When Sarah Holland’s* company was restructuring, she identified an opportunity in a different department. After discussing with her direct manager, Holland, who works in the media industry, was encouraged to discuss the move with her higher-ups. So, Holland decided to draft an email. “I did so partly because they were really busy and difficult to schedule a meeting with,” Holland explained. “And partly because I knew it would be easier for me to outline my accomplishments and qualifications in writing.”
Asking for a raise or promotion can be a very tricky and challenging thing to navigate. These days, our digital-first culture normalizes screen time and virtual communication more than ever before.
According to The New Era of Communication Among Americans, a 2014 Gallup study, texting, using a cell phone, and reading or sending emails are the most common forms of non-personal communication for American adults. But despite the convenience and efficiency of email and instant messaging, is it a good idea to ask for a raise or promotion via email?
Holland’s email was met with a positive response, however she didn't get the promotion. “It turns out they had someone else internal in mind for it already,” Holland says, adding that she believes her managers were impressed with her initiative nonetheless. She ended up leaving the company later that year and says that she feels her resignation wasn’t altogether unexpected given what had transpired. “I think the fact that I'd stood up and asked for what I wanted, when I wanted it, meant my resignation was less of a surprise to them,” Holland says.
Cynthia Pong, JD and feminist career coach at Embrace Change, says that asking for a raise or promotion via email is generally not a good idea. Pong explains that asking for something in writing makes a request easier to reject. “It’s harder to say no on the phone, and even harder to say no in person,” she says. “You should always maximize your chances of not getting a no.”
Pong, who previously worked as public defender, explains that usually a “no” isn’t the end of the conversation and, instead, it's an opportunity to negotiate. However, she doesn't recommend negotiating via email. “If you’re sitting there with someone, there are different tactics to keep the door open or the conversation going,” Pong says. “You cede a lot of power if you send an email.”
Drafting an email to ask for a raise can certainly be a valuable exercise, but Pong explains that this email draft is better used as notes in preparation for an in-person meeting. This way, you can draft a plan and practice what you might say if your manager counters your ask. Alternatively, email can be used as an opener or to request time on a manager’s schedule.
“It’s not a conversation if you’re sending an email. You’re just sending a monologue,” Pong says, noting that via email, you’re unable to pick up on nonverbal cues, such as body language, and tone of voice and, therefore, unable to alter your own tone, approach, or strategy. "Any of these high-level communication strategies are just not available to you."
According to the Gallup poll findings, while younger Americans are more likely to communicate using newer technologies, such as email and texting, many older Americans prioritize in-person conversation. For this reason, Pong notes that it’s also important to consider the age of the person you’re hoping to ask for a raise from.
“If you’re talking to somebody who is more senior, which you probably are, those people are generally going to want an in-person request,” Pong says, adding that for some age groups, emailing about a raise can be regarded as somewhat of a faux pas. “You never want the other person wondering whether you were afraid to ask in person or didn’t care enough to have an in-person discussion. This doesn’t always sit right with people who didn’t grow up with the same reliance on text and email.”
Pong recommends always having a sit-down conversation when asking for a raise or promotion. She acknowledges that these conversations will be situation-specific, but that you should always prepare with a thorough understanding of why you are asking. Hopefully, you’ve previously set performance metrics, had check-ins, and are able to demonstrate that you are meeting — or exceeding — expectations.
“You should go in with an ability to show examples of when you did good work, made a difference to the organization, went above and beyond or have done more than what they’ve asked for,” Pong says. “You don’t want to go in acting entitled.”
Bottom line? Pong believes that the main reason for asking for a raise or promotion in person boils down to general communication etiquette. Unless you’re asking a straightforward, basic, yes-or-no question, you should always try to have in-person conversations. This way, you’re both able to see one another’s body language, and feel out the vibe of the conversation. “You have so much more information so that you can adjust and make a successful pitch, why would you give that up by just sending an email into the void?”
While Holland doesn’t regret asking for a promotion via email, she doesn’t think she would ever do so again. “I think it reflects better on people when they're bold and confident and go for what they want in person, even if it's scary,” she says.
“When you're talking to management, doing these things in person reflects better on you," Holland says. "Plus, the way people react to your questions and requests can show you a lot about them, too.”