By Anne Fisher, contributor
FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I’ve been at my current job for about four years, during which I’ve survived several rounds of company-wide layoffs, made it through a huge, disruptive merger, and reported to five different bosses. I manage multiple brands for a wide range of products, and my knowledge of our operations and our customers is immense. My responsibilities have increased steadily since I started, and I’m involved in major decisions at both the strategic and tactical levels. In addition, I’ve built strong relationships with everyone here and I know my boss likes my work.
All good, right? But here’s the problem. Strangely, I just found out that a colleague of mine, who has the same title and duties I have but who was hired just last year, is making $14,000 a year more than I am. This is hard to swallow, not only because I’ve been here longer, but because I was the one who trained this person. I understand we’re in a down economy and so on, but this just doesn’t seem fair. How can I convince my boss that I deserve more money, without giving away my direct knowledge of what my coworker is making? — Seething Quietly
Dear S.Q.: Over the past couple of years, so many companies have frozen salaries for existing employees, but not for new hires (even if they never announced they were doing this), that your situation is doubtless more common than you think.
For one thing, extra dough -- recruiters call it an “open-market premium” -- often goes to job candidates wooed from outside. What’s more, it’s rare even for people in the same job to be exactly alike in every way. Your colleague may have credentials or experience you don’t have, which could account for some of the discrepancy in pay.<!-- more -->
But in practical terms, your coworker’s compensation doesn’t matter. What will make or break your chances of getting a substantial raise is how persuasive you can be in explaining why you are worth more than you’re paid now.
Your timing is good. This time of year, as department heads firm up their budgets for 2012, is the right moment to negotiate a pay hike. This is especially true if your company is hiring, and even more so if you happen to work in a thriving industry.
“A lot depends on what you do and what business you do it in,” says Katie Bardaro, lead research analyst at PayScale.com, a site that tracks compensation trends. “If you’re in high tech, health care, energy, or any engineering field, the odds that you can get a real raise -- as opposed to just a token cost-of-living adjustment -- are actually pretty high now. If you’re in a struggling industry like manufacturing or construction, the likelihood is less.”
With that in mind, career counselors recommend the following steps:
1. Research your current market value.
Websites like PayScale.com and Salary.com can give you a reasonably clear idea of where your pay stands in comparison with others in similar jobs in your industry and geographic location. Check out help-wanted ads, job board postings, and industry-association salary surveys as well.
You need to know whether you’re at the bottom, the top, or the middle of the salary range for someone in your role, with your qualifications and experience. If you’re at or near the bottom (or, heaven help you, below it), you’ve got room to bargain your way up, so be ready to mention what comparable positions pay elsewhere.
2. Make a detailed list of your accomplishments since your last raise. The more readily you can describe your contributions in dollars-and-cents terms, the better: You cut costs by X dollars, increased revenues by Y percent, or whatever applies. Many experts suggest keeping a weekly or monthly log where you note this information year round, so you don't overlook or forget anything that might bolster your case.
3. Send your boss an email requesting a meeting about your pay.
Attach the list of what you’ve achieved since your last salary review, just as a reminder of how valuable you are. Letting your boss know in advance what you would like to discuss is far preferable to springing a surprise.
Unfortunately, advance notice also gives him or her time to think up a reason why you can’t get more money right now, which brings us to No. 4:
4. Be prepared to negotiate for other rewards.
If a hike in base salary is just not in the cards at the moment, despite your stellar accomplishments, suggest a performance bonus instead, contingent on your reaching specific agreed-upon targets in the months ahead.
Also, if there is some other benefit or perk you’ve been hankering for -- more paid vacation time, the chance to telecommute, a company-paid gym membership -- now is the time to ask for it.
5. If the answer is “no,” ask when it would be appropriate to reopen the discussion.
Things change, people leave, budgets loosen up, and, who knows, we may even see a real economic recovery before too long. In any event, you need to put your boss on notice that you are not just going to slink away (and keep seething).
So, politely of course, ask when it would make sense to revisit your request for a raise. Three months from now? Six months? Then mark your calendar and do it, with a new, updated list of what you’ve contributed in the meantime.
A word of caution
It probably isn’t realistic to expect to close the $14,000 gap between your pay and your colleague’s all at once, if ever. According to a raft of recent surveys, the average pay increase companies are planning for 2012 hovers between 2.8% and 3%, up a little from around 2.6% in 2010 and 2011. (The pre-recession average, from 2005 to 2008, was 4%.)
Still, it’s in your employer’s best interest to compensate you fairly, because you sound like the kind of person they really don’t want to lose -- either now or down the road when the job market comes back to life. Good luck.
Talkback: Have you asked for a raise recently? Did you get it? Does your company offer performance bonuses? Leave a comment below.