how to increase your pay when changing jobs (or how I doubled my salary in one career move)

by Ask a Manager on May 19, 2011

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A reader writes:

I’ve recently reached two significant milestones in my career, having finished my master’s degree program and reached 5 years of professional experience.  With these two achievements under my belt, I want to start looking around for a new position to move my career forward (as the general consensus in my current group is it’s near impossible to move forward without leaving).

I started doing some research on salary numbers and it looks like the median numbers for 5 years of experience and a master’s are hovering at about 50% above my current salary.  The median numbers for the positions that require 5 years and a BS are still about 35% above my current salary. I would like to try and bring my salary in line with my experience, but the staffing groups that I’ve talked with have so far suggested that companies would be unlikely to look at anything more than a 10% raise, despite the fact that my qualifications have changed without being recognized by my current company. How would you suggest that I go about trying to reach the salary that I feel matches my experience?

Well, first, keep in mind that the median numbers are medians; that means that there are an awful lot of people making well below that number. You need to find out what separates people making significantly less than the median from those making more. Is it geography? Differing scopes of responsibility? Some specific niche in your industry that they occupy? Large companies versus small? You shouldn’t just look at the median and think “that’s where I deserve to be”; you want to understand which workers in your field are falling where along the entire range and why. (Here are some ideas on how to figure that out.)

Now that that disclaimer is out of the way … it can indeed be hard to get a raise far above 10%, but it does happen — particularly if you’re dealing with a company that doesn’t insist on knowing what you’ve been making and instead just asks what salary you’re looking for. Those employers are out there (hell, I’m one of them, because I think your salary history is no one’s business but your own, and I think employers should determine a candidate’s value for themselves, not look to their competitors to tell them a candidate’s worth). But it’s also true that many, many employers play the salary history card.

So if you’re dealing with a company that demands to know what you’ve been making, and you don’t feel you can avoid the question, you’re going to need to make a compelling argument for the salary you’re seeking. Because the problem, of course, is that saying “I’ve been making $40,000 but I’m seeking $55,000″ tells them that you’re probably willing to take something closer to $40,000 — because, after all, you’re taking it right now. So you need to come up with something that convinces them to look beyond that.

It can be done, but you’ll have to figure out how to argue that it’s warranted. For instance, I once more than doubled my salary in a single career move: Early in my career, I worked for a nonprofit that paid very low salaries. I didn’t really care at the time — I loved the organization, I loved my work, and I was grateful that they let me have a desk there, let alone that they actually paid me.  But eventually I was ready to move on, and if I was going to go somewhere new, I figured it was time to start earning a normal salary.

At the interview for the job I was eventually hired for, when it came out that the salary I was asking for was more than double what I’d been making, the interviewer asked me why she should give me such a big increase. I said something like, “I’ve loved the work I’ve been doing, and I was willing to do it for well-below market rates because I was so personally invested in the organization and I was learning a huge amount that I wouldn’t have had the chance to learn somewhere else. But now I’m ready to move on from that stage, and part of the reason I’m leaving is because I want to be paid a normal market rate.”  (It worked. And let me tell you how thrilling that first new paycheck was.)

Something like that is better than, “Well, $__ is the market rate.” Because the employer’s response to that can easily be (in their head, if not out loud), “Well, if that’s what you think you’re worth, why doesn’t your current salary show that?”  So you need that stronger narrative.

So … first figure out if the median really applies to you or not. And then figure out what your compelling argument is going to be, because if you don’t know, the employer certainly isn’t going to take the time to come up with it themselves. Good luck!

{ 32 comments }

Anonymous May 19, 2011 at 10:08 am

I have a slightly similar question about asking for what you are really worth not what you’ve been paid: After being laid off I took a temporary position. At a significant pay cut as well as cut in duties, responsibilies, and time spent working. I would like to, in my next job, go back to the responsibilities and pay that I had at my former job. Is it ok to dodge the question of what are you being paid now and answer instead what I was being paid before? And is there a point in time when that was just too long ago to be still worth that amount?

Ask a Manager May 19, 2011 at 10:49 am

What you don’t want to do is outright lie and present your former salary as your current salary, because some employers will verify that info (and will pull an offer if you lied). However, you could say, “At (name of former company), for similar responsibilities and demands, I was making __.” If you’re questioned about your current pay, you can explain the work is less intense, it’s temporary, etc.

Anonymous May 19, 2011 at 11:57 am

Of course no lies. I’d like to not have to say what I am currently making though I understand I may have to. I’m just hoping if I lead with your fantastic line about similar responsibilities and demands I can get back to what I was at before. Thank you.

Wilton Businessman May 19, 2011 at 10:50 am

If I was making X, I wouldn’t be looking for a new job, would I?

Jamie May 19, 2011 at 11:19 am

You might be. For me how much it would take for me to go through the process of starting a new job is directly related to job satisfaction.

When I’m happy at work and feel valued and productive it would take a 47% increase for me to jump ship to a similar position.

That number drops in direct proportion to increasing dissatisfaction with the current gig. There are definitely times I would consider jumping for equal money.

I personally wouldn’t take a paycut to leave, because that’s too big a gamble – I could end up in a crappy situation with less money…but for even money it would be worth a roll of the dice in certain circumstances.

Jamie May 19, 2011 at 11:26 am

I don’t subscribe to the line of thinking that an employer should be junior psychiatrists and I have never believed it’s a bosses job to keep me happy – that’s my problem; but if you have people you really don’t want to lose, your top performers, it wouldn’t hurt to make sure that they feel engaged and valued.

I feel stupid replying to my own post – but I just think this is why it’s important for a managers/employers to understand that it makes good financial sense to keep that ‘number for which someone would jump’ as high as possible.

Anonymous May 19, 2011 at 12:01 pm

I agree. I have turned down positions that were slightly more if they didn’t include things I wanted. There is more to a job than the pay. Vacation, flexibility, responsibilities, benefits, opportunity for growth. For me they all factor into the decison.
And I think an employer is going to want to know why you are worth whatever you are asking for as well.

Lesley May 19, 2011 at 11:15 am

Thank you for offering a way to explain a very low salary! I started my career in a really low-paying industry, and while I loved that job and managed to advance at that company, I had to leave due to salary issues. I’ve really struggled with how to give out my salary history when requested–market rate in my area for a similar role in a different industry is almost double what I was making there (based on salary ranges for posted positions). I’m good at what I do, and it’s time I actually earned a living wage.

Joey May 19, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Alison,
There are very valid reasons to ask salary history, not just as a way to minimize salary offers. For me, it’s a red flag that I need to inquire about if I find out someone is willing to leave their current job for less pay. Yes there are valid reasons to take less but that better be articulated to me by the candidate otherwise I’m thinking bad things. And it’s a way to gather hard data to make sure your salary range is in line with the type of candidates you want. And, past employers don’t always give this info out.

saf May 19, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Oh, I hate that.

Yes, I’ve changed careers several times, and yes, I’ve taken pay cuts. And I was CHANGING CAREERS, so my previous salary had *nothing at all* to do with what I was looking for in a new salary.

But no, we still had to dance the “you are worth only what you are making right now” dance.

Ask a Manager May 19, 2011 at 3:16 pm

But Joey, why not achieve those goals by just asking about candidates’ salary expectations?

Joey May 19, 2011 at 4:24 pm

That’s the problem. People don’t do or don’t know how to do a very good job of salary research so their expectations are often skewed. I can’t tell you how many times people back up their salary expectations with unreliable data like those free reports on salary.com or how many times I’ve had to explain how to look up and figure in the relevant cost of living info.

Jamie May 19, 2011 at 4:48 pm

A good resource for employers or job seekers for realistic salary ranges for niche positions are consultants.

Not that you would pay someone on staff consulting salaries (oh if that were the case there would be a much nicer car sitting in my parking spot right now) but consultants are in and out of a lot of different sized companies and often have a lot of knowledge of the going rates.

As always I’ll use my field of IT as an example – but companies tend to be more forthright about internal salaries to consultants than other employees – I don’t know why but it’s true. So consultant with a decent sized client base will have a pretty good idea of what the market is in their area.

It’s not a resource everyone to which everyone will have access, but if you do have an consultants on retainer and you want to hire a new network admin they’ll be able to give you a better ballpark than any website I’ve seen. I’ve also seen this work with finance and marketing positions.

Fair warning: if you’re an employee and not currently looking to leave and you ask your consultant buddy what market is for your position – just out of curiosity, and he/she answers with, “Anything under $X and they are robbing you blind” and you’re making considerably less than $X it can really be a kick in the head.

Make sure you really want to know before you ask.

maddy May 19, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Yea, you’re right, that is the whole problem– As an entry level I did my research through those sites as well as asking people who holds the same position at different companies… and was still told that my salary expectation was unreasonable. If the employer had just listed their salary range on the job posting, it wouldn’t just save my time, but the employer’s time as well because I wouldn’t have applied.

Not to sound rude, but I think this may be something you may want to think about. It would save so much time to ask for salary expectation or list a salary range on the posting rather than salary history. The reason people are looking for a job is because they want a better salary.

Charles May 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Joey:

“That’s the problem. People don’t do or don’t know how to do a very good job of salary research so their expectations are often skewed.”

By “people”, you mean employers, in that sentence, right?

Joey May 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you but a lot of companies “salary research” is based on what they paid the last person in that job and/or what the candidate currently makes. Not that this is an excuse but the proper way to research salary data from the employer side is complex and time consuming unless you’re willing to pay for it. Not every employer,especially smaller ones, have the capacity or are willing to do it right for obvious reasons. That’s why they don’t list a salary range-because they don’t have a clue if it’s reasonable and they don’t want to provoke pay issues with existing employees. So it becomes easier(and lazier) to just ask applicants what they want.

maddy May 19, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Yea, I hate it when employers ask for salary history. I don’t understand why one’s prior history matter. The only thing that comes out of it is employers trying to low ball you. Instead of asking job hunters to list salary history why don’t you (employers) just list the salary range of what you are willing to pay. Wouldn’t that get you a better result? Candidates who are looking for something in that salary range will apply and you eliminate the ones who are not in that range. Don’t you think that would make more sense than to get a whole bunch of people to apply and then have to read and eliminate them that way?

FYI- nothing good comes out of trying to low ball candidate. They will just resent you for it later.

SME May 20, 2011 at 8:18 am

A couple of years ago I moved from an area of the country with a very high cost of living, and commensurately high salaries, to an area where both are quite low. There’s at least one recruiting firm that puts out annual salary guides for several industries broken down by both job type and region, and I found that really helpful. I’m not going to name the one I used here, lest it seem a little too product-placement-y, but I thought the idea in general might be one that people looking at negotiating salaries might find helpful.

Long Time Admin May 20, 2011 at 8:30 am

It would save everyone a lot of time and trouble if employers would state the salary range in the job ad. Employers wouldn’t waste time interviewing people who think they should get more money than the state salary range, and people who want or need more money wouldn’t bother applying for low paying jobs.

I’m mostly talking about people in non-management positions (there’s not enough money in the world to get me to supervise another person, but that’s a different story).

People in support positions would LOVE to know the salary range for job openings before going through the whole process. It’s so seldom that employers are will to pay decent money for support positions.

Anonymous May 20, 2011 at 10:35 am

The standard practice of companies hiring people at “current salary plus just enough extra to get them to accept” is bad for both employees and employers.

If hiring is treated like shopping where the goal is to pay the lowest amount required to purchase the item, it encourages retention of lower performers and turnover of higher performers. Two examples:

1) A quality candidate is hired at a bargain rate that’s less than what their true value is, meaning he or she is likely to jump ship at the earliest opportunity in search of better compensation.

2) A sub-par candidate is hired at a bargain rate that’s more than what their true value is, meaning he or she is likely to stay on board as long as possible to avoid risking the loss of a cushy salary.

Hard to say what the perfect solution would be, but part of it would be for companies to stop requiring salary history, since the only reason it’s needed is for determining the low point of what to offer. Another part of the solution, after the hiring process, would be for companies to pay and promote based on performance instead of using the same rules for everyone.

For example, say a person is hired at this bargain rate but is found to be a top performer and a highly valuable asset to the company – how long is that person going to put up with policies like the ones listed below? (all real-life examples)

~ No matter how great of a job you do, we can’t give you a raise or promotion for a year and a half because your start date was two weeks after the cutoff.

~ You’re more than qualified to do that job, but you can’t apply for it because it’s a grade 28 and you were hired as a grade 26, and no one’s allowed to jump two pay grades at a time.

~ We can only give you a 4% raise because the average is 2% and no one’s allowed to get more than twice the average, otherwise the 2% people will get upset.

~ You didn’t get an “Outstanding” rating this time because you got it last time and we’re not allowed to give it two times in a row.

~ In-line promotions can only be given every two years, but people can get around that by applying for internal postings at a higher pay grade as long as they’ve held their current job for twelve months.

Caveat: I fully realize the onus is on the job seeker to negotiate the best salary possible and that it’s difficult for a hiring company to accurately know what value a candidate will actually provide, but the system is still set up in favor of the hiring company and those that perform at or below average.

Jamie May 20, 2011 at 11:04 am

“You didn’t get an “Outstanding” rating this time because you got it last time and we’re not allowed to give it two times in a row.”

This is infuriating. I once got a cumulative 9.8 out of ten on a performance review “because we don’t give 10′s.” Well if it’s impossible to attain it shouldn’t be on the measurement scale.

And I’m aware that there is always room for improvement and no one is perfect – but the lack of logic in the reasoning pissed me off. And it was for a job I had done well enough to get a promotion and jumped 2 pay grades for a 43% raise (the highest percentage raise in company history) – and since there were no negative statements I do think I should have gotten the 10.

Not that I’m bitter.

Why do companies let people without logical reasoning write policy?

Joey May 20, 2011 at 12:20 pm

This is an age old dilemma. It’s sort of like the manager who never has anyone below outstanding. Possible- yes, likely-no. Makes you really question whether or not the evaluation is inappropriately inflated to reward someone or whether the managers expectations are too low.

Anonymous May 11, 2012 at 12:36 pm

I just discovered this thread but am going to leave a comment even though the discussion is old.

I had a boss who never gave me higher than “meets expectations” no matter how outstanding a job I did. One year I lead some really stellar projects and when I asked to be re-scored as outstanding for that area, the boss told me “But I expect you to do great things. So you are just meeting my expectations.” Fortunately, he left for a new job before I found a new one. I know have a new supervisor who is not stingy acknowledging my efforts when I make the company shine.

John October 2, 2012 at 1:23 pm

Yes – it’s “I’m meeting (or exceeding) your expectations for the role”, not “I’m meeting your expectations for me”.

Anonymous April 24, 2012 at 8:06 am

I know this brings up questions of ethics, but I have in the past, lied about what I am currently making. I agree with the author in that it is not the new employer’s business to know what I am making, but when one company insisted, I just lied. The new company hired me, offering me the SAME amount that I was making before. Of course, if they want to verify, that’s another issue.

Don Bonfill September 1, 2012 at 12:53 pm

It’s a game. Most HR folks are lazy and will go for either the last salary try or try and get you in the low to middle of the pay curve. Now if you are already grossly underpaid and need to get caught up by changing jobs you have 2 options. 1) tell them what you currently earn and end with a slightly better offer -20% max increase; 2) massage your current pay -up 30% to make sure the starting point of the salary negotiation gives you good head room and ensures you come up tops.

I choosed the latter and ended up with 80% increase, pretty much in line with someone of my experience and education. You might ask why I ended up behind the curve – bad boss, company struggling, hesitation to move.

Companies hardly check, and if they attempt you employer will hardly offer them any information beyond confirming employment and title.

Just my 2 cents

Ask a Manager September 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Many companies do check, and people have had offers pulled over it.

Your two options totally miss the point of the post — which is that there’s a third option.

RandNotAyn October 15, 2012 at 1:29 pm

What about the tactic of excluding your salary history and asking, politely, tactfully, “Are you asking because you plan to make me an offer that’s a percentage about my previous salary?”. After all why do they need to know that any more than the value of any other assets you might own? If they say, and they can, ‘yes, it’s helpful to us for making an offer’ you can say ‘my salary requirement is xxx’.

ew0054 June 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm

I like this idea, and I will try it in upcoming interviews.

It really is no business of the hiring manager what you are making. Asking comes off as conniving at worst, or lazy at best.

They are only hurting their own company by low-balling. If they offer you $10k less than the market rate for your skills, and you accept for the time being, should they act so surprised when you continue to interview and leave the job 6 months later?

Then they lose all the time and money they have put into training you for those 6 months. Now they will need to start over with somebody new. If they paid the $10k more over a year, they would have come out ahead.

josh May 13, 2013 at 5:47 pm

I don’t know what to do. I think my current job is killing me, but the thing I want to do at this point requires a huge paycut and a return to school to get additional education and certification…which it isn’t exactly fair to ask my wife and kids to live with less just because I’m excrutiatingly painfully desperately unhappy with my job…

The other option, is I can let the stress build and build and build until something in my brain bursts…then my life insurance would take care of my wife and kids for a while…would allow them to pay off the house and cars…get out of debt and more or less live happily ever after…though the second option seems stupid when I actually read what I’ve typed…I don’t know what else to do.

I’ve been at my job about 6 years…have 13 years experience total…I was shifted into a new role at the company about a year ago…and I’ve spent the last year dreading getting out of bed every single day…I feel like I’m drowning…I haven’t cried since I was 17 when my Grandma died…but I think I end up frustrated to the point of tears 3 to 4 days a week.

I don’t know what to do.

ew0054 May 21, 2013 at 6:45 am

The stress you describe is no good for anyone. It’s time to get out of there.

With that much experience and if you have made many contacts, have you considered contracting/consulting? Register yourself an LLC – at least then the fruits of your labor are your own.

6 years is a long time to stay at a job. Have you given thought that it may not be the job but the environment? I don’t know what you do, but often even a lateral move should result in
increased pay, which can help with stress if you sock the extra away.

Lotsa Tasks January 31, 2014 at 1:28 pm

My problem is that mgmt does not understand what I do, and therefore takes a very dismissive view on its value. Expecting him to actually do some research on it would require him to have some level of integrity, which has long since been established as nonexistent.
Eighteen years at this company, taking every opportunity I could to take over new functions to cover voids in the process, and nothing.
So, now that I cover several job descriptions, I am finding that I cannot get any kind of estimate of a reasonable salary from any source. I cant just take each individual job function and add it to the one above it going by figures from the BLS, or other.
Okay, so I am worth the salaries of 4 regular hires across 3 different companies. (Duo-proprietorship of which those owners have other companies, and work is performed for all of them.)

At a loss. Glad to have a job, but wayyy underpaid for what I do for these companies.
Taking the initiative to cover more job functions and increase my productivity has simply amounted to more work. My last raise in 4 years was 2 grand. Whoop-dee-doo..
I am looking for another job, have my resume out there, but mostly all are headhunters, and I despise headhunters, due to past experience with several. If you don’t take the first thing they find for you, then you might as well forget hearing from them again.

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