Earning your worth

Recently I read a great article about negotiating salary on the front end (during the interview and hiring process). As a huge fan and follower of College Recruiter’s posts, I retweeted the article but also began thinking about my personal experience in the realm of salary negotiation. Quite honestly, I’d often sold myself short on the front end, feeling desperate to leave rather thankless jobs for greener grasses, or finding myself in need of employment due to relocation or other personal circumstances.

What do you do when you have done a poor job of salary negotiation on the front end, and you wind up working for less than you’re worth?

Different strokes for different folks. I visited with a few contacts in various fields, and they shared experiences of their own and of their employees. Jeff Jenkins, former corporate operations manager, shared that in his experience as an employee, more than one company has offered him a higher salary at the time of resignation. “It worked okay, but those are not ideal situations because you have drawn a line in the sand between yourself and your employer that may come back to bite you.” Jenkins also shared that as a manager, he has worked for many companies with tiered pay scales based on production. In those cases, “if anyone asked for a raise, we already had a scale to work from.” Jenkins strongly feels that salary should be based on merit. “If your manager doesn’t see the benefit that you provide and you feel that you’re underpaid, I’d suggest trying to get involved with other departments that would strengthen your relationships with the decision-makers of the company.”

Tim McKenna, SPHR, Director of Talent Acquisition for Acxiom Corporation, shared this story about a time when one of his employees smartly approached him for a raise.

“A few years ago during a downturn in the economy when my company was not giving annual salary increases, I had an associate approach me for a raise.  Instead of just asking for the raise, she shared a document with me listing the jobs over the last 12 months that were approved to engage an outside recruiting firm if needed.  She walked through how she was able to fill these difficult job openings without utilizing the approved firms, which resulted in a six-figure+ savings to our company.  She also shared that she had recently turned down an offer for a recruiting position at another company because she enjoyed her job and team so much.  Finally, she politely asked if there was anything I could do to increase her salary over time.    

Leaders are used to creating business cases to justify budget increases, hires, or purchases.  By showing her bottom line savings to the company, this recruiter gave me the data I needed to get an exception to our salary freeze.  I’m happy to say she is still delivering great results on my recruiting team.”

This employee did the right thing and took action to earn her worth. In my case, I often sucked it up and kept doing what I was doing for less than I should have been paid. I had no one to blame but myself in those situations. In a world that’s all about saving costs and cutting corners, I can’t blame my employers for breathing a sigh of relief when I didn’t even attempt to negotiate.

That being said, some of my employers were often surprised when I handed in my two-weeks’ notice a year or two later, having come across a more interesting, more challenging, and more lucrative employment opportunity, usually due to my genuine interest in networking—not the cheesy, sleazy version involving a cheap exchange of business cards, but the true reciprocal type that hopefully lasts for decades.

Our team at one point in time, minus my pal Denise
Our team at one point in time, minus my pal Denise

A large corporation once offered me a position that paid $6,000 more than my current position. At the time, that sounded appealing enough for me to relocate to a new town. Even though the position didn’t sound very interesting, I was qualified, and I thought I’d give it a try. A year and a half later, I felt bored and unchallenged and missed working directly with people. I found another job opportunity with a non-profit organization; the position was for an interim director of development, and it paid $4,000 higher. The interview went well, and the people at the organization seemed jazzed about my ideas for improvement and change.

When I submitted my letter of resignation, my boss’s boss called me into her office and told me she hated to see me go, and that if I ever decided I wanted to return to the company, to give her a call; she’d love to have me back. I thanked her politely, but I secretly guffawed. “Yeah right! I’m never coming back here!”

Thank God I had the good sense to work hard, maintain a good reputation at that company, and maintain contact with my former coworkers at that company after leaving. Two months later, I discovered that my impressions during the interview with that non-profit were not an accurate reflection of reality at all. I needed to find another job and fast before the 90-day interim position rolled over into a full-time position.

I called my boss’s boss and took her up on that offer to come back home. She met me in the parking lot  with one page to sign, instructed me to take a drug test, and asked me about salary.

This was my moment.

“Well, I actually think I deserve to make at least X amount more now because I worked with you for a year and a half. Now I have experience managing and writing the exact reports and newsletters you’d be hiring me to manage. And you know what kind of work I produce. So you’re getting a great employee if you rehire me.”

“You’re right. That sounds good to me.”

And that was it. There was no argument. There was no back-and-forth-like-you’re-buying-a-car type of thing. It was just done. I could have smacked myself. Why hadn’t I been doing this all along? Geez!

Here’s what I learned from reflecting on that experience and this topic all week.

  • It’s all about timing. If I had asked this woman for a higher salary over the phone when I initially called her and asked her to meet me, I don’t believe it would have worked out as well for me. This is a discussion that needs to happen in person if at all possible. There’s an intangible ability to sense when is the right time to bring up a heavy topic like this with your supervisor. I encounter similar circumstances with my current supervisors, whether related to decisions about future promotions, hosting events, or a number of other hot topics. See #3 for help with strengthening your relationship with your supervisor because I personally believe, based on my experience, that if you don’t have solid rapport with your supervisor, walking into her office to attempt to negotiate your salary is going to be pretty stinking hard—maybe not impossible, but marginally successful. I believe it also helped that I waited until we had already discussed the other nitty-gritty details. The same concept applies to negotiating salary on the front end, too, by the way.
  • It’s all about proving your worth. I had worked for this corporation for 18 months, and in that short period of time, I’d proven my ability to work hard, work competently, work under direction, work independently, and work well, making very few errors. I do believe, based on the experience I’ve shared with you, that we often have to toot our own horns and ask for what we want in order to be compensated fairly, but if we have proven our worth by the way we work on a daily basis—not just in big moments, but on a daily basis—then it makes the ask feasible and fair. It’s not an argument—it’s just laying out the facts and allowing your employer to make a decision. Side note: In the story McKenna shared, the employee put her facts in writing, which was a genius idea. In my case, I laid out the facts verbally in 30 seconds. Both methods worked, so you have to figure out what works for you, and which method works may depend on parts 1 and 3. In an economic downturn, handing your supervisor a written document may be extremely important (to help your supervisor make the case for your salary increase). In my case, my close relationship with my supervisor made the nature of the conversation run very smoothly and casually. I knew that before we met, so there was no need to prepare a document. Just as in public speaking, know your audience.
  • It’s all about relationships. If I had not smiled and been cordial toward my boss’s boss every time I walked by her office, saw her in the hallway, or met with her for performance reviews, I doubt she would have invited me to return to the company if I ever felt the need. If I had treated my coworkers scornfully, gossiped to others frequently and made it known that I disliked my teammates, and in general caused conflict on a regular basis, I am not sure the conversation regarding salary negotiation would have lasted less than one minute. Experience has taught me that a) I can be kind and polite to everyone, regardless of how I feel about them, and that effort is never wasted, and b) relationships may last forever, even if I wish they wouldn’t. For this reason, it’s crucial that I go back to point A, and treat everyone I meet with the utmost kindness, respect, and courtesy.
College graduation, 2001
College graduation, 2001

I’ll share an example of point B. I was the typical undergraduate college student in many ways. I often wore pajamas to class and felt no remorse for doing so. It’s freaking college, right? In other ways, I was an exemplary student. I graduated with honors, I accumulated several writing awards, and I probably studied too hard and too often at times. One thing I did well at the time—and I didn’t honestly consciously think about doing it; I probably did it as a result of the way my parents raised me—is that I treated all faculty and staff on campus with kindness, courtesy, and respect. I did not walk into their offices demanding paperwork, copies, assistance, or grades. I may have been wearing flannel pajama pants, but by golly, I was courteous.

As Director of Career Development, 2006
As Director of Career Development, 2006

That courtesy paid off two years later when I applied for an Academic Coordinator position on campus. I interviewed—not in pajamas, thank you, but in a suit—and interacted with some of the same staff who I’d encountered as a student. My last name had changed, but the staff remembered me fondly. What if I’d acted a fool as a student and huffed and puffed my way into people’s offices, or written hasty emails complaining about perceived injustices, or God knows what else? The decision to be kind to others paid off, and in part, it helped me land a job at my alma mater that later resulted in a promotion to a Director’s position at a very young age. That position helped me determine my lifelong career path in higher education.

One thing I have learned that supersedes everything I’ve written thus far: there are no magic words. You cannot cast a spell over your employer or print out a beautiful chart or graph and VOILA! The salary increase is yours. It just doesn’t work that way. Most of the time we earn our salaries through a slow and somewhat tedious process of working hard, proving our worth, and building relationships. That takes time. As my mentor reminds me, though, I can allow myself to enjoy the process if I focus on learning and growing instead of on simply obtaining the end result right now.

Know your worth, earn your worth, and eventually ask for what you’re worth.

You’ll be glad you did.

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