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Staff salaries – Top tips on how to make pay conversations easier

March 3, 2020, 6:38 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Sonia Gill gives her top tips on how to make pay conversations easier...
Staff salaries – Top tips on how to make pay conversations easier

The introduction of performance-related pay has resulted in a plethora of methods for determining wage increases.

However you determine a pay increase, talking about money can feel awkward; even conversations where someone is getting a pay rise can feel hard if the rise doesn’t match what they believe they deserve.

With school budgets becoming increasingly tight, staff pay has suffered greatly in the last few years and performance related pay conversations can be that much harder.

Whatever conversation you’re having about pay one thing remains fundamental: be clear in the rationale.

The facts

Be it an annual review or a restructure, when talking about pay you must be clear about the logic behind the decision – this is key to reducing the emotive nature of these conversations. Make sure you have the information that allows you to do this, which includes:

1. Your pay structure, pay bands and the process.

2. What is needed for pay progression – the evidence required and what it needs to show eg what performance and skills need to be seen and to what level in order for pay to increase.

3. Any whole school budget issues that affect pay decisions.

The aim is to empower people to know what their pay should be in a clear and explicit way. If some people are being paid at a higher level than their performance warrants, while there are some who are not being paid enough, by providing clear information they should be able to accurately determine where their own pay should be. This is crucial to making conversations about pay more transparent, simpler and less emotional.


Pay conversations can feel emotional because pay is crucial to people’s quality of life. Use of the facts will help reduce the emotion ahead of the meeting, but if a pay conversation does get emotional here are some tips for managing it in the moment:

  • Let them talk – if they are ranting let them get it out (but the rant should be within reason)
  • Present evidence – eg if this had been done to this standard/for this duration then I would agree you had shown ‘x’
  • They mention someone else’s pay – remind them people’s pay is confidential and you’re not able to discuss anyone’s but their own

When talking about pay people can get upset in a range of ways. Here are a few ways to handle the most common reactions.

What if they cry?

I get asked this a lot. My preference is not to end the meeting but sit patiently and wait for them to be ready to speak or, if staying feels awkward or inappropriate, offer to go and get them a glass of water a this gives you both a bit of a breather.

When they are ready to talk a nice lead in is to ask, ‘Would you be willing to share with me what upset you?’.

I realise you might not want to know, that’s your choice, but if you’re willing to listen it can help clear the air. The key is to listen and keep listening, don’t feel you need to answer every issue or fix it – get an overview of the issues and then decide how to approach them.

What if they get angry?

Keeping your balance when the other person reacts emotionally can be hard. So here’s a handy sentence structure that can help move them on from the emotion:

When you… I feel… And I would like to feel…

For example: When you shout at me, I feel like we can’t discuss your pay properly and I would like to feel that we can discuss it to see if we can agree or if one of us might change our view if we have more information.

What if they say how it affects their home life?

This is hard; being told their child can’t have something, that they are the main earner and are struggling to meet costs, or that they will have to take a second job. This rightly pulls at the heart strings and although it might feel like there is little you can do there are some ways to help:

Listen – it might not seem like much but for some this will be a rare moment of sharing what’s going on for them and good listener can really help them process it.

Are there ways they can increase their pay through additional responsibilities or improving performance? You might not be able to raise their pay now but help them see how they could in future and what this might look like financially.

Is there some short-term support you could put in place that might help the situation they are in at the moment, eg a later start time a few days a week? Be clear about how long you can do this for, so it doesn’t become the normal way of working.

I can’t pay what they deserve!

I get it, budgets are tight. But there are few things you can do here:

1. Acknowledging what their pay should be, that it’s not and why it can’t be at this stage (eg whole school deficit) can help someone see that you would if you could.

2. Could you ask your team what their choice or ideas are to free up the amount that would be needed to give the pay that is deserved? For example, as a team we cannot have this resource which would give us ‘x’ to put into pay. Of course there are considerations: are you allowed to reallocate that spend? Would the lack of resource hinder the school in other ways eg pupil progress? But it makes this an issue that you could try to solve together and who knows what collective thinking might bring.

3. Reward in non-financial ways – there are other ways to show people you value them and help them feel rewarded, for example some people would really value a day off during term time more than a pay rise because time is something you can’t often buy.

Decisions about pay can really affect how valued someone feels and their ongoing performance and commitment to the school.

Whilst is might not be possible or right to give everyone what they want, a clear understanding of why it is the way it is should make discussions easier. Then it’s down to explaining why you are giving your pay recommendation and managing the emotions.

Checklist for pay conversations

Do your team know:

1. Your pay bands and what is expected in each band.
2. Pay review process including key dates.
3. What is needed for pay progression – the evidence required and what it needs to show.
4. Any whole school budget issues that affect pay decisions that the team should be made aware of.

For each person:

5. Why are you/aren’t you recommending a pay increase?
6. What do they need to do to get a pay rise next time?
7. Is this person expecting a pay rise?
8. Are they likely to react emotionally and if so how? How will you manage this?
9. Are there external issues that are likely to come into the conversation?

Sonia Gill is founder of the consultancy Heads Up. She is the author of Successful Difficult Conversations in School and Journey to Outstanding; for further tips on how to structure a difficult conversation, sign up to the Heads Up free e-course where in just five short videos, Sonia will show you how to structure any difficult conversation for success! Sign up at

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