On top of this, managers are moving away from giving a small rise to everyone; instead, high performers compete for a larger slice of what's available. A recent survey carried out by financial recruitment specialists Robert Half discovered that 42 per cent of companies base rises purely on merit, while a further 15 per cent take merit into account. "Twenty years ago it would have been as little as 2 or 3 per cent," says managing director Jeff Grout. "The recession has accelerated this. Rather than saying 'no pay rise' or awarding a small one to everyone, managers are looking at performance." He adds, ominously, "If you don't ask, you don't get."
Not getting, however, is still a possibility. "I asked for a rise months ago, and was delighted to be promised an early review," says one disgruntled employee. "I then asked if I could have written confirmation of that. Again, the answer was a sparkling 'Yes'. Since then I've heard nothing, received nothing, and the manager who made the promise has stalled me and avoided me for all this time."
"What happens in the company where I work is that you get a flat 'No', with the proviso that if someone offers you more elsewhere, they will try and match it," complains another underpaid worker.
Shock tactics can occasionally work. "I was a trainee on peanuts, and my job involved meeting people on the company's behalf. It wasn't so bad in winter, but the only summer clothes I had were T-shirts. I said 'You have to give me more money, I've got no clothes', and they did," recalls one former pauper.
One of the hardest things is persuading managers that giving a fair wage can be to their advantage. "There is a psychological theory called equity theory," observes occupational therapist Ben Williams, who works with managers and staff at all levels. "You want to achieve what you believe you are worth, so if you don't get a rise, you start trying to nibble back the extra money by taking extra time off, taking computer discs and stationery from the office, charging lunch to your expense accounts, and so on."
Sometimes, Williams adds, there is no way forward. "If the company is downsizing and doing poorly, you should ask yourself seriously 'Do I stay or do I go?'"
But ultimately, being shoved into moving on can be the making of you. "Sometimes you may need to call their bluff," says Williams, who practises in Edinburgh. "Sean Connery was once told by his boss that if he really worked hard and hung on for a few years, he might get his own milk cart, even be a supervisor one day. Look at him now. He's one of Edinburgh's favourite sons and we're all really proud of him."