Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.
Whether you’re negotiating your salary for a brand-new job or asking for a raise at your current one, the first rule of negotiating is to know what you’re worth. But figuring that out can be harder than it sounds. How, exactly, are you supposed to know what salary you should ask for? Here is a handy list.
1. First, know what you’re up against.
There’s a huge information imbalance when it comes to salary: Employers have the advantage of knowing the general range they’re willing to pay and what their overall salary structures are. As a candidate or even as an employee, you generally don’t have access to that information and instead are stuck guessing and hoping that you don’t wildly overshoot the right number (which will make you seem naïve or out of touch) or undershoot it (where you leave money on the table that could have been yours).
Figuring out your market value can be so frustrating that some people throw up their hands and don’t bother, instead leaving it up to the employer to name a number. That’s not a great strategy, though, because it puts you at the mercy of your employer. You can’t assess an offer without understanding how in line with the market it is. Plus, if you’re interviewing, a lot of employers insist on knowing what salary range you’re looking for (that’s obnoxious since they should be upfront about what they’re planning on paying, but it’s a common practice) and will push back on vague answers that don’t include an actual dollar figure.
You’ll be in a far stronger position if you go into conversations about salary with real knowledge about the market rate for your work. But how exactly do you figure that out?
2. Don’t trust salary websites, and don’t mention them when you’re negotiating.
Online salary portals might seem like the most obvious way to figure out what you should be earning. The problem is that those sites (particularly the free ones) generally don’t account in any accurate way for the fact that job titles can represent incredibly different scopes of responsibility and can vary wildly by field, company, size of the company, and the amount of experience you bring to the job. Many of them rely on self-reported data with no controls on how accurate or recent that data is. They can be an okay starting point, but in general they’re only going to give you a very rough range, and you shouldn’t use them as the final word on what salary you want. (And you definitely don’t want to cite these websites as your source to an employer! I’ve had candidates tell me, “Well, online salary calculators say this job should pay $X” when X is wildly off-base for the particular configuration of the role. That ends up looking naïve.)
Instead, one of the most useful ways to narrow down your true market value is to talk to people in your field.
3. Talk to people at other companies — and carefully phrase your questions.
A lot of us still have a weird taboo around talking about our own salaries, so usually you can’t come out and ask, “Hey, how much do you make?” But you can ask questions like “How much would you expect a job like X at a company like Y to pay?” and “Does a salary of about $X sound right to you for a job like this, or does that seem too high or too low?” Most people have lots of opinions about salaries in their field and will be happy to weigh in on questions like that (and if you phrase your question that way, some people will end up volunteering their personal salary info anyway).
4. Talk to your co-workers — you’re legally allowed to!
If you want to bounce these sorts of questions off co-workers, you might worry about violating a written or unwritten rule against sharing salary information with your colleagues. While lots of employers do indeed have “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies, the National Labor Relations Act actually makes it illegal for employers to prevent non-supervisory employees from discussing their pay with each other. (And yes, tons of employers attempt to prohibit it anyway. But that’s illegal and you have the right to discuss salary with your co-workers — although you still might want to do it discreetly, if you don’t feel like battling your employer over it.)
5. Reach out to recruiters who will be more candid.
You should also ask people with professional-level knowledge about salaries: recruiters in your industry and professional organizations. Recruiters in your field generally won’t have the same discomfort with talking about salaries as many other people do, and are usually happy to talk about the going rate for the work you do. They’ll also often have insider knowledge about who pays well and who doesn’t. And professional associations like trade groups often do formal salary surveys, although you might need to pay a membership fee to get access to them.
6. Look at similar online job postings.
Don’t neglect job ads! While most job listings won’t include salary information, some do — and so scouring ads in your field can be an additional source of data.
7. If you work for a nonprofit…
You have something else going for you: guidestar.org, which is a massive compendium of information about nonprofit organizations, including info on their finances and tax reporting. You can look up the salaries of an organization’s key employees there, which can give you an idea of the organization’s pay scale. (Of course, keep in mind that a high-paid executive’s salary might not reveal anything about what junior staff earn … but if you see the organization’s CEO is earning $50,000, you’ll know your own ceiling there is going to be fairly low.)
8. Settle on a salary range rather than an exact number.
As you do this research, keep in mind that you’re looking for patterns. You’re unlikely to come out of this with a single figure (“I should be paid $83,000”). You’re looking for a general range, and from there you can tweak it based on things like your experience and accomplishments. You should also factor in other parts of the compensation a company is offering — things like bonuses, unusually good or unusually bad vacation time, and the quality and cost of the employer’s health insurance.
If you’re reading all this thinking, “This would be a heck of a lot easier if companies were just transparent about how they pay,” you’re absolutely right! And in fact, there’s a move in some fields toward pay transparency, driven in part by the growing recognition of how opaqueness around salary disproportionately harms women and people of color. But we’re at the early stages of it and most employers still play coy on salary. So doing your research and knowing your own market value is a hugely important tool in getting paid what you’re worth.