What to Do When You Know Everyone Else’s Salary

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.

Angry ManI 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!

No Responses to “What to Do When You Know Everyone Else’s Salary”

  1. Michael Sherard

    What a load of crap!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Your boss doesnt see you as a team mate… nor does he really give a rats ass about your list of qualifications… and what you have done for him…

    What your boss does care about, is his paycheck, and his bonus… and a part of that is based on him keeping his expenses down as low as possible… even if you are THE BEST developer on your team… and you do all the work… at the end of the day you are replacable… and mean less to your boss then his paycheck.

  2. Don Willmott

    Load of crap may be putting it a bit strongly, but I do understand your point: that in the end, everyone is looking out for himself and his own agenda. I was merely suggesting that anyone going into a perfromance review try to do it from a position based on strengh, and by that I mean strength built on both facts and on any psychological tricks you can muster.

  3. Nope Mike is correct. The idea of pushing for a raise in a bad economy is asking for trouble. Assuming that the sun shines out of various orifices in one’s body might have worked five years ago. Today’s market, not so much. If anything, the employee making more becomes the target and the object for replacement/offshoring/”student”ized/contracted.

    Assuming the world is fair in salaries is just naive. Optics might be that the star developer/writer/whatever is gold, in reality, that resource…the unit of work coming from that individual is replaceable by any one of dozens of means. The list of accomplishments is a good way of highlighting value, but there is a time and place for that. For employee’s it is the employee reviews which I understand are yearly for the most part. Even then, the employee reviews are usually taken to highlight how improvements can be made, not automatically offer raises.

  4. This attitude is what kills me:

    >>the unit of work coming from that individual is replaceable by any one of dozens of means<<

    No it is not. I am a professional who cares about every line of code I write. I spent a few weeks rewriting the code written by one of the "replaceable" people. Their program ran for over 22 hours, my ran for 2.

    If you think tying up resources for 22 hours is free, then stick with the slug.

  5. When it comes down to it, when considering salary policy and recruiting, firms will price you considering what your individual range of satisfaction is. If you are satisfied, or even gleeful about getting $50,000 why pay you $100,000. It’s all what you are satisfied enough with to do the work well.

    That is why one should never ever list previous salaries on resumes or applications. Requests for previous salary is also a good tool to gauge the values of the company. My previous salaries are all N/A (None of your f-ing business / Asshole).

    That being said, I would be be happy to share my salary openly with others; if, that is, all share it openly and pay is directly related to long-run outcomes. Secret salaries/pay is divisive and puts control in the hands of employers to screw those over who they can screw over.

  6. There is some good stuff here. The salaries at my company are a closely held secret, and we are encouraged not to share what we make with our co-workers. I don’t know if I am curious or nosy, but I have been able to openly discuss salaries with all of my co-workers. We are not compensated equally, but that is to be understood. We all have different skills and varying amounts of experience. I am not making the most out of our group, but I am also not making the least. One thing is for sure though, most of us are irreplaceable and all of us are underpaid. This makes for a very precarious situation for our employer.

    I have had very frank discussions with my boss on salary and how I can grow professionally. The bottom line was that I could continue to learn and grow as a developer, but there isn’t a chance to promote unless I was willing to move to the other side of the country and work at corporate. We also had frank discussions about beer-truck insurance and how I was the insurance policy on the senior developer.

    Recently one of our developers got fed-up with the atmosphere and pay and decided to move on. He went on to a job where he is seemingly happier and making close to double what he was here. My current employer re-wrote his position with some updated skill requirements and flew the job at 25k/yr more. Why would they do this instead of just offer him a raise to stay? Because there is a corporate mentality at work behind it. The mentality is this: If you give someone a raise, you make them feel valued. And when you don’t receive a raise, you feel devalued. If others around you obtain raises and you do not, it is cause for despondency. In a production development environment, you cannot give raises to all of the developers and continue to have the blue-collar workers work happily as they are passed up once again. The answer? No one gets a raise. Make them all think they are ‘lucky’ to have a job in the first place. Some employers will utilize this tactic to feed on the desperate, provide the illusion of a carrot, yet rule with an iron stick.

    This is a great article and it really helps one to keep his/her bearings as to their sense of value. Appraise yourself, and do it often (if you are unhappy). Knowing what your coworkers make can be both a good metric of how the company values you, and it can provide an indication of the company mentality. It is better to learn this up-front than it is to wait 16 years to find this out.

    • I completely agree with Ethan here.
      All companies work on the same principle of making the employee feel that whatever they are getting is much more than what they deserve in the first place!!

      It is all a play of one’s mental setup. If you get to know everybody’s salary in office then you can feel happy by thinking about people who earn less than you and feel bad by thinking about high earners. Choice is yours. You have a bad luck if you have the least salary in the worst case scenario 🙁