Reader Mail: Talking About Salaries Is Good (If Sometimes Distressing)

by Mike Dang and Logan Sachon

A Billfold reader writes with some upsetting news!

I’m wondering if you can help me with a bit of news I just learned that is making me. So. Depressed. I have Master’s, I work in a research type role and have been at my current job for almost two years. I tried to negotiate a higher salary when I started but they shot me down, since the role was new to the company. Fair enough. At my first review I got a 3% raise, which at my salary is nothing.

I got a grad student intern a few months ago, which to me was great and the first step in lobbying for a FTE working under me, which I could then leverage into a pay bump. My intern just got a full-time job for when she graduates, at a competing company. Her role is going to be similar to mine, as far as I can tell. So, yay for her! But she also told me her starting salary: It is $10k more than I am making.

HELP. I feel like a chump.

My company is notorious for underpaying, but I love my job and I feel like I could really grow the role and make a career here. I need an action plan! Can I use this nugget of info in a salary review? How? Do I go talk to my boss right now? Do I take it out on my intern by relegating her to coffee duty for the rest of her time here? Salaries: why are they such a bitch, and how do I productively talk about them to the people who matter?

Logan: I guess the real question from our girl here is: Can she go to her boss and ask for more money solely based on knowing that another company is paying someone in a similar role with less experience $10,000 more? I think … no.

‪Mike‬: Right. Which is why I think she should start applying for other jobs, and then get an offer, and use that offer as leverage to get a raise.

Logan: Yes. that sounds sensible, if a lot of work.

‪Mike‬: Because it’s not like she’s unhappy. She loves her job!

Logan: Well, she wasn’t unhappy until she realized she’s being paid less than an entry-level employee at a similar company. But maybe she isn’t. Maybe the companies are pretty different, despite sounding almost exactly the same. She should make a list of why the salaries aren’t really comparable. Maybe the second company has terrible healthcare, evil clients, is in the suburbs, etc.

‪Mike‬: Yeah, I like lists. And another list she should make is one about why she loves her job.

Logan: A two-column list about why her life and job are better than the intern’s life and job. That would make me feel better.

‪Mike‬: Also, I think she should think about her situation. Is she struggling financially? That’s unclear. Is her job paying all her bills? Does she want more money just because she heard someone else was making more money? You can be happy with what you have sometimes. I was happy in New York on $30,000. I was happy in New York on $40,000. I once turned down a $60,000 job in another city because I was happy with my $40,000 job, and wanted to stay in New York.

Logan: But would you have been happy knowing someone with less experience than you was making $10k more??

‪Mike‬: I don’t think you can think about it that way. There is always someone out there who seems less qualified than you, or seems so lazy, or terrible, and they are making more money than you. I think if I discovered that someone in my own company was earning more than me and had less experience, then yes, totally. But that’s not the case here.

Logan: So she should apply to other jobs, use this information to request a higher salary when she gets that job offer (“I know the market rate ix $x, I want $y”) and then she can use that job offer to get more money at her job she loves, maybe.

‪Mike‬: Yeah. And if not, I really do think she can remain happy in her job if it’s paying the bills.

Logan: Especially if she makes a list about how much more awesome her life is than her overpaid intern.

‪Mike‬: Totally.

Logan: One more thing. I’m guessing she wishes she never found out about her intern’s salary. But I think it’s really important that she did!

Mike: Oh, yes. I earned $70,000 last year. Like, who cares if people know. People should know. Knowing what other people make is really useful.

Logan: This is the part where I’d say what I made last year, except I don’t know. (I haven’t done my taxes yet.) It was … not a lot. But if someone can leverage that information into a better life for themselves, HAVE AT IT.

Photo: Flickr/LaPrimaDonna

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