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It’s not always easy to chat with your boss about salaries, benefits, and possible pay increases. But sometimes it’s a conversation you need to have.

Q: My company has been going through a rough patch over the last couple years, and no one here got a raise during the bad times. That was fine with me, since I believe in the company and love my job. Now, it looks like things are starting to turn around and we’re about to post a profit again. How can I bring up the issue of a raise to my boss? Or should I just wait to see if he talks about it at performance review time?

A: If you were raised properly, and it sounds like you were, chances are that you grow anxious when people start to talk about salaries. Grumbling about your lack of money is acceptable in with friends, coworkers, and family members, but there are few people who are willing to tell others what they actually make as a salary. Think about it–chances are that you have no idea what your closest friend makes, even though he might have been best man at your wedding and bailed you out of jail after the bachelor party. It’s also likely that you’re in the dark about the salaries of your siblings, parents, and other pals. Some people don’t even know what their spouses make.

This taboo is fine in social situations, and actually prevents really boring cocktail party conversations, but in a workplace, such programmed reticence could work against you. Wanting to talk about your pay rate isn’t rude in this case, it’s necessary. Also, remember that this is a business situation. No matter how chummy you are with your boss and how friendly the atmosphere is where you work, you have to approach this in a manner that’s professional. That means you need to understand that it’s perfectly acceptable to talk about salary expectations without feeling like a chump. The company made the decision not to give raises as it went through a rough spot, and now that things are looking rosy, they know what’s coming. In other words, they’re expecting this talk, and it’s up to you to state your desires clearly and with supporting data.

The first step in preparing for the conversation with your boss is in getting information together about your value, contributions, and expectations. Waiting for him to bring it up at performance review time is a bad idea, because you won’t be well prepared and you’ll be taking a risk that nervousness will prevent you from presenting your case properly.

To figure out your value, try to think objectively about where you fit in the overall industry. Sure, five years ago someone in your position may have been making an obscene amount of greenbacks, but that was five years ago. To negotiate, you need to know what others in your field are making now. Check out’s salary wizard to get an idea. You can also call recruiters in your area of expertise and ask their advice. Although they won’t be finding you a job and therefore don’t have you as a client, many recruiters know that if they’re helpful, you might come to their door if things don’t work out with your boss. Most will also be honest about where you should put your expectations.

Once you know your value, you can factor in your contributions to the company. Obviously, you’ve got some serious company loyalty going for you, and that’s always a plus. Next, figure out what you’ve done during your time at the firm, and write it down. Have you streamlined a certain operation that saved the company money? Did you boost morale and save year-end funds by having the holiday party at your house? Did you implement technology that made work more efficient and productive for staffers? Don’t be shy about your accomplishments. In some cases, you may have made minor decisions that ended up making a big difference, and your boss may be unaware of your brilliant strategies and budget savvy. Conversely, don’t be daft and try to make mountains out of molehills. Be honest about what you’ve done that has helped the company, and don’t embellish, and your boss will appreciate it.

After jotting down your value and successes, you’ll have a better idea of what to expect from the talk with your boss. Make goals that are flexible, and that the company can work around. For example, maybe the firm has less money than you think, but they’re rich in extra vacation time. Or perhaps you can work out a schedule that you like better. The daunting thing about a negotiation is that sometimes you actually have to negotiate. But if you go into the conversation knowing what you want, and why you deserve to get it, you’re more than halfway there.

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