Do your research and get that bread.

By Lindsay Tigar
December 23, 2020
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If there’s one truth that too many professionals forget while working their way up the ladder (and through glass ceilings) it’s this: If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will. While yes, this includes expressing your opinions and demonstrating your talents, it also means valuing yourself and knowing your worth. Since most of us spend nearly a third of our lives working and building a career, it's incredibly important that our experience and skills are recognized and valued appropriately, says Kate Pretkel, the head of global people programs and North America human resources for EPAM Systems. And to do this, you have to start by understanding your personal market value so you can negotiate and advocate for what you’ve earned.

From a practical standpoint, it’s rather black-and-white: You should be paid fairly and adequately for the work that you do. On a personal and emotional level, knowing your compensation is justified and supported improves your sense of self-worth, self-confidence, and, ultimately, your workplace performance, according to career expert and co-founder of Motto, Ashleigh Hansberger

“When you’re underpaid, you can feel emotionally broke, and this seeps into other areas of your personal and professional life that also fall short, including how motivated you are at work,” Hansberger says. “Too often [your] lack of confidence, knowledge gaps, and systems that are stacked against you can hold you back and keep you from growing.”

Whether you’re up for a raise or promotion, job hunting, or just generally curious (as you always should be), career experts are here to offer advice for determining your value, asking for what’s fair, and trailblazing forward in every step of your career.

You know what you make, what your partner earns, and maybe what a few friends take home—but that’s about it. Unfortunately, most professionals aren’t transparent about their financial earnings, making it an uphill battle to determine the average salary standards. One effective way to begin your research is through industry publications or entities that run salary surveys, according to Pretkel. You can look for associations, journals, membership groups, or job boards specific to your industry and analyze their results. Using the information provided, you may want to reach out to the leaders of these organizations for clarity and to determine the nitty-gritty of the research procedures. For example, what a marketing executive earns in New York City isn’t the same as one in Des Moines. Location, experience level, and plenty of other factors influence the range. Your goal is to figure out what another version of you in your town is paid in your role.

If you haven’t worked with a recruiter before, here’s the 101 on their role: They’re paid by companies to deliver the best-of-the-best talent. When they place someone who’s a stellar addition to a team, they bring home a flat-rate or a percentage of the hire’s salary, which gives them every incentive to fight hard on your behalf. Perhaps you don’t want a new job, but just know you’re in desperate need of a raise. A recruiter can be supremely helpful to you, and eventually, when you’re ready to move on, he or she can be there to score you a killer new gig, Pretkel says. The trick is to find a recruiter who specializes in your industry and has a pulse on salary ranges.

If you feel comfortable and trust the human resources team at your current job, Pretkel suggests setting up a one-on-one meeting to discuss your salary inquiries. In some cases, she says, there are dedicated compensation specialists who are there to explain the opportunities for advancement you may not know are available to you. It could also be a time to ask about the promotion and raise schedule and how to prepare for the review season when these discussions will typically take place.

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Ever find yourself going down an internet rabbit hole looking up the most minute details of a celebrity’s life or a true crime conspiracy theory? You can use that same sleuthing energy to research your career and salary projections, too. Pretkel recommends searching for ranges across the internet, but being mindful of the sources you trust. She recommends Glassdoor.com, since it invites users to enter their salary information upon registration and offers a built-in cross-section of data for your industry, based on location. The same is true with PayScale and Salary.com, which utilize crowdsourcing information across the country. 

Hansberger also suggests LinkedIn as a comparative resource. Once you figure out the average take-home pay in various locations, you can use this professional social networking app to find others near you in similar job functions. Then, you can connect with them and start to build your networking circle.

Pretkel says a critical component of knowing your worth is a longer-term effort: It’s vital to surround yourself with people you trust, can grow alongside, and can always confide in. “It’s important to build a network of mentors and/or people you can lean on throughout your career when you want advice or a second opinion,” she says. “Networking within your industry is essential—you can build up a peer group that can support you with something like this.” 

Many workplace conversations are casual and friendly, but for whatever reason, money remains an awkward, even taboo topic. As Hansberger notes, some people think talking about money and salaries rude or tacky, while others are afraid to bring up number-focused chats. But our hesitation to lean into financial conversations is largely why pay gaps and compensation inequities exist. It’s important to step up, swallow your fears, and confide in professional peers you trust. This isn’t the time to cold-ask almost-strangers; take salary questions and concerns to someone you know and respect and whose perspective you find valuable.

“Start with a warm relationship and keep it super casual,” Hansberger says. “A great way is to ask for help. Tell them you [you’re concerned you’re] being underpaid and ask if they’d be willing to give you advice to make sure you’re not being taken advantage of. You might say: ‘They pay me $X. Is that fair for a position like ours?’ or ‘Is that less than you?’”

Believe it or not, there are plenty of professionals who have never—ever!—negotiated their salary. In fact, according to Randstad, 60 percent of women and 50 percent of men have always taken the first offer. This is a mistake, since, hey, if you don’t ask, you’ll never get a “yes.” If at the end of your research, you determine you’re underpaid, Pretkel advises you make sure to come prepared to support your case. 

“You should thoughtfully present why you think you should receive a higher salary and package,” she says. “Succinctly and clearly highlight the impact you’ve made in your career, the impact you can make in your new role, and demonstrate why you believe you're worth an increase in the offered salary.”

Don’t leave out how you’ve benefited the organization with clear data points that backup your message. By illustrating your effectiveness as an employee and leader, as well as market standards, it’s tough for a company to decline your request since they know the chances you'll hit the road are higher if you aren’t paid what you’re worth. 

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If your request for a raise gets declined, however, Hansberger says it’s vital to understand exactly why. Do they not have the funds to support it? Are they going through a reorganization? Are they waiting on investors to come in? If you decide to stay, Hansberger recommends asking for ways they can improve your job in other ways with fringe benefits. Maybe it’s an extra week of paid vacation, more flexible working hours (four-day work week!), remote working options, a bonus, or other changes that would make you feel valued.

And if you’re still not happy? Don’t forget: You can use all your industry salary research while interviewing for a new job at a different company. “If you go in knowing what the benchmark is, you’ll know if their offer is too low, and you’ll have facts and insights to support why you should make more,” Hansberger says. “Be honest about your salary goal. Ask for a specific number in the high range, so you have wiggle room.”