonfat milk is plain nonfat milk. There isn’t anything special about it, and so its price likely isn’t anything special either. But organic milk, or milk fortified with extra protein, or milk with a recognizable brand on it? Ah, now that’s a different discussion. These little extras create additional value for consumers and therefore have the potential to command a higher price.

As an employee, think about what you have done to create additional value. Is there something that you do better than anyone else? Are you the “go to” expert for certain types of work? You don’t necessarily have to be great at everything to get promoted, but it behooves you to figure out one or two things that make you different and understand why those things are valuable.

Performing “Above Grade”: Commodities generally have different grade ratings based on quality level. For example, there is “Grade A” and “Grade B” milk, and each commands a different price-point. As an employee, it’s helpful to understand the requirements for the next “grade-level” and determine if you meet those requirements. A practical tip to achieve this is to find a description for the job you want and then point out to your boss the specific ways that you are already meeting the requirements of the job.

High Switching Costs: When corporations enter into contracts with suppliers to receive certain goods or services—and they are happy with those goods and services—the cost of switching to other suppliers becomes labor-intensive and risky. This principle applies to the way companies think about their employees. It wastes too many corporate resources to replace employees that decide to “switch.” Plus, it’s risky to hire new people that aren’t proven performers. So it’s never a bad thing to know where you stand with the organization before having the promotion discussion. If you know they don’t want to lose you, it gives you more leverage in the conversation.

Inflation: If you have done your research and discovered that the market actually commands a higher price for the experience and skill set that you have, then it is fully appropriate to bring this up to your employer and have a discussion about it. To get this information, talk to people you trust, including headhunters, about what the market pays for your level of experience. Always know what you're worth.

In the beginning of this article, I alluded to the fact that the process of getting promoted isn’t fair. But I take that back. Fairness, it seems, is really a question of the rules being used. And according to the rules of the market, getting promoted is fair—even brutally fair. So the trick is not in seeking to change the rules, but in following Albert Einstein’s suggestion: “You have to learn the rules of the game. And then you have to play better than anyone else.”


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