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The Least Popular Hill Navigator Answer Yet

Think your office likes you? Really likes you? Sure, a manager can dole out praise and Christmas gift baskets with maple syrup straight from the home state. But when it comes to substantial raises, most offices plead indigent and offer a small cost-of-living adjustment. Hill Navigator is here to break the bad news, or at least prepare you for a better conversation.

Q. Thanks for your columns in the past about salary negotiations. As the year ends, I am thinking about my salary but also a year-end bonus. Do you have any advice? I know my office cries poverty but I think they have enough left in the budget to give us all a hefty bonus!

But I have bad news for you on salary negotiations. They don’t really work.

Sure, you can talk salary when you are negotiating a job, or you can command a raise if you have a competing offer or you’re changing positions. But Capitol Hill is not an even playing field — people are willing to work for free! Once you’re in that Capitol Hill office, no matter how high achieving you are, you are unlikely to see a substantial raise of any sort.

Here’s why: Hill offices don’t post a profit. There is no revenue stream. Your good work is not going to increase their operating budget. Yes, you can produce a memo with all of your gold-star accomplishments, but you’ve already demonstrated that you are willing to work for EXACTLY what they are paying you. And why would they give more money to you when they could buy a new copier? Or a CQ subscription?

But wait, you argue, my office loves me! This is an office that treats its staff well. It wants us to feel loved!

Maybe it does. But if you buy a Georgetown Cupcake for $3, you can’t expect to come back the next day and protest the going rate. You’ve already shown your willingness to pay, the same way you’ve shown your willingness to work. You can vote with your feet and take your cupcake business elsewhere, just as you can get a competing job offer. And yes, a competing offer can lead to a raise if an office wants to keep you. But barring that, you’re looking at a cost-of-living adjustment and maybe some cash thrown in for a Christmas bonus.

But if you’re a perennial optimist who thinks you have a shot at a raise, Hill Navigator wants to leave you with a few tactics that might help. Do your homework (Check out the Congressional Management Foundation’s study on staff compensation) and explain why you’re worth more. Tout accomplishments that show some cost-savings for the office (perhaps you’re the press secretary who writes the occasional constituent letter). If you’re hoping to move into a new position — at a different salary level — discuss ways to get there and what the raise might look like when that happens. Hopefully, that will lead to a productive conversation about your future.

And be prepared for some of these responses:

“We would love to; we just don’t have the money.”

Hogwash. An office decides how it wants to spend its cash, same as any red-blooded consumer out there. It has already decided how much your job is worth. Sure, managers would give everyone six figures if they could. But they can’t. So they don’t.

“How about a title change instead?”

This is the ultimate Capitol Hill consolation prize. Take it. It will beef up your résumé to show a promotion and your Capitol Hill experience is worth much more outside the walls of Congress.

“I really want to give it to you, but the [Boss/CoS/LD] says [No/Not now/No money].”

Whatever. Maybe they are staying home to wash their hair this weekend, too.

“You haven’t demonstrated that you’re ready for a larger role.”

This is something you can work with. What can you do to take on more responsibility? What areas can you improve in? Constructive feedback is valuable; take it when offered. Just don’t expect it to turn into more money right away.

“We can’t give you a raise now, but we’re giving you a great Christmas bonus.”

Oldest trick in the book, give a bonus to placate the staffers at end-of-year talks. But an office isn’t obligated to keep bonuses at the same level in following years. For that reason, a salary increase is always preferable. But if you do get a bonus, even a tiny one, hide your sour grapes and follow up with a thank-you note. Bosses love that. The bonus, after all, means they decided to spend their extra cash on the staff — and not a new copy machine.

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