“As long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”
—George Orwell (From: 1984)
Recently, I met with a client (Claudia) about her plans to negotiate her salary with her employer. Claudia was a little upset because her current salary was about 15% lower than what the ‘market’ was paying; and like everyone else,she wanted to at least be in the norm of the range.
1. Do your homework.
After studying how to handle salary negotiations properly, Claudia began her quest of normalizing her salary by speaking with her supervisor.
2. Prepare to hit a brick wall.
As is the case 99% of the time, his rejoinder was, “We pay everyone based on strict HR pay scales and grade levels based on seniority. There’s not much I can do because if one person doesn’t go along with the grade levels, then it throws off the entire pay structure.” Sound familiar?
3. Understand the “game” behind the Secret Salary dynamic.
This song and dance has become popular with managers around the globe because of the increase of websites like salary.com and payscale.com. Why? Because as George Orwell mentioned, having exclusive information and cultivating an environment that is not conducive to salary comparison is what has helped companies save trillions of dollars on lower wages. After all, the cost of just keeping an employee on payroll is higher than ever.
So, once again, in the past, we really had no way of knowing if we were making a ‘market equitable’ wage. Now, everyone has access to what the ‘going rate’ is for any job in any industry. Most salary survey sites are free, but some will provide very thorough and detailed data for a fee.
4. Get to know your biggest enemy: The power of information for a fee.
It’s these “exclusive” salary survey sites that give HR departments their leg to stand on when they find themselves in a salary negotiation situation. For example, when Claudia asked her HR department about the possibility of getting a 15% increase, they said, “According to our market research, the database we use tells us that your salary is exactly even with your peers around the country. We pay tens-of-thousands of dollars each quarter to have access to this database that is updated weekly by compensation executives from around the globe. Generic web sites, like the ones you have access to don’t have this information.”
There you have it! They found their TWO LINES OF DEFENSE against the dreaded “Can I have a raise?” question! The first, is to remind you that you still do not have a reliable source of information, thus you are really not 100% aware of just how oppressed you are. Second, you can’t expect to alter your wages, lest the balance of the company’s entire compensation structure be destroyed!
5. Take matters into your own hands!
Don’t despair, you can and should do a little market analysis of your own. Survey your peers and colleagues. If they are close to you, they will tell you how much they make, almost down to the penny. If they are strangers, just ask for a range but keep the range within a $10K limit.
In my humble opinion, this is the most effective information source. And, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how forthcoming your peers and colleagues actually are about this seemingly “taboo” topic. Think about it, in order to keep costs down, executive level managers benefit if we can’t discuss our salaries with other employees — they know that the greatest strength we have in any salary arbitration is when we can PROVE that your salary is lower than others of the same level within our same company or with a similar company in the same city.
To solidify my point on how powerful this information is to you, some companies have written policies that dictate you can and will be FIRED if you ask other employees how much they make. So, unfortunately, you have to proceed with caution, and at your own risk. Can anyone say “1984”?!
6. Handle your valuable information with extreme care.
If you find that someone in your company, who has the same level of education, same job title, same level of seniority, etc. but earns $20K more than you do, just imagine what that does to the argument about how “our compensation grade levels are based on years of exclusive data research and the salary structure is solid and cannot be altered.” It blows that argument out of the water and gives you power to make things right.
This is what happened with Claudia. She met with folks within her company and many of her colleagues confided in her. She found that employees with the same amount of education and experience earned $15K more than she did! There were others who worked for Claudia’s company but were located in other cities, who made as much as $25K more! After she figured out cost of living adjustments, it was still equivalent to $19K.
Claudia was careful to document everything she learned. She promised to keep the names of her colleagues anonymous because many were afraid that HR might realize they are being paid too much, and would lower or cut their wages! Once she had data for 15 people, she drafted a chart that displayed the great disparity in the wages, benefits and titles WITHIN her own company.
7. Manage your data to your benefit, but do so with tactful panache.
She took this problem to HR and presented it to the Compensation Manager. She told him that this must have been an ‘oversight’ on his part and she was sure he wouldn’t want this kind of glaring problem tarnishing his ‘solid comp structure’. Claudia told me that the look on his face was one of disbelief. He wanted to do some research and get back to her, which, she allowed.
One week later, Claudia got a phone call from her supervisor. He informed her that she had been given a 15% raise and the managers within her company who supervise employees who have a similar title to Claudia’s were informed that they must adhere to the salary policies HR mandates.
8. Before you get started, ask yourself one “Orwellian” question…..
In this case, Claudia fought “knowledge oppression” to fix what was wrong. It took her 3 months to do it, but it was well worth the fight. So, I have only one question to ask you: HOW THOROUGH AND UP TO DATE ARE YOUR STANDARDS OF COMPARISON?