offensively low pay increase

A reader writes:

I’m a 24 year old black female working for in D.C. This is my first job out of college and I’ve enthusiastically worked there for a year and two months. I will admit that I agreed to work for an offensively low hourly-rate when I started (in terms of cost of living in D.C. and pay scale of fellow colleagues). I figured that I would prove how valuable I am to the company and they would subsequently pay “to keep me.” I am interested in the field and saw it as the ideal entry point to a very competitive and elusive industry. I love challenges and considered it my goal to be the best first-hire they ever had!

In the past year, I’ve been a model employee and have acquired numerous skills that have made me a valuable resource to the company. I support our second biggest client and the client has noted that our services have been nearly flawless since I joined the team. Also, I am one of a handful of people (all of which have been working in the industry for 5-10 years) that know how to use an application that has become the new industry standard. Additionally, I learned the aforementioned application on my own time and dime. I’m always assigned the harder/more frustrating projects that no one wants to work on. I spend a ridiculous amount of over-time at work, have had to cancel numerous plans in my personal life for the sake of a deadline, and frequently work remotely from home (btw, unpaid hours). I’ve never complained about ANYTHING because I realize that it’s all part of the job and meeting the deadline is the only thing that matters.

After weeks of begging for my annual performance review (two months overdue), my boss agreed to fit me into his schedule this past Friday (2 hours after I was scheduled to clock-out, but I was just glad to get a reply that wasn’t “maybe some time next week”). I was really excited because my colleagues have said wonderful things about me and raised my hopes by saying I would definitely be offered a salary position due to my unprecedented improvement in such a short time. Also, a fellow employee with less experience than me, who started only a week before me, bragged that it is “so freeing” to no longer have to clock-in and out because he was salary now. He even asked me if payroll had messed up my time-sheet during the transition from hourly to salary, thinking that I had already had my review. Since he started a week before me, he assumed that I got my review a week after his. He got his review at the scheduled time, while I had to constantly remind my boss that I was due for mine and he kept postponing it. For two months!!

This leads me to my problem. As you may have guessed, the review did not go as planned. My boss said amazing and very encouraging things about me. He said he wished he had other employees like me and even suggested that I teach specific skills and applications to the employee that I mentioned earlier. He said he knew no one else who he would want new hires to “learn good habits from.”

That brings us to wage negotiation time. I thought salary position is in the bag! However, the raise that he offered me was a measly $1.80 hourly increase and a title change from specialist to analyst! I was dumbfounded! All I could utter was, “analyst position doesn’t come with a salary?” He said that normally it does, but that because I’d only been working for a year , HR would not allow him to offer me a salary position. He said he campaigned for salary pay on my behalf, but HR has very strict rules in regards to that matter. This time next year I would be eligible for salary, but I still needed more time “under my belt.” This is a complete lie because the other employee is now salaried and he only preceded me by a week! I was speechless and felt so disrespected and unappreciated that all my effort was spent on holding back the tears and gaining my composure. While I was trying to calm down the rising rage and trying to formulate a logical unemotional argument, he tells me that he has another meeting in a couple of minutes and if I was “okay” with what he was offering. He starts to look at his blackberry and shuffle papers around. The panic sets in and all my acquired knowledge on salary negotiations and any sense of self-confidence is destroyed. I stupidly stammered “that’s cool…that’s cool..that’s cool” repeatedly and before I know it, I signed the review form, shook his hand, and was on the other side of his door. I stood there for a couple of minutes blinking back tears, but paralyzed otherwise.

Am I a fool for expecting them to value my contributions to the company? He knows how much of myself I give to my work and he still screwed me over. Why?! Is it because of my race? I am one of four black people in a 15-people department. Is it because of my gender? I am the only woman working in the department. Is it because I started at such a low pay scale, he thinks that I will always accept the minimum? Did I set a bad precedent from day one? As a manager, isn’t his best interest in keeping me, a model employee, happy? Or, is his real goal to save the company money, by any means necessary…even at my expense. I’m heartbroken, and deep down I know it’s irrational to be this emotional about it, but I really have put so much of myself into my work and therefore this slight is that much more insulting. Can I pursue legal action? Should I?

I read all these articles about how women in the workplace aren’t assertive enough and that this is their biggest problem when it comes to the negotiation table, and feel empowered that this knowledge will help me combat that pitfall. But, here I am, just another statistic. I don’t know what to do at this point. I’ve thought about moving on to another company, but my company has a very strict non-compete policy and my measly one year experience is not going to have our competitors willing to fight for me. Also, all the available jobs require at least 2-3 years of industry experience. Am I being ridiculous, too emotional, or am I justified?

I’m so sorry that this is so long. I just really needed to get this off my chest and to talk to someone about it. THANK YOU SO MUCH for your time and allowing me to vent. I would really appreciate any insight you may have.

First, I’m so sorry to hear about your situation! I can imagine how upsetting this is.

My guess — and I could be wrong — is that this company tries to lowball people whenever they can, and they’re just hoping they can lowball you and you’ll accept it. You’re going to have to push back and negotiate.

My advice is this: Ask to meet with your manager again this week. Tell him that you’ve had time to think about your conversation and you’re confused about his inability to switch you to a salaried position. Ask explicitly whether there is a company-wide policy that requires working a certain amount of time at your level before becoming eligible for a salary, or whether HR is just pushing back in your particular case. If he tells you it’s the former, well, there may not be a lot you can do. But I think there’s a good chance it will come out that it’s the latter — in which case, tell him that you believe your performance warrants a better salary offer and that you’d like some time (a few days or a week) to prepare a memo laying out your reasons. (I’m suggesting a memo rather than an on-the-spot conversation because I think you’re upset enough about this that you’ll be better able to present a thorough case in writing.)

He may look at you wearily, tell you not to worry about doing that, and that he’ll see what he can do (and then hopefully come back to you shortly with a better offer). Or he may just look uncomfortable and say okay. If so, your next step is to write a memo (as brief as possible, because you want them to actually read the whole thing) laying out your case, citing comments from your evaluation, etc.

I think you can get yourself more money if you firmly explain why you’ve earned it. But if it turns out this is a company that’s shortsighted about pay, don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re not stuck there. With more experience under your belt now, you can go out and find a job that will properly compensate you. Don’t be deterred by job ads that say two to three years of experience is required. Those are more like wish lists, and you can absolutely make a case for yourself as a strong candidate despite having less experience. (And cite some of those great comments from your review in your cover letter. Someone smart will snatch you up.)

Now, on the issue of legal action — If you think you can make a clear case that his reasons are discriminatory, it’s always an option, but you’re talking about spending a lot of money and even more energy and emotion on something that tends to be hard to prove. It also won’t solve your problem in the short run, since these cases can take years. So unless it’s egregiously obvious, I’d say to try other avenues before even thinking about whether that’s something you want to take on.)

Ultimately, my advice is to address this head on, tell your boss firmly what you want (you might even suggest a specific salary), and see what happens. Make it clear you know your own worth. You could even say that you accepted a lower-than-market salary early on because you hadn’t proven yourself yet, but now you have — as evidenced by his own comments about your performance.

But if it turns out the company just isn’t willing to budge, you will find somewhere that will value you in the way they should. Please write back and update us, and good luck!

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 17 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench*

    Ask a Manager has given good advice as usual. I have just a few things to add.

    First, good for you that you are enthusiastic. That is wonderful – we need positive, go getter employees. We really do! Don’t let this experience get you down but do learn from it.

    Second, in my personal experience I have never known a company or manager to hire someone at an extremely low wage and then award a substantial pay increase for any reason other than promoting the person to a position with significantly more responsibility. They hire at a low wage for a reason: because they can squeeze as much out of their budget as they can that way.

    Third, be cautious about doing things on your own time and on your own dime. It can come back to bite you in the form of bitterness (you may end up thinking to yourself in the future “I worked so hard, spent my own money and time w/o pay and this is how they treat me?”).

    Fourth, there is no loyalty. Business is business. And it works both ways (employer to employee and employee to employer).

    Fifth, it is NOT irrational to be emotional about this. You put your heart and soul into your work and didn’t receive what you felt was due. It is ok to be angry and sad.

    Best of luck and remember even if you don’t end up getting what you want in this situation you still will have learned something valuable about they way some workplaces operate. Experiences like these help one to be better prepared for the next round in the ring.

  2. Anonymous*

    Dear Ask A Manager,

    I’m curious as to why you didn’t suggest she contact HR to confirm the existence of the policy and to potentially seek counsel on her situation?

    What’s your take on getting them involved?

  3. Ask a Manager*

    Hey there Anonymous! It’s certainly an option for her to contact HR, but I think she’ll have better luck by trying to work this out with her boss directly. HR can tell her what the policies are, but her boss is the one with the power and incentive to go to bat for her and get her more more. (Also, if she contacts HR and finds out there’s no such policy, she’ll need to go back to her boss at that point anyway — much cleaner and more direct to continue dealing with him on it.)

    Regarding seeking counsel, she certainly could, but as I wrote above, that approach comes with a hefty price tag, both monetary and emotional.

  4. Jessica*

    I don’t have anything constructive to offer, but I just had to tell this writer how sorry I am that she is in such a position. There’s nothing I can do except hope it gets better for her, but I’ll be looking out for an update and I’m sure that it will be a positive one. GOOD LUCK!

  5. Working Girl*

    It is good advice to go back and try to negotiate a better increase. It really sounds as if this guy is thinking, Well, she’ll work for less and I can get her for less so that’s what I’ll do.

    One of the reasons men make more money than women is that they ASK for more money. Another thing men do–if they are told No they don’t just leave it at that, they try again. Writing up all your reasoning is a good idea. Just seeing it down on paper is going to make you feel better. It’s a good jumping off point, too.

    At the same time I really think you should start looking around for a new and better job. Find out exactly what this “non-compete agreement” limits. It may not be tying your hands as much as you think.

    Do not just take this lying down! You will hate yourself! You are worth more than this!

    I wouldn’t spend a lot of time wondering “why” your boss has done this. This doesn’t do you much good and doesn’t get you closer to your goal, which is to be paid what you’re worth. Yes, it is perfectly natural to be upset and angry!! Go ahead and be good and mad for a while. Then, coolly, calmly, smartly, and determinedly set forth to fix this problem—negotiate for another increase AND start building your network.

    Good luck. You are going to do GREAT!

  6. liz williams*

    I just read this post and wanted to weigh in. First of all, I too am sorry you’re having to go through this. I’ve had experiences this painful, and had to learn what it means that the biz world isn’t personal.

    I want to caution you about deciding what this means and deciding something about you (race, gender) is to blame. I’m not saying it is or isn’t, just that it’s an unproductive train of thought, like running your tongue over a sore tooth to figure out why it hurts, You never can, and it doesn’t matter – you need a dentist.

    Instead, focus on discharging your emotion by writing out what you want to say, then stripping out all blame and judgment. You want to work with this until all that’s left is what’s so – no embellishments, no whining, no recriminations. Simple cause and effect.

    Your feelings and shock – and the knowledge of you male colleague’s promotion are all fair game here as they are part of the cause and effect – if expressed without blame or judgment. I might include a statement of regret about setting too low an expectation for how you are compensated. It does seem to have been a mistake at this company. I’d thank him for the early hard lesson. Approached this way, youll gain two things: the respect of your boss and restored self-respect.

    If your boss has a brain in his head, he’ll not only realize he’s been caught in a lie, but that the lie is an actionable one. He’ll probably still lowball you. Hold out for more money if he makes a counter-offer – I’d ask for 25% more, in fact (based on how much women are typically underpaid). Do not cave too early on this. Do not split the difference.

    If this doesn’t work, I’d ask for a letter of recommendation and some introductions and let him know I’d also be asking others in the company who think highly of you for referrals for the same. The spirit in which you do this is crucial – compassionate, curious and firm – and without blame or judgment. You’re not trying to hurt him, just get the help you need. Although his behavior is mysterious in light of your contribution, your path is clear: you’ve worked hard and expect to benefit from that hard work, if not here, then some other place. If he can’t accommodate your salary needs, what choice do you have but to go? And, given how highly he thingks of you, of course he’d want to help you.

    If you end up leaving, do contact others in the company for referrals and DO NOT EVER TRASH YOUR FORMER BOSS. It sullies you, does not help him and may come back to bite you given that the industry you are in sounds intimate and interconnected. Also, it is impossible to know what is driving him and how stuck he may be – either because of company policy or some beliefs he can’t shake.

    You’ve got to teach people how to treat you (an Oprah quote), but you’ve got to take the high road or you end up bitter and cramped. To the extent that you stay clean and blame-free, you can come out of this a winner.

    Whether or not you can change your boss’s mind, the practice of staying judgement-free will keep his (and other bad behavior) behavior from changing you, which is far more important. I promise it works, everytime.

    I want you to get through this unscathed, having learned to stand up for yourself. I hate it that you’ve gotten bitten like this so early in your career. From what you’ve written, you seem smart, hard-working and full of promise. I believe you’ve got the emotional toughness to come out of this stronger and knowing how to value yourself in the busness world. Remember: no blame or judgment!

  7. Eric Pennington*

    Is it any wonder why women are one of the fastest growing segments of the start-up arena? I think not, and this writer is proof. I hope she will take a step back and take a sober look at her strengths. She’ll find gold there and she might find she belongs in that start-up arena.

    Sadly, her story is repeated more often than we care to admit.

  8. Anonymous*

    Leave the job immediately. I had a similar experience. I fought with it for one year, one lost year of my life. There is nothing to win, just to lose. Go away as quickly as you can before it destroys your enthusiasm.

  9. Anonymous*

    The bottom line is that you are not appriciated and you are valuable. If your current boss does not see that, it is time to look for something else.
    By all means do not trash the boss and do ask for a letter of recommendation. Then start putting out resumes. Once your boss realizes you are quiting, he will either bargan to keep you or let you go. Just try to part in good favor.

  10. Alyssa*

    Don’t complain!!!!! I just had my yearly review and was offered a 1.25% raise…for me, that’s .19 (yes, NINETEEN CENTS) per hour. Thats’ really makes your day, nothing like a punch in the stomach.

  11. Anonymous*

    Isn’t it a matter of what the job description entails as an analyst on whether or not it is an exempt position, not a matter of how long you have to be somewhere to qualify to be an exempt employee!! However, sometimes it pays to be an hourly employee, as you can get time and a half for overtime.

    I would have been upset too. Sounds like you went above and beyond and received the short end of the deal. Maybe you should just meet their expectations instead of exceed them.

  12. Undervalued*

    I did the exact samthing and went into a job knowing the pay was below market. My reason was to get back closer to family, so was just happy with a job amd new experience at the start. But things aside, I thought that if I busted my gut they wouldnt be able to refuse a raise to an adequate level for the positions responsibilty. After 3 months on the job I met the CEO and he mentioned that the company prides itself on paying “competitive market rates”. I held back a cough at the timeknowing what I accepted was 50% below market. Today I was offered 5%. I did a little more than mentioned above and said that it was insulting but didnt know how to sell myself to get more/deserves. I looked on the job market today and melbourne doesnt have that much due to the whole financial markets situation abroad. So tomorrow I write an email that goes over my boss’ head – thanks for the advice – as initial drafts had a little(sarcasm) bitterness within.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Hmmm, I wouldn’t go over your boss’s head with a raise request. That’s a good way to poison that relationship. Ultimately, he’s the one who is your boss.

      Also, take into consideration that “market rates” means partly “what you could get somewhere else,” and if you’re not finding much else in your industry in your area, you might actually be being paid market.

  13. Some guy*

    I’m not going to bore anyone with a long story. I’m a claims adjuster and I’ve been at the job for 9 months (3 years experience). I came in at the low end on pay because I was promised more money fast with my experience. My work is ass kicking rock solid and I even I do other adjuster’s work as they fall behind. I had my scheduled salary review today; $500 more per year. I calculated the hourly increase, it’s 25 cents more per hour. I’m fuming over here.

  14. Felicity S*

    Finally found a post that is most similar to mine in that I’ve also changed careers with very little to no direct experience in this very niche industry. I took a $10,000 pay cut in a related but totally different position that I’m going to school for based from the understanding that they will pay me market rates after a 3-6 mo probation depending on my performance and slowly transition me to the actual position I want after 1 year.

    Long and short of it is that there is no performance benchmarks because the job is totally new in my city and they seemed shocked, if not taken aback, by my similar reaction as to why they’re not increasing my BASE salary?! They expanded some of my tasks to include the one related to the position I want but only offered a measly commission bonus that would amount to about $200/mo.

    Meanwhile, my account is on a negative for the entire 6 months and had some major life decisions based on the premise that my base salary is going to increase.

    I think part of the issue is that I’m really young compared to all of them (like 20-30 year difference) and perhaps they think I’m just a student who doesn’t have a mortgage, etc… I gave up my government job and now I’m freaking out.

    People in this small private firm seem to joke about the low pay but don’t seem to fight for it. I want my salary to reflect my hard work, which they all agree on, but don’t want to severe my relationship with them. How do I make this work if my base pay, as it is, is going to ruin me financially??

Comments are closed.