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Good@Work: Did I sell myself short when I negotiated my salary?


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Photo: Courtesy of Amy Odell

When you’re stuck in a tough spot at work—you’re *this close* to burnout, you’re wondering whether your job is the right fit, your office culture could use a serious upgrade—who do you turn to? Your mentor, who has years of experience you can rely on? Your mom, who always keeps your best interests in mind? Or your BFF, who is dependable for a killer pep talk? Put all three perspectives in a blender, and you’ve got Good@Work, Well+Good’s new career advice column. 

Twice a month, journalist, author, and all-around boss babe Amy Odell—whom you may know as the former editor (AKA HBIC) of Cosmopolitan.com and founding blogger of New York magazine’s The Cut—is here to answer your burning career questions. (Want Amy’s intel even more often? You can also sign up for her newsletter here.)

When we put out the call for your top Qs for our debut column, it became clear you all have one thing on your mind: money. How much you should be making; how much your co-workers are making; and, mostly pressingly, how to make more of it. One writer put her question perfectly bluntly—and in her response, Amy does likewise:

Q: I want to know if I sold myself short when I negotiated my salary—and if I can fix that now.

A: If you have a hunch you sold yourself short, I hate to tell you that you probably did. The good news is that you can certainly fix it, but you might have to find a new job in order to do so.

I’ve managed a lot of people, mostly women, and I’ve seen a surprising number accept salaries that were wildly beneath their talents and experience level. The thing you have to remember about your employer, whether it comes to salary negotiations or anything else, is that they are always on their own side. They’re not on your side. You provide a service to them that enables them to reach their goals, and The Company will always prioritize those goals over your well-being and feelings.

If you ask for $10,000 less than what was budgeted for a role, many managers and HR people will salivate over your ignorance and their paltry savings, because some executive sitting at a gilded desk on a higher floor will give them a pat on the back for coming in under budget this quarter.

One thing just about every company has in common is the desire to stick to a budget. Your manager may be a wonderful person who values you as a human and worker, but to their managers, you are a line on a spreadsheet with a dollar amount attached. If you ask for $10,000 less than what was budgeted for a role, many managers and HR people will salivate over your ignorance and their paltry savings, because some executive sitting at a gilded desk on a higher floor will give them a pat on the back for coming in under budget this quarter. It sounds cold, but this is business, not day care.

(Good managers will try not to underpay workers they value, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it costs more to replace someone who leaves in a year for a better paying position than it does to keep them happy for many years and prevent turnover.)

The most important salary negotiations you make over the course of your career occur when you start a new job. This figure is so crucial for your longevity in any given job because companies often quantify raises as a percentage of your current salary, and if you come in way under budget initially, it can sometimes be impossible to make that up at your current job. Say you make $50,000 but realize you should be making closer to $70,000. Your manager then has to justify a 40 percent raise for you. And 40 percent sounds a lot higher than $20,000. What companies dole out 40 percent raises? Very, very few.

This is why, if you’re making less than you’re worth, you might have to find a new job. I’m not saying you can’t get that 40 percent raise, but the company may be unlikely to give it to you unless you force their hand by getting another offer for that amount or greater. That said, if you like your company, it’s always worth asking for what you want before you invest your energy in a draining job search. You just need to figure out what you should be earning and think carefully about how you ask for the money.

How will you feel if you find out someone with your same level of experience is earning $10,000 more? It probably won’t fill you with happiness for them.

The best way to figure out what you should be making is to find out what other people at the company at your level are earning in a job that’s the same as or similar to yours. You can find this out by asking them or people above them who would know and tell you. There is risk to asking around at your current job—people might get offended or tell others that you’re fishing for this information (never underestimate how gossipy offices can be). The other risk is that you find out a peer is making a lot more than you. How will you feel if you find out someone with your same level of experience is earning $10,000 more? It probably won’t fill you with happiness for them.

You should also do research outside your company. Ask friends and contacts in your industry what their company pays for someone of your experience level and skill set. You may find out that your company tends to underpay for the industry, which is a bad sign—they’re probably not going to reverse this trend just for you and you’re probably never going to make as much there as you could elsewhere.

Make sure that the people you ask include a mix of men and women. If you find out a man at your company who does the same job as you earns more than you, you may have a discrimination claim against your company. You may not want to quit and pursue a lawsuit against them, but this can be a powerful bargaining chip in your negotiations. (More on that in a bit….)

Once you’ve done all your fact-finding and have a good idea of the kind of salary you should be earning, you have to go and ask for the money. You will be tempted to go to your manager and say, “Stacy told me she makes this much money and I think I should make that much money, too.” Even if your boss is the chillest woman in the world, she isn’t likely to react well to this. When employees gossip about their salaries and start to find out not everyone is paid on a perfectly equal scale, it only creates problems for a boss. Also, you’ve now unfairly dragged Stacy into your issue. Did you tell her you were going to tell your boss she told you what she earns? She probably wouldn’t want to be part of your negotiating tactics, and your boss may now view her as a gossip and not loyal.

Remember that if someone is making you an offer, they very much want to hire you.

A better way to talk to your boss is by saying something like, “I’ve been doing some research on what other people of my experience level and skill set are earning, both at this company and outside it, and it’s come to my attention that I’m $10,000 underpaid. I believe I’m a valuable asset here. I’ve accomplished X, Y, and Z things, and would like to feel motivated to continue being a top performer here. Is there anything you can do to get my salary up to where it should be?”

If you do think you’re being discriminated against because Todd in the office over does the same job as you but earns more money, you can bring that up, too. Remember, your boss isn’t a lawyer, so you don’t have to hire an attorney or send a scary letter. You can simply say something like, “It’s come to my attention that a man at the company who does my same job is earning quite a bit more money than me. I’ve accomplished X, Y, and Z here and feel I deserve to earn the same.” Your boss should report your complaint to HR immediately (if she doesn’t, you should report your complaint to HR, but try going to your manager first). You may have to give up Todd’s name, because the company will need to consider the validity of your claim, and they’ll need to know who you’re comparing yourself to in order to do that.

Ideally, you’ll do all of this research before accepting a job. Remember that if someone is making you an offer, they very much want to hire you—and you don’t have anything to lose by asking for what you’re worth.

Amy Odell headshotAmy Odell is a journalist and author living in New York. She is the former editor of Cosmopolitan.com, which became one of the most popular and award-winning sites for millennial women during her tenure. She is passionate about mentoring people starting off in their careers. She is from Austin, Texas.

Follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

Have a career question for Amy? Write us at goodwork@wellandgood.com.

There’s no time like the present to ask for a raise: In fact, delaying the convo could seriously cost you. And if you’re looking to make a change, try this weekly ritual to land your dream job in no time.

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