What To Do When You You’re Being Underpaid

Finding out that you’re the lowest paid person on your team even though you do the same (or more!) work than your colleagues is a pretty discouraging discovery. If you do find out, you should definitely bring it up with your manager if you think they’re sympathetic and can do something about the discrepancy. How you do it, however, makes the difference between getting a raise or not.

Title photo by Leroy Harvey (Shutterstock).

If you’ve “discovered” that you’re being underpaid, it’s probably either because someone else you work with let it slip, or because you did the research yourself at a site like My Career and found that the average salary for your role is higher than what you’re making. Now it’s time to do a little homework.

Are You Really Underpaid, or Is It Perception?

The first thing you shouldn’t do with this information is assume that because you’re making less than your colleagues you’re underpaid. You’ll need more evidence than that if you go to your manager, so before you get too angry or go off half-cocked, do a little digging.

Head over to a company’s website and see if there are any open positions for the job you currently have. Usually a job description is included, and you’ll be able to see how similar another company’s “systems analyst”, for example, is to the same title where you work. It’s possible that they’ll have different required skills and responsibilities. Do the same digging with your current position — if you did find out something you weren’t intended to learn from a coworker, let them know you don’t want to talk money, but you do want to talk about your day-to-day duties. Bounce your daily responsibilities back and forth, and see if there are discrepancies that might account for the salary differential — your colleague may be working on special projects or have skills you don’t. To be fair, the opposite may be true — you may discover they do less than you do and get paid more. All of this is good evidence to help your case when you approach your manager.

Be Diplomatic

The blog See Debt Run does a great job of breaking down how you should approach a manager with the discovery that you’re being underpaid, even if you found out by talking to another employee — something that most companies prohibit. They suggest the conversation is best held in a scheduled meeting to discuss your “career path”, in an informal but private discussion. Without tipping your hand that you learned from your coworkers that they’re making more money than you are, they suggest you avoid direct comparisons between you and your colleagues. Instead, present the evidence you’ve collected that proves your boss should reconsider your salary. Photo by wavebreakmedia ltd (Shutterstock).

Show them the research you’ve done and let them know that you’ve taken the time to investigate how your position differs from others in your industry. Tell them that you understand how your work differs from your colleagues, and as See Debt Run suggests, highlight some of the ways you’re indispensable to your coworkers, either because you have special skills that no one else has or because everyone comes to you for help or guidance. Point out some of the high-profile and critical projects and duties you have on your shoulders because you’re the best person for the job — or because no one else can do the work the way you can.

Finally, let your boss know that you’re open to understanding if there’s some reason why you’re paid less (a good feint, even if you’re really raging inside) by comparison even with all of this evidence on the table. Your manager may not be able to explain it right away, or they may not even have the power to set salaries in the first place — it’s possible there are other circumstances that have nothing to do with your work or your boss (for example, your other colleagues came from different departments, or there’s something about their work history or education that tips the scales in their favour that’s confidential), but they should at least be willing to hear you out, especially since you’ve collected the evidence needed to make your case, and you’re being you’re diplomatic about the way you present it. With luck, they may be able to make an adjustment to your salary to address the discrepancy. Even if it’s not as much as you hoped, it may be something.

Don’t Expect the World

I’ve seen this method work — one of my best friends was an assistant to our old CIO, and when she discovered that she was underpaid by about 20 per cent compared to other assistants that did less than she did, she wasn’t too happy about it. She collected personal stories, job descriptions, and even drew up a list of those “other duties as assigned” she wound up getting that she never bargained for. When she put it all in front of him, he was taken aback, but he gave her a raise. The tradeoff was that her next scheduled raise would be off of her old base pay, but she got the money and the recognition for the additional work she had been doing. Photo by Andrew Magill.

This won’t work for everyone, and at the end of the day, if you think your manager won’t be receptive to this type of conversation, you may not want to bring it up in the first place — especially if you’re worried your company may use the conversation as a way to find out that you’ve been talking about your salary to other employees, which can be enough to get you fired. You’ll have to make the call as to whether it’s worth bringing it up or if you should instead look for one of those other positions with a higher average salary. If you like your company and your job, or just don’t want to go to the hassle of leaving, a little negotiation may be worth a try before you do something drastic. It will be a difficult conversation, but it can be worthwhile.

Have you had a talk like this with your boss or a previous employer? Did you get results, or did you just leave the position? Share your experiences in the comments below.

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