If boosting your salary is one of your financial resolutions for 2016, your timing is good. The unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been in seven years, and many employers are having a hard time finding qualified candidates for jobs. That should give workers the upper hand.
Still, getting paid more is one thing; getting paid a lot more is another. On average, salaries are expected to rise 3.1% in 2016, about the same as last year, according to WorldatWork, a nonprofit association for human resources professionals. “It’s not that wages aren’t going up,” says Kerry Chou, a compensation expert at WorldatWork. “They’re just not rising as fast as workers would like.”
First off: To get a big raise, you have to speak up. As more companies implement pay-for-performance compensation and reserve the biggest bumps for top performers, you’ll have to make a solid case that you deserve a generous slice of the salary pie.
Indeed, three-quarters of workers who asked for better compensation saw paychecks go up, and 44% got what they requested, according to a recent PayScale survey. (The rest got something, but less than what they wanted.) Yet PayScale also found that 57% of workers had never asked for a raise—and half of those who hadn’t said it was because they were uncomfortable negotiating salary or didn’t want to be seen as pushy.
You don’t have to be a hardball negotiator, though. A few recent studies suggest some simple, surprising ways to get the pay you want.
Put it in email. You’ll have a better chance of success if you begin negotiations via email rather than in person, suggests a 2013 study by Michael Taylor at Imperial College London. Face-to-face interactions benefit the more powerful person in a negotiation, Taylor found—here, your boss.
So if you think it’s going to be a tough ask, start the conversation online. It’s easier to spell out your accomplishments, and you don’t have to worry about forgetting important points. “This is a good strategy if you’re nervous or your boss intimidates you,” says Chou.
Email also gives your manager a heads-up, giving him or her time to consult with HR or someone higher up. “The more prepared the manager is, the less he or she will be taken aback, and the higher the probability you’ll have success,” says Adam Ochstein, CEO of HR consulting firm StratEx.
It’s also harder for your boss to brush you off when you have the communication on record.
Keep it conversational. Once you advance to a meeting, use chitchat to establish rapport. In a Stanford University study published last spring, students who made small talk before a negotiation were much more likely to reach an agreement than those who got right down to business.
There are a couple of caveats. For one thing, small talk seems to pay off for men more than women. Both sexes benefited from casual chat when negotiating salary, a June 2015 study by American University management professor Alexandra Mislin found, but men got better deals. Women are expected to be more communicative, Mislin suggests, so they may not earn extra social capital from chatting.
Also, mind your boss’s schedule. “It’s always helpful to establish common ground,” says Deborah Kolb, author of Negotiating at Work—but if you can get only five minutes on someone’s calendar, she says, don’t spend it asking about weekend plans.
Know your target. Do enough homework that you can ask for a specific amount. Such concrete requests show that you’ve done your research, according to a study by Malia Mason at Columbia Business School, leading the person you’re negotiating with to take you seriously.
Keep in mind, however, that an ask that’s wildly off base could shut down the conversation altogether. Use sites like PayScale and Glassdoor to find salary ranges for your position. Then talk to colleagues about whether people are getting raises, and try to find out—discreetly—where your pay stands compared with that of others in similar positions.
Ask for a range. Using specific numbers doesn’t mean you should cite a single figure. A separate study by Mason and her colleague Daniel Ames found that presenting a range, starting with the number you really want, often produced better results.
For example, if you want to earn $5,000 more, ask for a $5,000 to $7,000 increase. According to Mason and Ames, a range makes you look more flexible than if you propose a single number.
Get more great advice in Money’s 2016 Career Guide.