after starting job, found out pay was lower than I’d asked for

A reader writes:

I was recently hired for a small retail gig while trying to make my way through college. I asked for $X amount on my application, and after I’d already been hired, my new manager said something along the lines of, “Oh, and I noticed you wanted $X.” And they started me about a dollar and a half below what I asked, saying that was the amount all new employees start at. I agreed, especially after he promised I would get pay increases steadily.

A couple of days later, I was chatting with another employee who had already been there about a month, and she mentioned that they started her off at the same amount I had originally asked for. And not to sound ungrateful, but my position is far more demanding than hers. So I’m kind of upset I’m not getting the pay I asked for, when others had. Should I do anything, or just deal and hope for that raise soon?

I wrote back to this writer to clarify, asking if he had accepted the job without confirming salary. He replied: “I did. Their hiring process was kind of sloppy, I never really had a chance to bring it up between the interview and my first day.”

So here’s where I’m going to chastise you. I don’t buy that there was no chance to bring it up between the interview and your first day. At some point they offered you a position, right? That’s when you bring up pay if they don’t. You just ask straightforwardly: “What is the pay rate?” (And even if they never made a formal offer and instead just called you to schedule your first day, which can happen in retail, you just need to be assertive: “Before putting me on the schedule, we need to talk about pay.”)

As you’ve now found out, you can’t assume they’re going to pay you the desired rate you put on your application! You have to ask.

And you need to have this discussion before you accept the job, because that’s when your negotiating power is at its highest. At that point, they don’t know if you’re willing to accept the job or not and they have more motivation to negotiate with you than after you’re already working there and have shown you’ll accept the lower rate.

As for your coworker, people have different rates of pay for all sorts of reasons — including because they negotiated at the time of hire.

You can’t really be upset that they offered you what they say is their standard new employee rate when you didn’t take the initiative to go after more. All you can really do at this point is to do a kick-ass job so that you can justify asking for a raise down the road.

And next time, make sure you do your salary negotiating before accepting the offer.

{ 18 comments… read them below }

  1. TheLabRat*

    AAM, I totally see your point here and you're right that the writer should have asked at some point. But I wanted to point out that you just don't negotiate salary at small retail jobs. Seriously, it doesn't happen. I'm sure it happens somewhere that I've never heard of, but most places will pretty much immediately rescind the offer if you bother to try.

  2. Ask a Manager*

    That's a good point. My memories of retail jobs are hazy. But it sounds like his coworker might have successfully negotiated, unless her position just has a higher standard starting rate, which is very possible.

    Still, the time to ask is before saying "yes" — doesn't make sense to get bent out of shape when you learn the pay isn't what you wanted but never asked about.

    (Which doesn't let the employer off the hook either — they messed up by not talking pay with him.)

  3. TheLabRat*

    "Which doesn't let the employer off the hook either — they messed up by not talking pay with him."

    To me that is really weird. I've worked more than my fair share of crappy customer service jobs (i.e. retail and food service) over the years and most of them do at least have a moment of "Pay is minimum wage. Is that OK? Awesome, moving on."

    Now that I think about it, I think if they forgot to do that I'd forget to ask. It's like the script of min wage jobs would be broken and I wouldn't know what to do with it.

  4. Ask a Manager*

    Here's how it went down in my head (and I'm obviously making this up out of thin air): OP does interview with manager. A few days after the interview, someone other than the manager calls him (maybe the assistant manager — let's say the manager is on vacation and has left the assistant manager with the applications of a few new people he wants to hire) and just leaps straight to, "Can we schedule your first day for Monday?" The assistant manager doesn't know pay was never discussed so doesn't bring it up.

    Yes, I've just spun a yarn out of nothing. But that's what I'm picturing in my head.

  5. Charles*

    Two points I would like to add:

    One. NEVER assume anything, especially when it comes to pay/compensation. Yes, it is up to the employee to ask BEFORE accepting any job.

    Two: And this is a biggie with me. AAM, maybe in non-profit it is different; but in the for-profit world this is pretty much standard.

    Why on earth is the employee discussing salary/compensation with another employee, especially if it is on company property and during company time? I can understand why many do this (who doesn't want to know what others are paid and if they are getting the same? Who doesn't want to know what the company is willing to pay to negotiated a better rate of pay?). However, it is a very big "no-no" in most work places. Okay, I don't know about retail; but in most professional work environments it is grounds for termination, Yes, TERMINATION! (I know many will argue with me that it is unfair to do this; but "them's the facts," employers will fire you for discussing pay/compensation with another employee)

    There are many reasons for employees, who seem to be in the same job with the same title, etc, being compensated differently. Some people have more experience, more education, different skills, etc. and therefore "deserve" more compensation.

    Also, when mentioning what one makes to another employee there can be very hurt feelings, the OP is a good example of this. And, who's to say that the other employee is telling the truth?

    The OP needs to learn, in addition to never assume, to never discuss compensation with another co-worker. With the internet there are many ways to find out the "going" rate for a job.

    Learn now to never discuss compensation with a co-worker before accepting a position in a chosen field only to be terminated due to breach of confidentiality.

  6. Anonymous*

    @Charles – It's true that many companies have rules about discussing salary. But this is exactly how they get away with pay discrepancies. Women who are paid less than their male counterparts go for years unaware of this because we're told it's unprofessional to discuss it. As to checking the salary online? You can do that…but the reports vary wildly, and if it's a large retail chain the one in the next town may pay $2 more an hour than the one in your town. You could still easily wind up paid less than someone else for unfair reasons.

    As to the OP, frankly, if I'd heard "Oh, I see you asked for $X," to me, that would indicate acceptance of that rate. Like TheLabRat said, negotiation doesn't go on at this level. The manager had every right to say "We can't pay that much," but she didn't, and for a retail job, what she did say is pretty much how the discussion would normally end.

    I would bring it up to the manager that my application clearly stated $X and that she hadn't had a problem with it prior. Bringing up the other employee might get both of you in trouble, but you ought to at least address the fact that they ignored your app. Letting it go and trying to "prove yourself" only lets them off the hook without even a peep.

  7. Shawn*

    my work experience is pretty limited, but my company wouldn't terminate someone for talking about their salary. it's probably an unwritten no-no to do in general and can lead to hurt feelings/issues, but we wouldn't terminate someone for telling another coworker what they make.

  8. KellyK*

    I'm not a lawyer or an HR person, but as best as I can tell, it's illegal for a company to prohibit employees from discussing compensation (within some limits).

    As Anonymous at 12:51 points out, that expectation of privacy about wages promotes pay discrepancies.

    I think there are definitely unprofessional ways to discuss what individuals are making, especially if it turns into one-upsmanship or whining. But I think you have a right to know if you're making approximately what others in your company are getting for the same type of work.

  9. Anonymous*

    I've been administering compensation for a variety of industries for twenty-five years, and in my experience, policies prohibiting discussions about pay are indefensible, and the existence of same is a clear indicator of a company that cannot defend its pay practices.

    Talking about pay may still be a social gaffe as it may make some people uncomfortable, but that's not actionable.

  10. Paul D*

    The only reason companies try to ban discussions about pay is to hide questionable salary discrepancies. The more severe the punishment the bigger the red flag. It may be a widespread practice but that's just because there are lots of bad places to work.

  11. Anonymous*

    I've worked in retail, and every time I've been told, it will be $X. I was never asked how much I wanted, and the tone never sounded as if it was negotiable. Sometimes it's minimum wage while other times, it is a few dollars higher. Then you get a raise every so often, but right now, in some places there's a pay freeze.

    Speaking of which, the OP has to understand that we are in a recession (or an environment slowly coming out of one, depending on your source). Right now, the economy fluctuates between the ups and downs, and maybe they hired on an "up" with the other employee, and now things are going the other way. Maybe there's a difference in the positions. Who knows? Only the OP can tell us if there are differences.

    As for the raise, I wouldn't hold my breath since companies are enforcing pay freezes.

  12. Anonymous*

    I'm really astounded that anyone could think that just because they wrote a number on their application, that that is what they would be paid! If that were true, we'd all write "a million bucks" on our applications!

  13. H. Ome*

    So you will found yourself lot of surprised such that you are getting less payment as you were thinking.

  14. Amy*

    Regardless of whether it's right or wrong for the company to discourage employees from discussing their wages… I think the other thing the OP should remember is that the best way to guarantee you're NOT going to get anywhere is to go to your manager and ask for a raise based on "so-and-so is getting more, so I should, too." You need to state your case based on YOUR merits and what YOU have contributed, not on whining about being paid less than someone else. Right now it's water under the bridge, so you've got to focus on what you can do between now and review time to warrant an increase.

  15. Mike*


    So women and those on H1-B visas shouldn't complain that they are systematically being paid less than their similarly experienced coworkers?

    I think not.

  16. Anonymous*

    Again, I have to bring up….where are all y'all working that H1B's get LESS? My experience is that they're getting about 20K/yr more, plus their legal expenses.

  17. Anonymous*

    @Anonymous at 12:30: I think you missed the part where the manager (a) still called the candidate in for an interview, which she wouldn't have bothered to do if the expected salary were out of reach, and (b) did not seem to have any problem with the rate on the application during said interview. If none of that mattered, and they could still pay whatever they wanted after the candidate got hired, every job from cashier to engineer would pay $6 an hour!! (See, I can be witty, too).

    @Amy – For the OP to "focus on what [s/he] can do between now and review time to warrant an increase" may come to nothing; s/he could work harder than anyone else in the store and still get told there's a pay freeze. What if the manager had specifically promised X rate, and then the company reneged or there was a mix-up with payroll? The OP shouldn't have to roll with their whims; otherwise, every hiring manager would promise one amount and then pay whatever they felt like later.

  18. Buckeye*

    My husband was fired for discussing salary with coworkers. He and a close coworker found out what others were making and told someone else who went right to the boss. Fired the next day! Should have kept their mouths shut and I hope they learned that lesson!

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