You can learn what your job is worth

Working Life

November 05, 1995|By Deborah L. Jacobs | Deborah L. Jacobs,CHRONICLE FEATURES

Sometimes it pays to find out what your co-workers make. It's not nosy. It's just good business.

Let's say the company's about to transfer you to a new city with a higher cost of living. Don't count on management to tell you that people earn more there. More likely, you'll have to find out yourself, and then negotiate for a salary adjustment.

Or maybe you haven't had a raise in a while. By knowing what people with similar credentials and responsibilities earn, you can come up with a request that's in the ballpark. (More about raises next week.)

Still, many people would sooner tell you about their sex lives than tell you what they earn. Fortunately, you don't always need their cooperation to find out. And no, you don't have to do anything illegal, unethical or against office rules.

Headhunters, bigwigs' secretaries and human-resources types are all good people to befriend. When you're switching jobs within a big company, personnel will sometimes tell you what the last person earned. Occasionally, companies include pay rates when they post job openings (you'll need to factor-in seniority).

Periods of transition are prime times to dig for information. Before a new person comes on board (and loyalties develop), ask colleagues what the company has offered your future co-worker. If someone is coming from a company known for its good pay, your employer may have upped the ante.

Another strategy: Find out what the outgoing person was earning. People tend to be much more frank about their salaries when they are leaving a company. That's the time to ask, "Will the money at your next job be as good as what you were earning here?"

One manager was just doing her job one day when she stumbled across documents listing the wages of everyone earning more than $60,000. It turns out that her company -- and all other insurance companies in New York -- was required to submit this statement annually to a state agency.

Now that the manager has transferred to another department, she gets the figures each year by filing a public-information request and paying a nominal charge. Thus armed, she's made some daring requests for raises. After 20 years of being underpaid, she's finally earning what she's worth.

Until she discovered this little trick, she had to be much more resourceful -- for instance, by sharing confidences. ("I'll tell you if you tell me.") Even people who seem cagey at first may come around in conversation. One possible opener: "Are you as dissatisfied as I am with the dollars around here?" (Then ask, "How much do you think we deserve?") The next time a co-worker gripes, "For what they're paying me, I shouldn't have to put up with this " do some gentle probing. ("You're right; so what would make it worth the aggravation?")

When all else fails, guesstimate. Kate White, author of "Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead But Gutsy Girls Do" (Warner Books, 1995), recommends asking peers in the industry what they think is the going rate for the job you are in. The ranges they offer "can be very revealing," writes Ms. White, now editor-in-chief of Redbook magazine. People don't "lowball the number because they don't want you to think they're making a skimpy salary. And they don't highball it because they wouldn't want you to go out and ask for more than they're making."

Your company wouldn't price a product without gathering intelligence about what the competition charges. Why shouldn't you have the same advantage?

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