Should You Get Another Job Offer to Bump Up Your Salary?

A competing job offer can give you leverage, but you have to tread carefully.

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The mere thought of asking your boss for a raise can be enough to make your palms sweat. Is it better to strengthen your case by using a competing offer as ammunition to hike your pay?

It can be. Back when I was at SmartMoney magazine, I went to my editor’s office and made a case for a raise. He said he’d love to give me one, but that he needed to defend it to his boss — so he told me to go get another offer and come back.

I did just that, and it worked. But it’s not a strategy without risk.  Your current company could decide to let you walk. You also risk alienating the employer you’re using as an alternative.

“It’s a high-risk, high-reward value proposition,” says Jena Abernathy, author of “The Inequality Equalizer.” There are right and wrong ways to play the game. Here’s what to consider before using a competing offer to up the ante at work.

Exploration Can Be a Good Thing

First of all, “It never hurts to explore,” says Abernathy. Not only is it an opportunity to network, but it’s also a good way to gauge how your value has grown in the open market. It’s also a means of determining whether there are other companies you’d rather work for — or reaffirming your commitment (and contentment) with your current workplace. “You should evaluate your opportunities every three years,” she says.

Do You Want More Money, or Do You Feel Undervalued at Work?

The two questions aren’t necessarily one and the same.

Do some soul-searching before you start your search, and ask yourself what’s really driving your push for more money?

“If it’s just money [you’re after], and you really like your job duties, the company culture, and your relationship with your supervisor, then proceed with caution before going in [to present a competing offer],” says Paul McDonald, senior executive director of staffing firm Robert Half International Inc.

Make sure you’re considering your total rewards package — not just salary, but benefits, working relationships, sponsorship, and work-life balance. Some of these intangibles provide both short-term and long-term value. If that’s the case — and a raise isn’t in the cards — then perhaps your employer can offer other incentives (with financial perks in mind) like working a day or two from home, or more paid vacation days.

Know Your Number, Know Your Audience

Feeling underpaid isn’t the same as knowing you are, based on your credentials and experience. Head to sites like Glassdoor, PayScale and Fairygodboss (which is specifically for women) to get an idea of what other employers are paying for the same skills and experience as you. Once you have a specific number in mind, you also need to know your supervisor’s personality, says McDonald. “It’s hard to script something out and not hurt feelings otherwise,” he says.

Preparation is always recommended, but particularly necessary if you’ve noticed that your boss has a tendency to become sensitive or defensive. “Role-play out with a mentor how the conversation is going to go,” says McDonald, who suggests asking that person to run through the various possible responses to your request.

“That way, you’re prepared with what you want to say.”

Treat It Like You Would Any Other Salary Negotiation

If you’re using a competing offer to leverage a raise, the last thing you want to do is come to the table with the offer alone. In addition to knowing your number and your audience, also come prepared with evidence of the high quality of your work. You have to know what your worth and then prove it.

Or as Abernathy puts it: Always be keeping score. “Here’s what I brought to the company, and here’s what I’d like to have in return,” he suggests as a model for making your case. It might help to keep a list (even on your iPhone) of all the things, good and not so good, that you’ve done for the company. When you’re in front of your supervisor, go through the things you think have been successful and then the things that haven’t gone so well, with an emphasis on what you learned from them.

And remember: Confidence is one thing, but coming in with an inflated ego is another. Leave it at the door, says McDonald: “Diplomacy is critical.” 

You Have to Be Prepared to Walk

“If you have a competing offer and you’re contemplating whether to go to your employer to negotiate a raise, you have to be prepared to take that offer,” says McDonald. Even if you want to stay and you’re only trying to use the offer as leverage, your employer could say: “Sorry you’re leaving.” So if you want to stay, but bump your pay, try something like the following: I have to tell you I’ve received another offer, but my preference is to stay here. How do you see my career playing out in this role, and what should I do from here? It’s not one or the other, but I wanted to make you aware out of respect. It’s not personal; it’s business.

This Move Works Once Per Employer

So what happens when it works? Abernathy has gone exploring a couple of times over the course of her career, received competing offers and then received matches. Yet in both situations, she left a year later. “I think the reason I left is because I’m not sure there was ever that trust [again] and the comfort level wasn’t the same,” she says. “I can remember a boss saying to me, ‘I’m surprised you went on a job interview, I thought you were happy here.’”

With Kelly Hultgren