Asking for a raise is hard enough in normal economic times. But in the current economic climate, when you feel glad to even have a job, how risky is it to ask for a higher salary, and how do you do it?  Tara Siegel Bernard explored this issue in a recent article for The New York Times.

“If you are a good-performing employee who is contributing, I think it poses zero danger,” saidMike Zwell, a consultant and author. “The worst that will happen is that they will say no, and give you some reason for it.”

Still, compensation budgets remain tight, and the employees who are getting raises tend to be their company’s top-performing stars with unique skills — in other words, the employees who stand the highest risk of being poached by competitors.

How can you set yourself apart? Much depends on how you are perceived and your overall approach when you have the conversation. So before you walk into your boss’s office, consider the following:

ARE YOU DESERVING? Well before you ask about a raise, you need to get a sense of how you are perceived. Most workers have said their employers don’t provide enough feedback. If your employer doesn’t have formal performance reviews in place, set up a time to ask your supervisor about how you’re doing.

THE PREPARATION. Once you’ve decided you deserve a raise, take the time to build your case. Keep a file of the “attaboy and attagirl” letters from associates or clients, which will help justify your request. Keep track of any additional responsibilities you’ve taken on, perhaps because others were laid off or your role has simply evolved or expanded. Writing it down will help you organize your thoughts. On one side, make a column listing all of your responsibilities. In another column, list what you’ve accomplished in order of importance. Going through this exercise will help you develop a strong case for your supervisors, many of whom don’t control the company purse strings. So make their job easy. To give you a raise, your boss may have to ask his or her superior.

THE NUMBERS. Try to assess how fairly you’re being paid. The most effective way may be through networking or trusted internal sources. Does your company have pay grades with minimum and maximum levels? Where do you fall? Is your request realistic?

PRACTICE. Before you approach your boss, summarize the main points you’d like to make, practice your delivery with a partner and envision what sort of response you might get.

HOW YOU ASK. Don’t make threats or ultimatums. Your boss is more likely to try to find the money if you make it clear that you are happy to be part of the company.

Even a disappointing result could have a positive outcome long term, because you’ve opened the lines of communication, which can help build your relationship with your boss.