Sink or Swim: breaking bad news about raises, and how to be an ally to women in the office

—The Sink or Swim advice column from Nancy Vonk and Janet Kestin answers real questions about leadership development. To learn more about the column, and Nancy and Janet, read the introduction here.—  

Q: I promised an excellent employee that a long-delayed raise was finally coming to him. But I got the bad news from the top that yet again, this would have to be delayed. I didn’t hide my frustration and concern that this will likely send this person out the door. How do I navigate this no-win situation? In his shoes, I would leave.

A: “Welcome to management hell,” as an old boss used to say when we were in a position like this. Today, more than ever, this is a very common scenario. In networks, especially, raise freezes mandated by global leadership can be a regular and uncomfortable challenge for local leaders to navigate.

But this is one situation where rocking the boat is in order. You were exactly right to warn your leader(s) this valued employee will be a flight risk. You may want to consider pushing that story further. Think through the worst that can happen—in financial terms as well as impact on the larger team. Tell your boss and other stakeholders (like the CFO) the gory story that will keep them up at night. If you can get them to understand the likely consequences, short and longer term, they may be motivated to revisit the decision. There’s nearly always an ‘emergency fund.’ (Ever notice that when a highly valued person actually resigns money magically becomes available? Though, by then, it’s often too late.)

The truth is, it typically costs more to replace people, never mind the time it takes to build important relationships, earning trust with clients and team members. Often the costs of not giving the raise are greater than the top-up would have been. There’s another penalty: the signal it sends to other employees when they watch a respected colleague walk out the door. If that employee tells others they’re leaving because the raise has been put off yet again, expect this ripple effect: a whole group can feel distrustful and resentful of leadership. A whole group can lose motivation to do their best. And start looking around. Oops.

All that said, even the best argument may not carry the day. Here are a few things you can do in that situation that may delay the exit, or even help avoid it altogether:

•Acknowledge this is disappointing and you wish you had better news. Be authentic and empathetic; show you really care. Toeing the company line (e.g. “I’m sure you can understand, we had a terrible quarter”) will not result in “understanding.” Whatever the company’s reason, it’s not the employee’s problem, so don’t approach it as if it is. They’ll only resent you more.

•Ask what would be of value that you may be able to deliver. Things like some time off, training or flexible hours can be meaningful and appreciated.

•If this is a younger person, increase the time you spend mentoring them and giving them feedback. Learning is ranked at the top of younger employees’ needs. You can keep them learning and growing.

•Consider what great project or account you could give them right now. Consider what hellish account you could take them off of.

•Promise to revisit compensation in a set amount of time.

Q: I was in a meeting recently where an idea I shared with management was ignored, but when raised again in the same meeting by a male colleague, got an enthusiastic response. I know this is a text book example of women not being taken seriously, but I have yet to hear how to respond effectively when this happens. Your take?  

A: The scene goes something like this, right?

Farah: “Let’s try ‘no-meeting Mondays,’ so people can have some focused time to get things done.” Silence.

Jonathan: “I know how we could take back some of the calendar. Let’s implement ‘no-meeting Mondays.”

“That’s a good thought, Jon. Do you want to take on making it happen?”

It’s painfully common, and often the only person who notices it happening is the woman whose idea has been “hepeated.” Yes, there’s even a word for it, right there in the Urban Dictionary cozying up to “mansplaining” and “manteruppting,” and originally shared in this tweet from astronomer, Professor Nicole Gugliucci.

It happens because we’re accustomed to men being in charge; we’ve been trained to listen and to take them seriously. Women’s voices are late to that party. Even women who speak up with ease find their ideas coming out of the mouths of their male colleagues. So, what the heck to do?

Maybe take a page from women staffers in Barack Obama’s White House, who teamed up and when a woman made an important statement in a meeting, other women in the room repeated it and credited her. They called it ‘amplifying’ and as the story goes, President Obama noticed and began to make a point of calling on the women specifically, to make sure they were heard. It seems a little sad to have to link arms with your sistren to be taken seriously, but alas. Think of it as teaching the group to notice.

A woman we know, described a similar kind of support from a man who is often in meetings with her. When he sees that her thinking is being ignored or passed over, he will repeat it and credit her before the idea can vanish or be usurped by someone else in the room. It’s called being an ally, and not only women can be allies of other women.

As a leader, making sure people know you want to hear from everyone, and making space for them to speak, ups the odds that the right people will get credit for their own thinking. The more the diversity in the room, the more the leader insists on hearing multiple perspectives and points of view, the less the likelihood of hepeating, mansplaining or manterrupting. It would be good to lighten the Urban Dictionary by a few words.

**Are you an emerging (or even experienced) leader facing a challenge in your role? Nancy and Janet have advice based on working with thousands of people from around the globe. Email your question to

Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk are the co-founders of Swim, a “creative leadership lab” that supports the success of leaders at every level around the globe. They were co-chief creative officers of Ogilvy Toronto (1998-2012).




David Brown