Lifting Your Salary

Getting a pay raise takes more than just thinking you deserve one. Hereís how to prepare for, approach, and enter into a salary negotiation.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Training & Conditioning.

Training & Conditioning, 14.9, December 2004,

After five years on the job, athletic trainer Kevin Kotsko believed he had a lot to show for himself. Covering eight Olympic sports at West Virginia University, he estimated that he averaged more than 70 hours a week. On top of that, heíd worked on a large number of cases involving surgery or other complicating factors.

He had the respect and admiration of his athletes and his coaches, as shown by a stack of thank-you letters from them. He had a monstrous cell phone bill, from telling athletes and coaches to call whenever they needed him. And he had an offer for a job that would pay him more.

So when Kotsko, MEd, ATC, Assistant Athletic Trainer at WVU, approached his administrator to ask for a raise, he believed he had a good case. So did his boss. Though WVUís athletic department wasnít able to match the salary of the other job offer right away, the increase could be phased in. Kotsko would also get a 12-month contract to replace the 10-month package heíd been on. Finally, the athletic department gave him a cell phone so he wouldnít have to keep racking up the charges on his own plan. "Iíd say the total raise was around five percent," Kotsko says.

Kotsko is hardly alone in believing he deserved a better compensation package. But in an era of squeezed athletic and health services budgets, getting one is another matter. For many athletic trainers, raises seldom come in any form other than a cost-of-living adjustment or by inching up another rung on the longevity ladder. That is, if they come at all. And yet many in the field believe they deserve more. They put in long hours, show loyalty to their institution, and add value to the enterprise by giving excellent care to athletes.

As Kotsko shows, however, it is possible to get a raise by asking. Here is a look at how to do it, along with advice from professional career counselors and administrators.

Do You Deserve It?
The place to start asking for a raise is not necessarily with your supervisor, but with yourself. The question is, do you really deserve a raise? The answer might seem obvious at first, but walking yourself through this response lays the foundation for the entire process. If you canít objectively justify a raise to yourself, how can you justify it to the person who controls the budget? However, if you determine for yourself that you deserve more pay, youíll have objective reasons you can then take to the decision makers.

"Itís got to be about more than just working hard," says Janet Lenz, President of the National Career Development Association and Associate Director of the Career Center at Florida State University. "To me, working hard is assumed, especially in a field like athletic training. So doing that is not really a justification for the raise. Instead, think about if youíve done something that goes above and beyond regular duties. Something like, ĎI created a whole new database to manage the athletic training program.í Youíve got to show some concrete reality beyond just working hard."

In addition, donít assume you are due a raise out of longevity and loyalty. "Most employers donít see it the same way as employees do," says Amy Lindgren, a nationally syndicated employment columnist and President of Prototype Career Service in St. Paul, Minn. "Thereís a gap in perspectives there. The workers Iíve talked to expect raises due to their loyalty and the employers arenít seeing this as an important factor." Her advice: Unless some type of longevity pay increases are part of your organizationís culture, the fact that youíve been devoted to the school should only be a small part of your case.

Instead, ask yourself what youíve done to make yourself more valuable. How does your work help the school in ways that other athletic trainers cannot duplicate?

Kotsko was able to demonstrate that he handled a large number of complicated rehabilitations and received accolades from coaches and athletes for his work. "In my training room, I keep track of all the surgery cases, MRIís, X-raysóany kind of diagnostic testóso people can see the number of tests and complicated cases Iím dealing with," Kotsko says. "With our computer program we document and track the number of treatments we do per sport, per week, and per month."

You can also keep your own documentation of specific accomplishments that might not show up in the day-to-day records. "Try to help your employer place a value on the contributions you have made," says Kevin Wolf, MS, ATC, Athletic Trainer at Tennessee Sports Medicine in Lebanon, Tenn. "It is easier to make a case for yourself if you have a written record of your progress. Items might include new relationships or contacts youíve established, new revenue opportunities, major problems solved, above-and-beyond contributions, and new skills developed that the institution benefits from."

Career counselors recommend going even further by, thinking about what you can do to help the organization in the future. "Think of trends that youíve noticed, things youíd like to try with your athletes that you havenít had a chance to yet. Maybe a new program or a new way of doing something," suggests Lindgren. "I donít want to make it seem like you canít go ask for a raise unless you have some cool new idea, but I think that more employees have cool new ideas than actually express them to other people. I think they underestimate how much the employer would like to hear those ideas."

In addition, get other peopleís opinionsóprimarily that of your immediate supervisor, assuming he or she isnít also the person who controls your compensation level. For Kotsko, this meant raising the issue with the head athletic trainer before approaching the administrative supervisor.

"If you donít have the support from your boss, then youíre running up a hill in the mud," Kotsko says. "If you donít have the support of your supervisor, who interacts with you on a daily basis, then youíre in trouble."

Lenz concurs. "You donít want to violate the lines of who reports to whom," she says. "First, talk to your immediate supervisor, who should have at least somewhat of a big-picture view. He or she can also let you know if this is a good time to ask for a raise, and may share with you some data that you donít have.

"If you feel like youíve hit a dead end with your supervisor, there might be a justification in some settings for going up the line," Lenz continues. "But in general, thatís not something you want to do unless you feel there is no other recourse."

Wolf suggests also trying to see things from your supervisorís point of view. "It is wise to be respectful of his or her position in this matter," he says. "A supervisor has the responsibility to run an efficient department in the eyes of management, as well as to effectively represent management in the eyes of the employees."

The Broader Context
Once you feel confident you can describe why you are an asset to the institution, the next step is to figure out how your request will fit into the broader context. Is your compensation typical for your position at the type of school youíre at? Is your institution having a good or bad year financially? Are there other big-picture factors that come into play?

First of all, know that many athletic departments use salary surveys to determine whether they are paying a competitive wage. "Every year we have a compensation survey completed for us through an outside agency," says Russ Sharp, Associate Athletic Director for Finance and Administration at WVU, and the person most responsible for hearing Kotskoís request. "We use that as the baseline information for the salaries of the athletic training staff [and others in the department].

"We try to be competitive," Sharp continues, "and we try to retain people, so we use the compensation survey to assess requests. If somebody comes to me and says they want to make more money, we look at the survey to help us know where those positions need to be at our level. If what someone is asking for falls within the parameters of what we think is reasonable, then weíre going to try to meet their request."

The National Athletic Trainersí Association last surveyed its members about salaries in 2003. A detailed breakdown, including salary ranges by geographic area, is available for a fee, but the free version on the NATAís Web site offers an average salary for several work settings and educational levels. (See "Resources" below.) What other allied health care professionals in your locale are paid might be relevant, too, but only if their work and settings are similar to yours, Wolf adds.

Itís important, however, to know the limitations of salary surveys. As Kotsko notes, they may not take into account local conditions or a personís precise experience. If you feel the salary surveys donít represent your situation, itís fine to bring those thoughts to the table.

A big question is whether you should discuss the salaries of other athletic trainers at your school. Unfortunately, there is not a clear-cut answer. Lindgren believes Americans are over-sensitive about salaries, and that the tradition of confidentiality can hide many forms of discrimination. But others say to avoid the topic in discussions with management unless itís crystal clear that talking about other peopleís salaries is fair game in the culture of your organization.

"It depends on the institution," says Lenz. "Iím at a public university, and in our state itís public record. But you certainly donít want to make it seem that youíve been doing illegal snooping."

Another consideration is what Lindgren calls an organizationís "internal economy." Making a profit or, in the not-for-private sector, avoiding the budget chopping block, is obviously a part of that, but there are other factors to look into. These include the institutionís history of giving raises, how your division or department is fairing, and whether there have been any other major expenses recently.

A negative financial situation doesnít preclude asking for a raise, but it might help to wait until the picture is a bit brighter. Conversely, if things are going well, management may be in a more optimistic situation. For instance, though Kotsko doesnít normally work with the football and menís basketball teams, those revenue-generating programs at WVU had just finished winning seasons, so there was a positive atmosphere in the athletic department.

The Right Attitude
With justification in hand and timing favorable, itís time to talk. The best approach, counselors say, is to set up an appointment with the decision-maker, and enter the meeting with the right attitude.

"At this stage, since youíre already working for the employer, do not think of the meeting as a negotiation session," says Lindgren, "but rather as a discussionóa meeting with your work and compensation as the topic. Make it clear that thereís an agenda or an outcome you want for the discussion, but be interested in hearing your supervisorís thoughts on the subject.

"The term Ďnegotiationí suggests that there are two people on opposite sides," explains Lindgren. "But the employer and the worker are really on the same side. They both work for the overall health of the organization, but theyíre just coming from different perspectives. The employer has the bigger picture to keep in mindówith other bills and budgets to balance and strategies for the organization. The employee brings the smaller picture to bearóif they donít keep up his or her salary, theyíre eventually going to lose her or him as an employee, and that would be bad for the company.

"If the employee and employer try to work as a team, both thinking about the health of the organization," continues Lindgren, "the discussion is going to go much smoother, with better outcomes. For example, the employer may be thinking, ĎIf I give this raise, next year my budget will increase this much, and where am I going to find the money?í If the employee thinks of himself or herself as being on the same page, he or she can anticipate that question and try to help answer it a little bit. He may have ideas on how to save money elsewhere."

Keep in mind, adds Lindgren, that a raise in salary means more than just a certain amount more each pay period in an organizationís expenses. Not only will it become a higher base in the budget for years to come, but other expenses rise based on salary, such as employersí retirement benefits, health insurance contributions, and unemployment and workerís compensation premiums.

Itís important to keep with the team approach, even if you have another job offer. Kotsko told management he had been offered a higher-paying job, and he believes that helped him make his case. But he didnít use it as leverage. He never said he would leave if he didnít get what he was asking for.

"That would have been a turnoff," Sharp says. "Youíve got to give the administration an opportunity to do something. It canít just be an ultimatum because usually everybody loses when it comes to that."

"If the conversation goes badly for any reason, itís always good to know there might be somebody else willing to hire you so you donít have to grovel," says Lindgren. "But if youíre actually doing a job search before you go in, itís very possible for that that to change the dynamic of the conversation. Then the employer may feel like youíre half out the door already. If they donít feel youíre committed, then itís less appealing to commit more funds to you."

Know Your Limits
A better middle-ground approach is to know your options, both within and outside your present situation, and set limits for yourself going in. Lenz describes it as having "quiet confidence," along with understanding what you want and whatís realistic.

"You make your case with data and quiet confidence," she says. "You obviously want it win-win, and you donít want to put the supervisor in a corner and make threats. But as in the Kenny Rogers song, you got to know when to hold íem, know when to fold íem."

If you anticipate a cool reception, think in terms beyond a raise in base pay. Because several other employer costs are linked to salary, it may pay to think of a smaller raise coupled with a one-time bonus that wonít actually cost your employer as much, suggests Lindgren.

Another angle is to discuss overtime. Athletic trainers and others in institutional athletics have not always been considered eligible for overtime, but for those who have been, federal rules adopted in August 2004 make overtime pay less likely than it had been. Anyone losing substantial overtime because of the change may want to approach their administration to increase their base salary.

"If itís already in the budget, before it evaporates or gets reallocated to something else, the employee should probably make the point that it was real income that theyíve lost and theyíd like to get it back under a different category," says Lindgren.

This is what happened for the 11 athletic trainers who were reclassified by the Southcoast Hospitals Group near Boston a couple of years ago. Not long after three hospitals were merged to form the Southcoast Group, administrators sought to reclassify the athletic trainers to exempt-from-overtime status. The goal was to reduce the differential pay athletic trainers were earning for night, weekend, and holiday work while giving employees greater flexibility to set their own hours based on the demands of their outreach and clinic responsibilities. The athletic trainers liked the idea of greater flexibility but not of losing the extra pay. So they made a proposal.

"I went back to our administration," says Joe Scott, MS, LAT, ATC, Team Leader in the Sports Performance and Orthopedic Rehab Team for Southcoast, and the supervisor of the athletic trainers. "I said, ĎWeíll do this, but you need to give us a base rate increase of five percent in salary, because thatís what we would be losing, on average, if we go to exempt status and no longer get that differential pay. We had to work out some kinks and show the hospitals the value of what we provide to the community. But doing it up front gave them a better idea of how much money theyíd have to set aside in the budget for our particular discipline."

In other cases, the surest and quickest route to a raise might be getting yourself reclassified to a higher pay scale within your organization. "Thatís not about asking for more money," says Lindgren. "Itís more of an extended paperwork process to ask for a jump in grade, because youíre reclassifying your job."

And consider other ways to get more money. Kotskoís university cell phone is a good example, says Lenz. "Think about what else the employer can do to improve your situation, whether itís a better office, an upgraded computer, or travel money," she says. "There may be other sources of money that could support some aspect of your work that might make the quality of your work a little better."

"Vacation time and scheduling is usually at the top of everyoneís list, though that might not work in athletic training," Lindgren says. "But there are memberships and training and license feesóthings that help the individual worker build a career. Those are things you can ask for in a salary discussion, and they help both parties. If itís an expense the employee was going to take on themselves, it actually is more money in their pocket."

The bottom line, as the saying goes, is the bottom line. Know your needs, the market, and the value of your services, and donít undersell yourself, Scott offers. From there, take it one step at a time and be confident as you ask for a raise. As another saying goes, you never know until you ask.

From the Other Side
What do administrators think when an employee asks to be paid more? Two administrators at NCAA Division I universities offer some insight.

"If a person is valuable to an organization, their superiors are going to find a way to compensate them," says Rod Walters, DA, ATC, Assistant Athletic Director for Sports Medicine at the University of South Carolina. "Thereís a direct correlation between your value to a company and how much it will honor your requests. Sometimes, the compensation cannot be a raise, but may mean getting to manage something or moving up the ladder. But one way or another, I think thereís a correlation between value and compensation. The more valuable a person is, the more they will be taken care of."

How do you know if your supervisors think you are valuable? The best way is to listen carefully during your performance reviews, both annually and on-going, Walters says, and to ask questions about the value of your work if you are unsure. "I would hope youíre having a dialogue about your financial status and value to the department before it gets to a crisis," he says.

But itís a complex decision, Walters adds. "We try to evaluate performance versus what we can provide," he says. "We may be limited by how much money weíre going to have that particular year for raises, and we have to evaluate that staff-wide to make sure that things are fair for everyone."

Russ Sharp, Associate Athletic Director for Finance and Administration at West Virginia University, says that in compensation discussions at his institution, he and other high-level administrators depend on the opinions of front-line supervisors. "The main two questions I ask the supervisor are: ĎDo we want to try to retain this person? Whatís their attitude like?í The supervisor is not going to end up making the financial decision, but theyíre going to give me a recommendation of whether we try to retain the person involved."

Be Your Own Scrivener
Youíve had a great discussion with the decision-maker, and you got the pay raise you wanted. Now youíre ready to just sit back and think about that big fat number in the next paycheck.

Not so fast. Thereís one more thing to do: Get it in writing.

"Even when a raise is part of an annual review, it may seem like itís being put in writing, but it isnít," says Amy Lindgren, a nationally syndicated employment columnist and President of Prototype Career Service in St. Paul, Minn. "An awful lot of times it doesnít get put in writing, and then things get a little bit confused. A couple weeks pass and the employee wonders when it is going to startóbut nothing happens."

Lindgren suggests writing a letter to the decision-makeróone that is mostly a thank-you for the discussion, but also spells out the details you agreed on. "Write a letter that says, ĎThank you for talking with me,í" says Lindgren. "ĎIt was a wonderful discussion about my role in the organizationís future. I understand my new salary will be $42,000 and will begin on Nov. 1. Thank you. I look forward to the next chapter of our work together,í or some other nice, polite professional ending.

"The key piece is ĎI understand Iím getting a raise of this amount, and my new salary will start on this date,í" Lindgren continues. "Without one of the parties putting it in writing, there stands a chance the whole thing could get confused, and that can lead to bad feelings down the road."

This commercial site has an extensive salary-survey section that, for a fee, can shed light on what allied health care professionals make in a given city.

The NATAís latest survey of its members earnings can be dowloaded here for free. A more detailed version, which includes salaries by geographic region, is also available for NATA members and can be found by entering "salary survey" in the search window.