Deciphering What Your Annual Review Raise Means

Recently my boss came to me and told me that my annual review was coming due. I’m not sure if he was telling me this to warn me to get off my ass and be productive, or if he was giving me a heads up that I might want to start looking for a new job. The fact that his message was unclear got me thinking though; what exactly do I expect from an annual review?

From an employee prospective the annual review is about one thing: big fat raise. Employers can push their “growth plans” and “360 reviews” all they want, but for the actual employee it simply comes down to how much more money they are going to see in their paycheck. Honestly, every time you have ever been given a raise, what’s the first thing you do? You check out how much more per paycheck that means to you.

But getting past the 37$ more a week thing, what does the percentage raise your boss just told you really mean to you? And what does it mean in perspective of your bigger picture? Is it a worthwhile number? Does it merit staying with the company another year? Or is it more profitable to your bottom line to go elsewhere?

These are the questions your employer really does not want you thinking about. Yet, employers run their companies as a business. They are in it to make money. So they should not be surprised when an employee runs their own life in the same way. You are in it for the money and it is money that talks.

So, in light of my own upcoming performance review, I decided to write down a scale of exactly what my feelings should be toward my company depending upon the percentage my boss tells me at the end of my performance review. The idea being, that I don’t have to rush back to my desk and figure out how much more per paycheck I’m going to get. Instead, I want to hear a number and instantly know if I’m being insulted or congratulated.

Now, before you go read the charts I want to tell you to please remember to take this with a grain of salt. Employee/Employer relationships are complex things, and you should be mindful of that. You also need to be mindful of your own situation, the availability of jobs in your industry, how valuable you are in the work place, blah blah blah. All I’m saying is to think before you leap.

Also, this is just about an increase to your salary here. Things like bonuses and stock options do not count because they are a one-time payout. If you boss gives you those, that is a nice thing to do and all, but a merit increase is about sustained growth not a one time bump. If your boss does this kind of tactic, just ignore the bump factor and focus on the growth factor. The bump is a nice way to say thanks, but it’s the raise that counts.

0% This company is actually the worse off because you are an employee here. Get the hell out.
Getting 0% as your annual review is basically tantamount to being fired, regardless of the reason. A company will tell you “we had a poor first quarter this year and that hurt everyone’s raises.” But what you really should be hearing is “Get the hell out.” The company is basically telling you that regardless of your performance they do not want you to stick around. If they cannot even muster a token increase, the company is doomed to failure.

1% We basically gave you a raise because we have to but nobody here likes you or wants you to stay.
The 1% raise is the token insult raise; a little something because they must, but honestly they’d just rather give you nothing. If you were a minimum wage worker your company basically just told you that they think you’re worth only 6 more cents an hour. If you made the median household income in the United States as of 2005, this would roughly translate to $8.91 more a week. I recommend you spend that money on resume paper and go find a new job.

2% We’d really prefer it if you just saved us all a lot of trouble and stayed at home sitting on your sofa.
This raise translates to $17.81 more a pay check. Unfortunately that won’t even cover the cost of the gasoline you use to get to work every week. A company might give you this in hopes of motivating you to “excel” or “exceed”. I recommend that you take the hint and “Exit.” In fact, if your manager/boss person tells you that 2% is your raise this year, there’s no reason for you to stay another minute. You can probably make more money selling magazines out of a van.

3% We have decided to shower you with our greatness and you should be thankful for it!
Alright, this is the defacto raise that companies usually use for a base. Someone once told them that that was the “annual cost of living” increase. I’m sorry to tell them this, but last year the cost of a loaf of bread climbed 8%. That means it’s roughly 8% more expensive to eat this year than it was last year. Worse yet, companies make this seem like they’re doing you a wonderful favor. A favor would be if you could afford to eat more than a damn loaf of bread.

4% You don’t deserve a brand new Porsche, but the people who own your sorry ass do.
Since 3% is the defacto raise, 4% is usually reserved for the companies that want to give out 3% but they know you did a kick ass job. In a company of 100 employees that made $1,000,000 in profit last year, a 4% raise for everyone in the company means that the company spent 18% of it’s $1,000,000 in profit on raises (assuming everyone makes the national median wage). To us, this doesn’t exactly say “Keep up the good work.” Instead it says, “Keep up the good work, you’re making us rich and we don’t like to share!”

5% We respect and value your lazy ass, but if you try harder we’d reward you better.
This is what I would call the bare minimum of fair raises. This says, you’re doing an adequate job and we see potential for improvement. Keep striving to be a better employee and next year there could be a more than 5%. This is usually the lowest raise at which I wouldn’t suggest looking for a new job right away. But I’d temper that by telling you that you could probably get more money by changing jobs.

6% You’re doing a decent job but we’re a little too cheap to really show you we appreciate you.
A company that shells out 6% is one that actually values you as an employee. They know you’re doing a good job and they want to keep you around. Unfortunately, someone in the management chain is cheap so the 6% raise is usually reserved for the one “rockstar” employee. I would argue that 6% is a token show better than 5% which every employee ought to have gotten, so it’s really not “rockstar” ready. You might want to take a look around the company and see how many 6% raises they gave out. If you’re it, than the company might just be a little too cheap for your dream of buying beach front property in Jamacia.

7% Way to go! Keep up the good work and someday we’ll promote you into management.
Finally we’re getting into the category of raises that say the right thing. These raises tell an employee that they did a good job and by golly you want them to stick around. Unfortunately, for companies these days most employees can get 10% just by changing jobs. If you got one of these raises, it’s time to weigh that extra 3% you could get from changing jobs against your apathy of looking for a new job. If the job conditions are good, a 3% jump and the risk of changing jobs might not be worth it.

8% We think you’re the best thing since sliced bread and we’re willing to do what it takes to keep you.
Remember back in the 3% raise we talked about sliced bread? Up 8% from last year? Well, with an 8% raise you are keeping abreast of being able to feed your family of four and your dog and a picket fence. The good news is that your employer really values you. The bad news is if you are only breaking even on feeding your family, you’re lifestyle is pretty much stuck in a rut. Keep your eyes open for golden opportunities, but you really have it pretty good.

9% You’re doing an excellent job and are exactly the type of person we want to keep working here.
Obviously someone at you company thinks your hot stuff and went the extra mile for you. It’s probably your boss and we assume if you got this raise you have an awesome boss. Awesome bosses are extraordinarily hard to find, so before you even think of jumping ship, take stock of what you have. It’s probably a pretty good thing.

and up
You rule! We love you! Please, please, please do us the honor of working for us another year.
Honestly, if you get 10% or more, then your company absolutely rocks and you shouldn’t even consider thinking about changing jobs. 10% means the company recognizes your contributions, it believes in you as a long term employee, and it is willing to do what it takes to make sure you stay on board. And even more importantly, the company wants to reward your contributions to its success by helping you to your own successes. You simply cannot beat that.

So there you have it. My quick and dirty field guide for determining if you are being insulted or rewarded. It is my hope that you will take this out into the world, share it with your friends and co-workers, give it to your boss and her boss, and use it as a reference guide during your annual review. You should even use it as a reference point when it comes time to fight for a better merit increase.

My advice to you is, hope for 10%, but be ready for 3%. And then, be prepared to do what you must to better YOUR situation.

“Deciphering What Your Annual Review Raise Means” is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License which you can learn about at and you can read at The original author is Glen R. Goodwin and can be found at You can find additional copies of this document at