Several years ago I took a short-term consulting gig at a New York office. Escorted to a cubicle reserved for my use, I set about cleaning up the clutter left behind by the previous occupant. And what do you know? My first discovery was a binder full of spreadsheet printouts listing the salaries and bonuses of every person in the office. It made for very interesting reading, and I immediately imagined the explosions I could set off if I were to “accidentally” leave it lying around by the copier or the coffee machine. Let me tell you… the bonuses were not being dished out very equitably.
I was reminded of this incident when I read developer Eric Spiegel’s excellent Datamation article about a similar experience he had several years ago. After a fairly smooth performance evaluation during which he received a 6 percent raise, he accidentally found a salary list that showed he was paid less than all but one of his five developer colleagues. How could this be when the boss hadn’t pointed out any flaws in his work? What was going on?
Spiegel struggled to strategize his next move, but ultimately, his boss knew the list had made it into Spiegel’s hands and that sparked a second and harsher performance evaluation. The boss was forced to justify Spiegel’s salary level, listing all of his drawbacks as a developer. So why hadn’t the boss been honest and said all this up front? So frustrating! It’s a great read.
Many commenters make the very valid point that, ultimately, the only way to get a significant raise without a serious promotion is to switch employers, something I learned the hard way by sticking with a single employer for 16 years. Yes, the promotions and their attendant raises were nice, but the tiny cost-of-living increases—or worse—in between were tough on my morale.
The moral to these stories is that knowledge is power, and if you don’t know what all your officemates are making and how you compare, the least you should do is see if you can price yourself on the open market. The Internet has made this fairly easy, with all sorts of salary surveys, including the annual Dice Salary Survey, just a few clicks away. Using these numbers as a baseline you can see if you’re at least in the right ballpark.
Of course, your individual salary didn’t come off some big standardized chart. It’s the result of a mysterious formula along the lines of your skills times your years of experience divided by the square root of your zip code times your company’s profit last year plus your boss’s mood on performance evaluation day.
But what if you do have reliable information that you’re underpaid compared to your colleagues? Is it worth it to go to your boss armed with that information and demand an explanation? As Spiegel learned, you should proceed with great caution. In this scenario, you put the boss in a completely defensive position where he or she has no choice but to lash out and start listing your flaws, a lecture you probably don’t want to hear and surely shouldn’t instigate.
Instead, you should try the positive spin, going to the boss with a resume-like list of quantifiable accomplishments and asking what more you need to be doing to guarantee that you end up at the head of the class when it comes to compensation. Unless your boss happens to be a psychopath, this could turn into a fruitful discussion, what my junior high guidance counselor would call a “frank exchange of ideas.” I’ve always tried to look at the person who determines my salary as someone I work with and not for. It may be nothing more than a psychological trick I’m playing on myself, but it seems to help if you approach these touchy conversations thinking like a teammate and not like a subordinate. Good luck!