My Boss Promised Me a Raise and I Got ZILCH!

I got an e-mail from someone I’ll call Leana who was promised a $2500 raise after only a few months at the company. When the time came for it to appear in her paycheck, there was nothing. Zilch. Nada.

When she asked them what happened, she was told by HR they’re reviewing the situation. Turns out she’d was written up (I don’t know for what) and they say this affects the raise. Leana is upset because she was written up AFTER the promise and feels that her boss has no right to renege. She works for a small private company and has been there for approximately four months total.

In her e-mail she asked what she should do. Since I’m not a lawyer, I made sure to tell her that my opinion does not constitute a legal opinion. But there are some issues raised by this situation that I think are worth talking about. (If there are any legal experts out there who can shed more light on this or want to correct anything I say, please feel free!)

My first question would be whether any of these communications are in writing. My gut tells me if nothing is in writing, she is totally in their hands. Most states are employment at will (THEIR will) meaning employers can pretty much do anything they want as long as it doesn’t violate any laws (like those on discrimination) or contractual law (like those in the official handbook or any written contract.) But unless there is something more to her story, there is no law protecting Leana from them changing their minds. It was just some spoken words without (I presume) any paper backing it up.

Leana feels she earned the raise by her good work, but since it’s a private company, she only “earned” it if they say she did. There was no contracted raise or bonus. In fact, according to Leana, it was a surprise that came about 2 months after she started her job. And then a couple of weeks later, before she actually got the raise, she was written up. Not great timing for sure.

I can certainly understand how she feels, since as far as she’s concerned a promise was made. And she really wanted the raise. Who wouldn’t? What I don’t know are the details of what really happened.

A few questions come to mind:

  • Under the circumstances, were her employers wrong to promise her the raise and then back off?
  • What exactly did she do to get the warning and why does it matter so much to her employer?
  • When she got the warning, did they mention that her raise was now in jeopardy?
  • Is there more to the employer’s side than Leana is telling us that would make their actions more understandable?
  • Does the employer perhaps have a history of taking advantage of employees or are they being straight up with her?

But all questions aside, Leana has only been there a few months total and she has no power in the company. Even if you’ve been there a lot longer and this happens, there is little you can do if your boss decides not to give you the raise you thought was coming – especially if there is no contract or collective bargaining agreement.

So what should she do?

At this point, I would suggest Leana speak directly to her boss (not HR) and ask careful questions as politely as possible. And she should apologize for whatever she was written up for and make it clear she will do her best from now on. And she should give concrete examples of how well she’s been doing since the warning – which I hope is true. Sincerity goes a long way!

For future reference, Leana should find a way to get things in writing. If they don’t offer anything written, she might want to e-mail a polite “thank you” mentioning the exact terms of what they said and making sure to include a question like “did I state the information correctly?” so that she gets a written e-mail response from them. (She should also send herself a copy to her personal e-mail account.)

In the case of something like a warning, it would make sense to bring up questions like “How does this affect me?” so there are no further surprises. Again, get it in writing if possible. (But remember to do this very tactfully or you will raise more red flags to lawsuit-wary employers. If it really feels wrong in your particular circumstances, then err on the side of caution.)

Whatever Leana does from this point forward – even if she decides to look for a new job – she should do her best while still at the company. I know that’s really hard sometimes, but it pays off in the long run.

And most definitely she should NOT go around complaining about how “they done her wrong!” These things come back to bite you in the butt – like in references. It’s always smart in the world of work to leave with a good image. You never know when you’ll be working with one of those very same people or someone they know.

It also helps to put your best foot forward for your own sake. You’ll wind up feeling better about each work day. There is nothing fun about slogging through each day in a foul mood, just nursing that hurt. I know the hardest thing a person can do sometimes is to separate something that bugs them from the rest of the experience – but it’s well worth the effort.

Whether Leana gets the raise or not is something she can discuss with her boss and HR, but in the end that decision is out of her control. But how she carries herself and performs on the job is up to her. Her smartest move is to act exactly as if she got the raise and work hard to become the best possible employee she can be. Successful people don’t live in the past.

Even if she eventually walks away, she’ll walk away with her head held proudly – and not as a victim.


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Nice answer to a pretty common question that most people have nowadays – how to react when we’re faced with bosses who breaks promises?

    It is always important to have ‘promises’ in black and white – paper, or in more IT-savvy companies , emails. It’s to prevent the thing like “I said A but you heard me saying B” to happen.

    Best way I guess is to talk to the boss and see what mistake did she make. If the boss tried to cook up some stories saying you did this n that wrong…but fact is you didn’t do it. Well, just ignore that and do your work. Do well, get some good references…and leave.

  2. Thanks Alvin. By the way…Alvin lives in Malaysia and has his own site filled with interesting advice.

    The only thing I want to add is that a person in Leana’s situation may in fact have done something to contribute to the situation – even if the details as her boss sees them don’t completely match her own take on things. It will help Leana now and in the rest of her career to step back and try to honestly see the role she played in this organizational dynamic.

    Things that at first glance seem like bad news can offer up career smarts that will prove more valuable than any raise. The trick is using the past to learn, but then letting go of the anger and bad feelings and moving on. Success doesn’t have time for baggage.

    And of course, as Alvin says, if these are really trumped-up charges, do your work, smile, and brush up that resume!

  3. Yeap, it’s important to be honest to yourself. Leave any form of ‘ego’ that you have at that moment and try to realize your mistakes. Otherwise, you might end up thinking you are correct, but fact is you’re just being unreasonable.

    Learn from them, and be sure to keep some positive opinions on these issues…….no point complaining about how bad other people were in the past. 🙂

  4. My situation is similar, but has some critical differences. I work for a national company that did an employee satisfaction survey that showed a major problem in the company was with inadequate compensation. The regional management team notified my boss by email that there would be wage adjustments made for several employees in our facility. When the due date came around for the pay to show up several people got their increase, but I didn’t. My boss checked into this with her superior and was told there was a foul up in the paperwork for my increase and to resubmit it and it would come through next pay day. Part of it did, but not the amount promised. My boss has told me verbally and in writing that it was not a problem with me or my performance, the higher rate was an error on the division level and that the increases had been nixed by the division VP and the COO at the national level. The people who had already received their increases got to keep them. I got the amount I would have gotten at the time of my review without the adjustment made by division management. I’m in the process of appealing this decision at the current time.

  5. Wow! That is a really awful way to run a business. Don’t they understand that what they gain in rescinding the increases they lose in morale? I understand mistakes happen, but if I were running the place I would at least have offered you a compensating bonus to show their appreciation and regret for the whole misunderstanding.

    I’m glad you are appealing. Why should you be screwed out of what the others got because of the company’s error compounded by another error? You did nothing wrong and yet you were left with a bad taste in your mouth. Luckily you have some hard copy documents to show your side of the story. There’s no guarantee of course, but I hope they do the right thing.

    If not…think hard about whether it might not be time to start thinking about looking elsewhere. The way they treat you now reflects on how you’ll be treated down the road. But of course, if you love your job and want to stay there, then at least you’ve done all you can to stand up for yourself.

    Good luck!!!

  6. Yes, if this doesn’t play out the way it should I’ll start job shopping after the first of the year. I have a meeting with the division manager and my boss this Tuesday. Should be interesting…

  7. Sounds like you have a solid perspective on the situation. I wish you much luck, Laurie. Please let us know how it turns out!

  8. Hi Jim!

    Although $500 isn’t all that much when you make close to $100, 000, I can still understand that you feel your boss didn’t follow through with what he promised. Depending on the way the company deals with its raises, he may or may not be able to do anything for you at this point; but, if you feel comfortable doing so, I would at least try to discuss it with him.

    Since I don’t know the situation as well as you do, I can only tell you what I might do in your place. I would ask if I may speak with him privately and then tell him that I understand it was just a mistake and these things happen, but I’d look him in the eyes pleasantly but firmly and ask if there is a way he could make it up to you. (Remember to wait for him to respond, even if there is a silent pause.) If he asks what you were thinking, you can ask him, for instance, can he get it put back retroactively? Or, if not, can you get a bonus for that amount? (A few dollars more technically because of the carry forward compounding effects, but I’d let that slide if it were me.) Or if neither of those are possible, maybe he could at least guarantee you he will make sure you are made whole at your next raise.

    If he’s basically a nice guy, you have nothing to lose. Main thing is to handle it all very lightly and cordially and, if he says he’s sorry but he can’t do anything…well, at least you tried. I wouldn’t let it bug me. Depending on the relationship, I might even have enough chutzpah to half-jokingly ask “How about an extra day off instead?” and see how he responds. I leave that in your capable hands to decide whether that would be going too far in your particular situation. 😉

    I know it’s a small amount and I sure wouldn’t make a big thing of it, but I agree that it doesn’t feel quite right. At least it’s worth giving it a shot.

    Oh…one more caveat. If you can tell by his body language and/or reaction that this is really bugging him, it’s ok to let it go. Of course, if it’s really going to eat at you, either bring it up anyway or let it go. Don’t hold on to the feeling. It’s just not all that important in the long run.

    Good luck!

    Ronnie Ann

  9. At issue is a 1/2% difference (less) between what my boss put in writing on my annual review documents (signed) and what HR processed. When I pointed out the problem, my boss checked with HR and then relayed to me that he had made a mistake and that he was sorry. Raises are based on a formula and he accidently used an old formula. 1/2% doesn’t amount to a lot of money (<$500) but it bothers me that he just shrugged it off. I let him know that I was disappointed and commented that I was surprised this wasn’t handled differently. Should I pursue this further?

  10. Great advice for this example….but what about if this happens several times ?
    I’ve been told several things over many years that hasn’t been followed through and it seems like you are being strung along. As much as I want to be a team player, at this ipoint … se ms more like managerial incompetence and mistrust in their empty promises. How long can one roll w the changes before it starts to become BS.

    • chandlee says:

      Dear Ascon,

      If it happens for a long time — it could be because the company is in a bad spot — and it actually has nothing to do with you. You always have one option: Find a job that feels like it is a fit for you…and go from there.

      Good luck and all the best,

  11. Tobedickens says:

    A written raise was recently given on paper and now I’m told it will be 8 cents less. Nothing has happened to not get what is on paper. Can they be held to pay the written amount ? I’m told it was a typo and will not get it written amount.

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      It’s hard to say whether or not they can be “held” to what they put on paper. MAY be they can be held to it, but probably not without going into court. I doubt it is something that breaks the law to the point that local law enforcement would arrest anyone. If they aren’t arrested for this “offense” you would need to hire a lawyer to take them to court to get that money, so probably not worth it unless this happens frequently and to many employees.

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