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Pay Me More or I Quit: Workers Play Risky Game With Their Bosses

By Charlie Wells, Claire Ballentine and Paulina Cachero

Half of America’s workers are ready to pile pressure on their employers.

They’ve spent the past two years heeding their bosses’ — and the pandemic’s — unprecedented demands. They’ve watched products disappear from shelves, inflation surge and their paychecks’ purchasing power shrink. All the while, wages have been rising and big banks have been boosting top executives’ pay by millions of dollars. The American economy just defied expectations, adding 467,000 jobs in January — far above estimates of 125,000.

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Now, America’s workers want more. Much more. About 55% say that they are likely to seek out job offers from other companies to get raises at their current firms, according to a nationally representative survey conducted by The Harris Poll for Bloomberg News.

If offered outside roles, nearly two thirds said they would quit their current jobs. Millennials are the most likely to jump ship, followed by Gen Z, Gen X and Boomers. Among workers likely to ask for a raise soon, nearly all say inflation is a factor in their decision and a majority cited the current economic climate.

“The power has definitely shifted toward the employee,” said Fiona Cincotta, senior financial market analyst at City Index, a financial services firm. “The labor market is so tight they do have the upper hand in negotiations.”

Kenneth Fung got that upper hand. The 31-year-old tech worker in Virginia was hoping to get a significant raise from the company he’d worked at for four years. When his boss offered him only a 10% pay bump last year, he was disappointed. Fung started applying elsewhere and quickly got an offer from a rival firm with a 70% salary increase.

He decided to accept and even signed the offer letter. But then a friend at work suggested he ask if their current employer could match. Much to his Fung’s surprise, they did — and fast.

Now, he is making about $200,000 a year, up from about $120,000.

“It’s really hard to find good people right now, and so many people are moving around,” Fung said. “It gives a lot of power to the specific employee if you make yourself valuable to your team.”

Just over half of all Americans have ever asked for a raise, according to the Harris poll. And when they did, the results weren’t astounding. Almost three-quarters of them say the largest raise they’ve ever received was less than 50% of their salary. 

That doesn’t mean they take issue with hustling. Some 61% say using a job offer from another company for the sole purpose of receiving a pay raise is an ethical practice.

Trevor Hay did it twice. Now, he’s earning nearly $100,000 more than he was just three months ago. Back then, the 30-year-old from Washington state felt stuck in his old role. He works in a segment of the nuclear industry where years of experience correlate highly with salary. Breaking out of that rubric would have been tough, he says, without the first outside offer he secured in early November.

It was a lateral role in the same field, promising a bump of nearly $30,000. Hay took the offer to his boss and asked if the company could match. They got close, so he stayed put.

For a few weeks, that is. Hay was soon enticed by a role at yet another firm, offering not just a 30% pay raise but also a step up in responsibilities. He took the second offer to his boss, who said that unfortunately, they just couldn’t go that high. 

So Hay left in January. He’s happy with his new job, at a firm that is still looking to hire yet more people. He attributes his good luck to a mix of the tight job market, good timing, and a steady strategy. He wanted a raise at his first firm, but knew he had to keep performing; otherwise his boss wouldn’t have tried to keep him. He wanted more responsibilities, so kept getting more training and qualifications for a more senior role and felt ready from day one. 

“The first increase was when I had just had my third child,” he said. “I was looking around, asking, ‘What else could I do to make some more money?’ So I applied the strategy and it worked great.”

It’s not just about wages. Nick Conn used an outside offer to get more money and better benefits. He started his career at a computer consulting company in Richmond, Ky. After six years, he says he was hoping to move into a management position and had told his boss in 2020. But with few signs of any changes to his day-to-day work by the summer of 2021, the 30-year-old decided it was time to try something else. 

Conn secured another job offer for a similar role with a 25% raise, better benefits and four weeks of paid time off. But when he told his company he was going to leave, they gave him a counter-offer he couldn’t turn down: The company matched the raise and time off, and promoted him to a management role.

“It was a fast forward of my career by like three years,” he said.

The strategy is risky. 

Nora Serino spent four years working at a Bed Bath & Beyond in Seattle, ultimately climbing into a management position. But at 28, she wanted to buy a house and needed more than her $45,000 annual salary. 

So in October she started looking for new jobs online, and was soon offered one by XpresTest, a company that conducts Covid-19 tests at airports and is part of the XpresSpa Group. It was a management role paying $75,000 a year with benefits. She got an offer letter, employee handbook, and start date of Jan. 10.

She resigned from Bed Bath & Beyond in December and spent Christmas thrilled about her new job in management. Her partner bought her new work clothes for the more senior role that would finally move her from retail into health care. 

“Then they ghosted me,” she says. 

A recruiter told Serino her start date had been pushed back. Jan. 10 came and went, and Serino heard from a recruiter that the position was “closed.” She reached out to XpresTest employees but heard nothing back. She still hasn’t. 

Her concern, looking back at her offer, is that she was given a “conditional offer of at-will employment.” Near the end of the letter, the company states: “XpresTest may terminate your at-will employment at any time, with or without notice or cause.”

“It was the most unprofessional process I’ve ever experienced,” said Serino, who is now hunting for new work.

XpresSpa did not respond to a request for comment.

There are smaller risks beyond the entire offer collapsing. One is that a current employer may simply not be willing to match, according to Maggie Mistal, a career consultant and executive coach based in New York and Florida. 

“You could go to your employer and say, ‘Hey I got another offer, can you match it?’ and they say, ‘No thanks, you can leave,’” she said. “You have to recognize, ‘Hey this might be my new job.’”  

Piling on pressure with an outside offer could also damage your relationship with your current manager if you want to stay put. Even if they do match your offer, it could end up being a double-edged sword, said Catherine Golladay, head of Schwab Workplace Financial Services.

“That’s great for you, but now they may also consider you at risk of leaving in the relatively near future, say the next year or two,” she said. “That can factor into how much they are willing to invest in you versus one of your peers whom they may perceive as more loyal or more promotable.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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