A lot of factors combine to determine a person’s satisfaction at work, but there are few as fundamentally motivating as salary. And if you find out that you’re underpaid, that could effectively toll the death knell of satisfaction and productivity.
According to a 2016 report by the Society for Human Resource Management, 59 per cent of employees said being paid competitively in their industry was a “very important” aspect of job satisfaction, but only 42 per cent were “somewhat satisfied” with their compensation.
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“We focus on working diligently for our employer and we’re in a silo about our current salaries,” says Vicki Salemi, career expert for Monster in New York. “You should always assume you’re being underpaid. The bigger picture is making sure that you’re being paid what you’re worth according to your value in the marketplace.”
So, how can you go about figuring out your worth?
There are websites, like PayScale and GlassDoor, that guide you through a list of questions and cross-reference your info with others’ who do the same job in your area. But Salemi believes mining personal contacts and putting in face time will result in more honest and authentic answers.
However, Natalie MacDonald, co-founding partner at Rudner MacDonald LLP, cautions that if you find out you’re making less than a colleague, it’s not a guarantee that you’re owed more.
“An employer is well within their rights to pay an employee what they feel they should be paid, unless they’re doing the exact same job as someone else and getting paid less,” she says. “You have to make sure it’s a comparable position.”
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Below, Salemi and MacDonald share some important tips on how to go about figuring out if you’re underpaid — and what to do when you do.
#1 Talk to your mentor
This is one of the reasons why it’s important to have a mentor to begin with, Salemi says. Regardless of whether you’re happy in your current job or looking to leave, talk to your mentor about your market value as an employee.
“This person presumably knows you well and is aware of your skill set, and they work in the same industry (or they should), so ask them if you’re being fairly compensated,” she says.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking specific numbers with your mentor, run through your accomplishments and ask them what someone with your background should be making. It’s even better if your mentor lives in the same area as they’ll be able to give you a more accurate response.
#2 Reach out to a former boss
This one requires a bit of forethought, because you should be reaching out to your former boss periodically just to check in and say hi, Salemi says. This way, when you need actual information or help with something, they’ll be more inclined to lend a hand (or an ear).
“Talking frank numbers with your former boss is easy because they determined your previous salary, so they know what you were making.”
#3 Speak to former colleagues
Your former colleagues can be a wealth of information when it comes to compensation, especially if they’ve all moved on to different companies.
If they’re all earning six figures and you’re making $80,000, but you all have the same skill set and carry out the same responsibilities at work, you’ll know for sure that you’re not being adequately paid.
#4 Attend industry conferences and professional events
Industry events and organizations will help you meet people who know your job industry well and are aware of payment practices.
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“Obviously you’re not going to go up to a stranger and ask them how much they earn over a cocktail, but you can find out who the connectors are and say, ‘I’m looking to make my mark in this industry and I have career questions,’” Salemi says.
What to do when you find out you’re underpaid
First of all, MacDonald says, make sure you have your facts straight.
“Be sure you understand exactly what someone in a comparable position is making, especially if it’s in your own office,” she says. “Align your job with theirs — title, duties, responsibilities — and if they add up, it’s up to you to have a meeting with your employer to discuss the situation.”
But that doesn’t mean you’ll get a raise. In fact, Salemi says, you should go into that meeting with the expectation that you won’t get one.
“Keep your expectations in check and look externally. The best opportunity to boost your salary and know you’re not being underpaid is to negotiate an offer with another company,” she says. “In that scenario, you’ll be coming from a standpoint of power because you’ll be armed with the information you need about the industry standard for payment.”
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If, however, you don’t want to look for another job, request a meeting with your employer and make sure you’re prepared.
Go in with notes that detail the value that you add to the company, and quantify it as much as possible.
“Don’t go in and say, ‘I should make more because I work hard.’ That’s not telling your boss anything,” Salemi says.
Timing is also a factor. If your fiscal year starts on July 1, don’t request a meeting to discuss your salary in mid-June, because chances are the salary will already be set by then. Initiate the conversation in March or April so you’re on your boss’s radar screen before the budgets are set.
And always have a backup plan.
“If your boss says no to a raise, ask for something else like additional personal time,” Salemi says. “Or maybe you can negotiate working from home two days a week. Having [another goal] aside from higher pay will show them that you’re serious about staying and being happy.”