You do a great job. You make an effort to stay educated in your field. You come into work early and you leave late. But you realized that you’re behind the curve when it comes to pay. So why not ask for a raise?

Today, you have more leverage than ever when it comes to asking for a boost in your paycheck. “It’s a good time to ask-there are shortages out there,” says David Westhart, director of career development at Thomas Jefferson University’s Jefferson College of Health Professions. “This year we had more recruiters at our career fair than ever before. Placement rates at Jefferson are 97% within a year after graduation.”

Alex Ogburn, vice president of recruiting at Allied Consulting, a firm specializing in the permanent placement of allied professionals, agrees. “It’s so hot [within allied health professions] that we’re seeing a double digit increases in income per year in some cases.”

Before you ask your boss for that big raise, however, it’s important to prepare your case. Read on to find out how much you’re worth, how to put together an irresistible package for your supervisor, and how to negotiate a salary raise (and other perks) that will have you smiling all the way to the bank on payday.

Beating the Pay Scale

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Some health care companies work under a rigid pay scale for their staff (though supervisors and managers have more leeway). Therefore, if you have five years of experience you get X-amount of dollars. Seven years of experience? You get Y. Sometimes it’s even stricter at larger employers. “The larger the facility, the more employees they’re managing, so to raise one person’s salary they’d have to raise everyone’s,” says Ogburn. “And if the employer tries to give a raise to just one person, they may have a mutiny on their hands.”

However, it never hurts to ask. “If you say, ‘Look, I know that’s the way it is here, but I can go [somewhere else] and make $8,000 more per year,’ all of a sudden the rules aren’t so hard and fast anymore,” says Westhart. Some of the tips given below will also help you get around this salary roadblock. And if you’re locked into a salary that puts you at a disadvantage, Westhart suggests taking your skills elsewhere.

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How Much Are You Really Worth?

Knowing how much cash your job is worth helps you decide whether it’s time to ask for a raise and gives you more ammo when you approach your supervisor. “Not only is this information helpful to you, but administrators are very interested in data,” says Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, author of The ULTIMATE Career Guide for Nurses.

“If you’re asking for something more, they want to know why they should give it to you-the fact that you’re a nice person or a good worker isn’t enough.”

Here are some resources to help you find out the going rate for employees in your position:

Professional associations
Ask your professional association whether they have salary survey data. Some associations offer the info to members gratis, while others charge a fee.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers has an extensive salary survey that most schools participate in. Most university career officers rely on NACE or its regional counterparts.
This site offers the salary 411 on many professions, but “it trends a bit high, so I average it with a few other places,” says Westhart.

Career fairs
“Get out to some health care career fairs or even a health care convention where you’ll be in a room with people who work for many different employers,” suggests Cardillo. “They’re generally forthcoming with salaries, benefits, working conditions–you’ll have a great basis for comparison.” And you may even find that you’ve got it pretty good with your current employer.

Career development centers
Your university’s career center will be able to help you find salary information for your field.

It’s helpful to know not only the national and local rates, but also the rates within your company. If your employer doesn’t post salaries, you may be able to glean information through word of mouth. “People aren’t encouraged to share salary information but many do,” says Cardillo. Just be sure not to incriminate your fellow employees when asking for a raise by saying, “Sue says she gets X per hour and I get only Y!” Instead, suggests Cardillo, say, “The information I’m getting from my co-workers is that people are getting X. Can you verify if that’s true? If so, I’m concerned that I’m not getting paid on a comparable level.”

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What Have You Done for Me Lately?

Put yourself in your employer’s shoes: What if an employee marched up to you and said, “I think I deserve a raise,” without giving any justification? Chances are, you’d send him back to do his homework. “When asking for a raise, justification is important,” says Deleise Lindsay of DBM, a global human resources consulting firm. “You will not be given a raise without proving your value to the organization.”

But how do you convince your boss that your place of employment would be lost without you? First you have to determine your value and then you have to present the highlights to your employer. Here are some ways to determine your worth:

Pull out your resume
Did you graduate from a well-regarded program? How have your skills developed since you wrote your resume? Have you gotten more education since then? These are the points your boss wants to know when you’re requesting a raise. Also, answering these questions can be a real ego boost, which you’ll need when your boss asks you to prove you’re worth extra money!

Go over your evaluations
Do you always get positive reviews from your supervisor? That’s another point in your scorebook.

Pretend you work for yourself and think about why you’re a superb staff member. This is especially helpful if you’re usually afraid to toot your own horn. “When people step back and look at what they bring to the table, they give themselves at least as much credit as they’re due, if not a little more,” says Ogburn.

Keep a file

“I recommend every professional keep an ‘atta boy/girl’ file,” says Lindsay. “This is an ongoing file that you keep as you receive recognition or documentation. The information is then at your fingertips, so you won’t forget an important piece of information or be scrambling six months later to come up with numbers.

Fish for compliments
“Ask people who know you well what your strong points are,” says Cardillo. “Many of us aren’t aware of our strong points.”

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Go for PAR
Ask yourself, “What have I done to increase revenue? improve quality? increase productivity? cut costs? improve the efficiency of a process? comply with regulations? improve safety? improve customer service? implement a new program? improve performance?” Once these are identified, says Lindsay, develop a worksheet for each using the PAR method: What was the Problem I was trying to solve? What was the Action that I took to solve the problem? What was the Result? A sample statement would look like this: “Reduced workplace accidents by 20% by devising a safety program for my department.”

Getting to Yes

Once you’ve developed an arsenal of information proving that you deserve a raise, it’s time to talk to your boss. Follow these tips to make the meeting successful.

Make a date
Don’t grab your boss in the hallway on her way to lunch and blurt out, “Can I have a raise?” “Choose an appropriate time and place to ask for a raise,” Cardillo advises. “Make an appointment for a mutually convenient time with minimal distractions.”

Write it out
“It’s a good idea to put your requirements in writing,” says Cardillo. “There’s less of a chance for forgetfulness or miscommunication. The major points are clearer and it makes a greater impact. State what you’re asking for and why.”

Don’t give an ultimatum
No one likes to be threatened, and telling your boss that you’ll walk out if you don’t get a raise is just that-a threat. “[If you give an ultimatum], you automatically polarize the situation-me versus you,” says Ogburn. “You’re part of a team, and you want to approach this as a team member.”

Be prepared to wait
Sometimes your employer has to work with HR to determine if an increase in salary is possible, says Westhart, “so be prepared for it to take awhile.”

Don’t go fishing
“Sometimes people go interviewing to get other offers and come back to their employers and fish for a counteroffer,” says Ogburn. “However, oftentimes they’re not serious about taking another job. It’s a bluff and it’s not professional.” If you’re serious about another position, it is fair to ask for a counteroffer from your current employer. But if you don’t plan to follow through, your plan can backfire. Ogburn tells of an employee who tried such a bluff. The administrators gave him a raise, but were so offended that they documented everything he did for a few months and then served him with a pink slip.

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Be flexible
Don’t go in with an all-or-nothing attitude; that just sets you up for disappointment. Instead, be flexible about what you’re willing to accept. “If your supervisor says there is not another nickel in the budget, maybe you can work something else out,” Cardillo says. For example, you can say, “I’ve been covering for other staff in my department and would appreciate it if I didn’t have to do that anymore.”

You can also ask for better working conditions, more time off, free parking or other perks. You can even ask your employer to pay for a percentage of an advanced education degree.

Aim high
When determining how much of a raise you’d like, shoot a bit higher than your actual goal so that there’s room to negotiate. For example, if you’d like an additional $5,000 per year and ask for exactly that amount, chances are your employer will haggle you down to $4,000 or even less. If you ask for $7,000, you can haggle and still get the $5,000 you wanted (or maybe you’ll even get the $7,000!).

Don’t go over your boss’s head
Always talk to your immediate supervisor; going straight to the head honcho will create bad feelings all around. If your supervisor thinks you have a case, she’ll present your request to the decision-makers.

Toot your own horn
Even if you’re a stellar employee with a ton of responsibilities, chances are your supervisor doesn’t know half of what you really do. After all, he doesn’t follow you around all day, putting little gold stars by your name when you do something well. “It’s always a great idea to enumerate the value you bring and your scope of responsibility,” says Cardillo. “That’s not bragging-it’s just giving people a report of what you do.” So if you’re always willing to help out when needed, if you get along with your fellow employees, if you always come in early and leave late, and if you often cover for other people-let your boss know!

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The Next Step

Okay, so you met with your boss, followed all of our tips, and made a great impression. What happens now?

Most likely, your supervisor will consult with HR, but the final decision will almost always go to the top administration-especially if giving you a raise would mean increasing the department’s budget. Some employers act very swiftly, taking just a week or two to make a decision, while others may take months to cut through all the red tape. In any case, expect your immediate supervisor to keep you up-to-date on what the administration is saying and when you can expect to have an answer.

When the Answer Is No

Sometimes it happens-even though you’re the greatest staff member your employer has ever laid eyes on, they just can’t afford a raise. In this case, you have a few options.

If you still feel you should be getting paid more, Cardillo suggests creating a written proposal. “Enumerate all the things you do and be specific about what you want,” she says. “Ask your boss to go back to the powers that be with the proposal in hand.”

Or try getting around the salary cap by asking for a promotion instead. “Is there an improved title that comes with a higher salary, such as moving into a ‘senior’ position?” asks Westhart. “If you can demonstrate that you’re doing more than your job description states, then you should feel comfortable asking for [a promotion].”

Finally, if there’s no chance of receiving a raise and you feel you’re not getting paid what you’re worth, it may be time to move on.

Boost Your Bottom Line

Here’s some good news to mull over while you dream of a hefty raise: Unlike employees in other industries, health care workers are currently in hot demand. Your chances of receiving ample compensation for all your hard work are very high. Just follow these tips and watch your salary soar!

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