What should you do if you suspect you’re being underpaid? You can always look up salary ranges on sites like Glassdoor, but that’ll only tell you what is generally appropriate for your position — not what your employer can (or can’t) afford to pay you. If you want to learn whether you’re being underpaid relative to your coworkers and whether that means you should ask for a raise or start looking for a new job, you’re going to need to collect some more information. This often means asking your coworkers what they earn, which is never an easy conversation to have.
I reached out to three career experts to learn how to approach the topic of compensation with both your coworkers and your boss:
- Laurie Berenson, certified master resume writer and founder of Sterling Career Concepts
- Courtney C.W. Guerra, career advice columnist and author of Is This Working?: The Businesslady’s Guide to Getting What You Want from Your Career
- Aram Lulla, general manager of the human resources recruiting practice for Lucas Group
Here’s what they told me — and what you need to know before you start asking your coworkers how much they make.
How to start a salary conversation with your coworkers
If you want to open up a conversation about compensation, all the experts agreed that you should only approach a coworker whom you trust. Berenson suggests having the talk in-person, not in writing — “do not type anything that can be copied or pasted or screenshot” — and to avoid bringing it up in situations like happy hours where you might inadvertently say something you later regret.
Lulla advises framing the discussion this way: “I know the company asks us not to talk about each other’s comp, but can you give me an idea of what you are earning?” If you take that route, be ready to reciprocate; you can’t learn someone else’s salary numbers without offering yours in return.
Guerra offers a different approach: “Rather than pressing your colleagues for hard figures about their own paychecks, talk about the work you’ve been doing and your own pay trajectory, then ask for their insights on whether or not it seems appropriate. This will be especially useful with senior coworkers, who will likely be happy to share details about their salary histories that are relevant to your current position.”
After all, Guerra explains, this chat isn’t really about comparing one individual salary to another. “It’s important to remember what you’re really asking for: Data that will allow you to assess your own compensation.”
How to approach your manager if you believe you’re underpaid
“If you find out you’re underpaid, I would first take a deep breath and take a look at reasons why you might be on a different pay scale,” Berenson advises. “Consider such items as seniority with the company, was there a pay raise freeze when you started, education, prior experience.”
In other words, it might not be about you. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for what you’re worth! All three experts agreed that you should frame the talk this way — that is, make it about your accomplishments and contributions rather than about salary parity.
“Walking into your boss’ office and saying ‘I know I’m underpaid’ is not a good enough to reason to be granted a pay raise,” Berenson explained. “You’ll have much more success if you go in armed with proof of your strong performance, how long it’s been since your last raise, and the value you offer the company. Use what you know about your colleagues to help you gauge what type of pay raise is realistic.”
Guerra suggests not requesting a meeting with your manager until you’ve planned out how you’re going to approach the topic — and when. “Like any Major Boss Conversation, you’ll want to prepare for this talk ahead of time, and then initiate at an advantageous moment (i.e., not in the middle of a crisis or especially busy period). If your job is constantly in crisis mode, you can call a time-out and explain to your manager that you need to discuss something important.”
Once the meeting is scheduled, it’s time to make a case for yourself. “Your best rhetorical strategy with your boss is to focus on your specific contributions and accomplishments,” Guerra told me. “If your employer has made the determination that X workload merits Y salary, all you need to do is prove that your workload more than meets that bar.”
If you want to bring up a compensation disparity, Lulla suggests framing it this way: “I understand I’m making significantly less than some of my peers, so what can I do to ensure I get a strong raise come review time?” This type of approach gives your manager the opportunity to either explain the disparity (maybe the company is under a pay raise freeze that will be lifted at the end of the year) or provide feedback that will help you understand what you need to do to get the compensation boost you’re looking for. Maybe you need to build up a specific skill, for example, or earn a new degree or credential.
What to do if you’re the one earning more than your coworkers
What happens if you start a salary conversation with a coworker — or if they start a dialogue with you — and you learn that you’re earning significantly more than they are?
“I would coach them through doing the same thing that I recommended you doing if you’re the underpaid one,” Berenson advises. “Go in armed with proof of why you deserve a pay raise.”
Lulla agrees, though he warns against getting too involved. Offer your coworker some advice if you want, but understand that “ultimately, it’s up to them to advocate for themselves.”
Guerra, on the other hand, suggests you advocate directly for your underpaid coworkers. “Your capacity to be helpful in this regard increases along with your seniority. If you’re at a high enough level that you can say outright to decision-makers: ‘I think so-and-so is underpaid and I hate to imagine what would happen if she left,’ you absolutely should.”
“Even if you’re not comfortable fighting for pay equity in such a hands-on way,” Guerra explains, “there are small things you can do to ensure that strong performers get recognized. If someone’s doing great work, tell their boss! Seize opportunities to give positive feedback whenever they arise, and maybe add a half-joking ‘I bet we’re not paying them enough!’ when you can find an opening.”
Consider your total compensation
Whether you’re the one being overpaid or you’re the one being underpaid, keep in mind that money isn’t the only compensation tool available to you.
If your boss can’t swing a raise, you could always ask for other perks, such as the ability to work from home a few days a week. Likewise, a coworker earning less money than you may have negotiated for a schedule that allows them more time to care for their children.
There’s more to a compensation package than just the paycheck, after all — but if your paychecks are lower than they should be, use these tips to help you get the money you deserve.
Nicole Dieker is a full-time freelance writer. Her work regularly appears on Bankrate, Lifehacker, The Write Life, and numerous other sites. She is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency. Opinions are her own.
Haven Life Insurance Agency offers this as educational only, and the information provided is not written or intended as specific legal advice. Haven Life Insurance Agency does not provide legal advice. Individuals are encouraged to seek advice from their own legal counsel.