Managing People

Like a Boss: “My employee threatened to quit unless I give her a raise.”

January 20, 2020
November 7, 2023
Jennifer Romolini
Lattice Team

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

My employee just threatened to leave her job if I couldn’t promote her and give her a raise, explaining that she has another offer that was more than what she was making here. She says she would love to stay, doesn’t even know if she wants the other job, but money is a big factor and she won’t stay if I don’t meet her salary demand.

I absolutely value her and her great work on my team and her leaving would be hard, so we’re going to give her what she’s asking for. But the whole experience has left me thinking less of her and shaken my trust in her. Also, I’ve heard many employees who do this leave within a year anyway. Did I do the right thing? And how can I recover from it and work well with her again?

Shaken in Austin

Dear Shaken,

What you’re talking about is commonly known (by me, right now, making this up) as the raise-getting “leverage” technique — when an employee wants a raise at his/her/their current position, puts in the effort to seek out another position, is offered the other position (but doesn’t necessarily want it) and then uses this information to threaten their boss, basically saying: I have leverage and will leave if you don’t give me what I want. 

There’s a solid argument to be made that the leverage technique is an empowering #bossbitch strategy, one that upends a rigged system/gets the employee what they want (and maybe needs), and that chess moves like this are the only way to survive the current corporate hellscape (why is our country so rich and our wages so low? WHY) and get yourself paid. 

Still, as a manager, I usually resent this approach, mainly because I pride myself on being a fair, transparent boss who gives out earned raises and promotions whenever I can and — though I recognize even as I am typing this that my reaction personalizes a professional situation and is, therefore, the result of a faulty ego (being human is so fun) — I’ve always seen this “eff you, pay me” maneuver as a breach of trust and a sign that maybe it’s time to cut ties.

But enough about me! For a number of reasons, this particular chess move worked. What’s done is done. Here you are. Don’t belabor whether or not you did the “right” thing or not; you did your best in the moment — that’s all you can do. Next time, you may react differently. (Management) life is a long river of mistakes and lucky guesses, triumphs and epic fails; let this one flow by.

Focus instead on the following: If you value this employee (and I’m assuming you do, or you would not have met her demand), it’s worth addressing the situation head-on. Keep in mind this conversation should not be punitive or accusatory — but calm and dispassionate. You’re collecting information to sort out how to best work with this employee, to diffuse existing tension, and to sort this perceived rift. Set a meeting to talk about what happened, to ask how she’s feeling about her job generally: Was it just about the money? Is she feeling unchallenged? How can you help her feel more engaged? Emphasize that you value her and her work, you want her to stay at the company, and that you’d like to clear the air and start fresh. 

Optional step: After you’ve completed this conversation (or before, the order doesn’t matter, stop pressuring yourself), take time to examine your feelings about the issue and sort out why the employee’s threat was so triggering. Radical introspection will go a long way to self-understanding and self-understanding will help you make better decisions in the future and eradicate some of this spiraling and self-doubt. It sounds woo woo and cliché but: The best bosses are secure and self-aware; clichés exist because they’re often true.