Home CULTURE I Just Found Out I’m Being Underpaid. Now What?

I Just Found Out I’m Being Underpaid. Now What?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Dear Boss,

I think I need a reality check because I just don’t know how to feel about this. I work for a very large company (100,000-plus employees). I started nine years ago as an intern and have been promoted twice since then. I’ve been considered a top performer, earned a stellar reputation, and have year after year of glowing performance reviews. My managers love me, my co-workers see me as a trusted resource, and I’ve even received awards for my work (like an actual trophy).

I’ve suspected for the last few years that I’m being somewhat underpaid, but I wasn’t really sure by how much. I’ve only received three raises in nine years and those were pretty small; I’m now making about 14 percent more than I was as an intern nearly a decade ago. Management also makes a huge deal out of even small raises, like they’re doing us a big favor. I got a merit increase last year and my manager gushed about how everyone else got 2 percent but I’m just so darn valuable I got a whopping 3 percent.

A couple years ago, my state enacted a pay-parity law requiring job listings to include a salary range. My company managed to avoid doing this for the better part of two years by listing openings for my role in a less worker-friendly state. But in the last two weeks, there were about ten postings for my same role in other locations of my company, and those included a consistent range. 

My salary is in the bottom 25 percent of that range. Compared to the upper half (not even the top end), I’m being underpaid to the tune of $40,000-$50,000 per year.

I’m livid. When I didn’t have the actual numbers, I could tell myself it wasn’t personal and probably not that bad. But now that I see it in black-and-white, it’s really hard not to feel angry and downright insulted. I live in a very high cost-of-living area, and with all the inflation over the last couple years, I literally do not make enough to pay my bills anymore; I’ve been taking payday loans every single pay period for months and am drowning in debt. I’ve been casually job-searching for about a year, applying when I see a particularly attractive listing but trying to stay with this company if at all possible. Now I’m really cranking it up to find something better elsewhere.

Am I overreacting or off-base for thinking that my high performance should get me a higher salary? Also, is it even worth addressing with management at this point? I figure that a company that acts like a 3 percent raise is a massive favor isn’t going to even consider for a moment the sort of bump I would need to get to a fair salary. And I don’t want my manager to spend political capital for me only for it to not be enough for me to stay. But on the other hand, it seems like they’re never going to change if nobody calls it out.

Yes, it’s worth addressing it with your manager.

There’s enough of a chance that you’ll get a salary bump that it’s worth at least trying. Even if it doesn’t work, there’s value in raising the concern so that they’re clear on why you’re leaving when you eventually do. Also, there’s very little cost to raising it. You’re not asking for something unreasonable (your company publicized the salary range for your role so you have solid data behind the request, and they must have known there was a chance you’d see it) and you’re not going to look out-of-touch for thinking nine years of excellent performance should put you somewhere other than in the bottom 25 percent of the pay band for your job.

One important caveat: You didn’t say how long you’ve been in the role you’re in now. You’ve been at the company nine years, but you’ve been promoted twice. If you’re new to the job you’re in currently — if it’s been less than a year, say — it’s possible that it could make sense to start you at the bottom of the range for this specific job, since pay bands are generally based on tenure in a particular role, not at the company more broadly. It wouldn’t be uncommon to start you toward the bottom of the pay range when you were first promoted into the position, with the plan that you’d move to the middle and then the top of the range with time and experience, after you prove yourself.

That said, even if you are new to the role, I’m skeptical that would account for the discrepancy entirely. Nine years into your career, with glowing performance reviews and awards behind you, you shouldn’t be making only 14 percent more than you were as an intern a decade ago. You also should have been getting more significant increases with each promotion. Three percent is average when you’re staying in the same job and meeting expectations, but promotions to higher-level positions should come with larger gains, and it sounds like yours didn’t (and that’s before factoring in inflation with a cost-of-living adjustment).

Moreover, even if we ignored all that, we’d still have the fact that nine years into a successful career with multiple promotions, you’re resorting to payday loans to pay your bills. Your employer almost certainly isn’t compensating you appropriately.

Any chance part of the explanation is that your company caps how much of a raise you can get when taking an internal promotion? This is a terrible practice, but it’s not uncommon: Some companies will limit you to no more than an X percent raise when you switch roles internally, even if that puts you well below the market rate for the new job, and even when they would have paid much more had they hired someone external. That wouldn’t justify you being underpaid, but it might at least explain how you ended up here.

In any case, it sounds like you have all the data you need to ask for a (significant) raise. If you don’t get it, even after pointing out the advertised range for the role and your track record of achievement in the company, keep your job search cranked up. In fact, you might keep it up regardless. Unless you get a really compelling explanation of why you’ve been underpaid for so long, this is a company that’s much too comfortable paying you less than your work is worth. And even if they increase your salary now, I’m worried about how responsive they’ll be the next time you deserve a raise. But for now, let’s try to get you paid what you’re worth for however long you decide to stay there.

Find even more career advice from Alison Green on her website, Ask a Manager. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com.

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