Let Them Say No: How to Get What You Want From Your Employer

Think like a man.

Not getting what you want out of your employer? Here’s how to change the conversation.

I was recently talking to a friend who was considering going for a promotion, but she was unsure if she should. We talked it through–all the pros and cons (she had long lists for both)–and then, without thinking, I blurted: “What would you do if you were a white man?” She decided to go for the promotion.

Yes, another article reminding women that if you don’t ask for something, you probably won’t get it. What’s different now, however, is that studies show employers are scrambling: 88 percent of executives say they’re facing higher turnover rates than usual, and over 60 percent recognize that wages (41 percent) or benefits (23 percent) are the reasons employees are leaving. That combined with the staggering number of women who left the workforce during the pandemic has employers hyper-focused on retaining women. So, if you were waiting for the right moment to ask, that moment is now.

Easy enough, right? Wrong. The next steps are big ones:

Figure out what you want.

While we like to think of the pandemic as unveiling new inequities, in many cases it brought disparities we already knew about into the light. Working parents, for example, didn’t suddenly realize that it was hard to balance being successful at work with raising other human beings; we knew that already. But as co-workers watched tiny colleagues show up incessantly in Zoom calls, and parents started to parent a little more openly, it became even clearer that this is no easy feat. There has been a collective realization that many of us, working moms especially, aren’t getting what we need from our employers to live our best lives. What are the things you might want to change about work to make life easier? Work-life balance may be hard to achieve, but the seesaw doesn’t have to be totally tipped in one direction.

Recent survey data suggests a few areas in which employees are making demands:

. Increased wages: Women, and, in particular, BIPOC women, are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts (this year, Black Women’s Equal Pay Day was set at August 3, representing how many days into 2021 Black women would’ve had to work to make as much as men did in 2020). It just might be time to ask for that raise.

. Better benefits: Good health coverage, while essential, is no longer enough. With the growing mental health crisis, employees are asking for help, including access to coaching and therapy. Working parents need support across the parenting journey–from fertility to back-up care for babies and younger kids, to online classes that can engage and support their school-aged learners, and guidance for applying to or paying for college. Parents are an incredibly important asset to companies (Did you know that 40 percent of working parents are people managers?) and the benefits they offer should reflect that.

. Flexibility: This may include setting your own hours, choosing whether you work from home, remote or hybrid, reducing your hours, job sharing, or the ability to more easily switch shifts. Just because it “worked” before (most likely because you moved mountains to make it work), doesn’t mean it works for you anymore.

. Career advancement: Motherhood often leads to not only decreased wage earnings but, relatedly slowed career growth and progression. Women are increasingly asking for more opportunities for growth–and ones that fit into their lives and responsibilities at home.

Make a plan.

For many, asking for something is uncomfortable and we’ve developed our own, unique ways to prepare for those conversations. There are a few tried and true strategies and practices to help you get ready to make the ask.

. Know what you want. Many managers have a bias to action and want you to bring them not only the problem, but also the proposed solution. Telling your manager you’re burned out puts the onus on them to solve it; telling them you’re burned out and having ideas about how to address it not only takes the burden off them, but also gives you the power to achieve a solution that’ll meet your needs. Learn what your options might be (check out the benefits at competitors, talk to friends at other companies, or seek out insights from organizations like the Parents in Tech Alliance). Read articles about what other companies are doing and consider what yours might be able to do. Come to your manager with the options you think would work best for you, rather than a list of all that might be possible.

. Consider what is likely. It’s a hard balance sometimes: You don’t want to negotiate against yourself or not ask for what you want, but you also know that asking for the impossible can erode credibility early in a conversation. Once you have your list of what you want, put yourself in the shoes of your manager and think, “What would we need to change to make this a reality?” Coming in with not just what you want but also how you think the company could make it happen gives you the upper hand–and might give your manager one more reason to value your contributions. After all, you know how to get things done.

. Write it down. Sweaty palms, a flushed face, and a suddenly empty brain are all common when we get nervous, and it can be difficult to clearly articulate what we want when a conversation is emotionally charged. Bullet out the main things you want to say, including any data or supporting evidence you want to bring to the conversation. Even if you’re communicating over Zoom and can’t surreptitiously look down, the act of writing it will help, and it is a bonus if you can refer to your notes during the conversation.

. Practice it. It isn’t for everyone, but practicing with a friend, or even on your own, may help you go into your discussion with more confidence. It can calm your nerves and steady your voice. Going through it a few times before the big conversation will make it a lot easier when the stakes are higher.

Ask for it.

You’ve done most of the hard work–now you need to ask for what you want. Take a deep breath and remember: You’ve got this!

. Do a power pose. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy recommends a two-minute exercise to get yourself ready for anything: find a private space and get into a power pose. She recommends a Wonder Woman (wide legs, hands on hips) or lifting your arms up into a v-shape and holding up your chin. You’ll be surprised at how different you feel just by changing your stance.

. Stay focused. You know why you asked for the meeting and what you want to get out of it. Stick to the points you want to make and, as much as possible, make it about you. Speak your own truth and try to stay away from things like “a lot of us feel,” or “other women have told me.” In this case, you are solving for you and you want to keep the conversation focused on your own needs.

. Send a follow-up. Take some time to reflect on how your discussion went and then send a short email summarizing what you asked for and where you landed. Make sure you capture any action items or next steps and answer lingering questions. If you can, agree to a timeline for when things might change–you don’t want something on the top of your needs list to end up on the bottom of someone else’s to-do list.

Employers today recognize that they need to change in order to keep their teams. According to a recent study, 65 percent of employees indicated that they’re considering new opportunities. It’s a scary proposition for us all, and especially for employers. The cost of turnover is higher than ever, and while some companies may be slower in making systemic changes, one thing we know is that if individuals don’t ask for what we need, cultural changes are even less likely to come to fruition. So go on, lead the way: The only way to get what you want is to ask for it. Give your employer the chance to say no; although it’s a lot more likely they’ll say yes.

Amy Yamner Jenkins is the Head of Schools and Distribution for Outschool. She has spent the last 20+ years working in education in a variety of settings: as a middle school teacher in Oakland, after-school program provider in San Francisco, investor through NewSchools Venture Fund and most recently as the COO and an advisor to school districts through Education Elements. Amy is a frequent speaker at education conferences, including SXSWEdu, INACOL and ASCD and has authored several publications. She has an A.B. from Dartmouth College and an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School. She lives in California and has two spirited daughters.


Think like a man.

Not getting what you want out of your employer? Here’s how to change the conversation.

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