I was promised a raise for doing a lot more work … and it didn’t come through — Ask a Manager

here are the 10 best questions to ask your job interviewer — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

I’m feeling bamboozled by how my compensation situation has shaken out. I am a non-exempt salaried employee and have been the entire time this all went down.

I joined my current company almost two years ago at a salary that was slightly below market for my level of experience and competency. At the time, I was fine with this because the workload and stress would be so much lower compared to previous jobs that it balanced out. The role I was hired for was exclusively wholesale. Then two things happened:

1. Last spring, we got a new department head who managed to make everyone’s job significantly harder and more complex through their micromanagement, control issues, and god complex. Their presence has directly led to the departure of several senior members across different departments because the new culture was no longer something they wanted to deal with. The rest of us are hanging on by a microscopically thin thread.

2. Last summer, my direct business counterpart departed for greener pastures. I was asked to take on their portion of the business as well and cover the whole distribution region. I agreed on the condition that my pay, title, and job description be updated to reflect this change. Leadership in my department agreed and confirmed the timing would be this spring when appraisal season rolls around. The company only does them once a year so I agreed to this timeline and began working both portions.

The workload was challenging and I had very little help due to the lean structure of the team. While I got work on some really cool projects, the light at the end of the tunnel was that I had been assured that I would eventually be properly compensated for this massive undertaking.

Come appraisal and raise season, I am offered a whopping single-digit percent increase and single-digit percent bonus on my salary as a reward for double the workload, demands on my time, and stress level. (Actually, it’s currently tripled because another counterpart left in the fall and that role still hasn’t been backfilled.) No title change and no updated job description either. Needless to say, I was enraged, disappointed, and demoralized by the final number. A single digit percent is a merit increase for someone who does only their job and does it above average. Not only did I get an “exceeds expectations” rating in my assessment, I did it alone. Not to mention, inflation alone in my current area is 6.1% from when I was originally hired. Most importantly, this is not what I agreed to.

I immediately requested a meeting with HR to discuss this. I calmly and professionally made my case and explained that either I receive an updated salary and title and job description or I go back to my original scope of work. Turns out HR was not informed of my agreement with leadership. HR was also not happy to find out I did not receive an updated job description from this agreement either. They assured me that my concerns would be addressed as part of a larger conversation with the department head about the structure and workload for our team. I don’t have a clear timeline for when this will happen or what that means for me as an individual employee.

Based on what I know about the company’s headcount and my conversation with HR, what will most likely happen is that I will be put back on my original scope of work and the direct business will shift to someone else or a new hire.

Do I have any recourse here, legally? Sure, they could put me back on the original scope of work with this slightly increased salary but what legal right do I have for compensation for the eight months I spent doing double and sometimes triple the work? What about leadership agreeing to my conditions for taking on extra work, even if HR didn’t know of it? My feelings of demoralization aside, is this illegal or just really awful?

I know either way, this isn’t sustainable long-term for me, but I am feeling like an absolute clown who was bamboozled into working like a dog for free with no options but to take it or leave it. Are those really my choices?

This hinges entirely on what the agreement with your department leadership looked like. Do you have something in writing saying “we will increase your salary to $X in April 2024”? Or was it more like “we’ll revisit your salary in the spring and make sure you’re paid appropriately”? If they committed to a specific number — and, crucially, if they used language like “will increase,” not “may increase” or “will consider increasing” — then they’re probably legally bound to that. That’s true even if HR didn’t approve it since it was a commitment from your company leadership.

But if they didn’t commit to a specific figure, just to “a raise” … well, then they met their obligations to the letter, if not the spirit.

If we could go back in time, I’d strongly advise you to get a specific number or range in writing. If you don’t have that, you’re unfortunately at the mercy of whatever they judge reasonable now. They can say, “We promised you a raise and you’ve received one” and that will be true.

Spelling this out a little more: the law doesn’t require an employer to pay you more for taking on more responsibility or more stress or even a whole other job. It does require them to pay you for all the hours you worked since you’re non-exempt; has that been happening (including time and a half for all hours over 40 in a week)? If that didn’t happen, you have a very solid wage claim for that missing pay. But there are no legal grounds beyond that unless they committed to a specific figure or range that they’re not now providing.

Similar things are true about your title and updated job description, although it’s even hazier there. If you have a written agreement that says “if you do XYZ, we will change your title to __ in April 2024,” you might have grounds to push that — but there’s a lot of room for them to say they expected XYZ to have been performed at a higher level or otherwise weasel out of it if they want to (to be clear, that would be very weaselly, unless you really didn’t meet the role’s expectations).

So, what can you do if there was no clear agreement with specific numbers attached? First and foremost, you should try pushing back. If you can cite specific conversations about a different figure, or past precedent you were relying on, or notes that you made at the time, or anything else to support your case, you should cite that. If you’re willing to leave over this, you can make that clear (or at least heavily hint at it). But ultimately, this will be about what you can negotiate. Absent a clear and specific agreement, the law wouldn’t require them to do anything different.

Second, you can talk. Tell your coworkers what happened. This won’t help you, but it could save someone else in your company from making the same mistake, and it’s a way of flexing some power that your company probably won’t like (and which is legally protected too).

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