should you be earning more money? these 3 people want to know.

I figured I’d bundle three somewhat-related salary-related questions into one post. Here we go…

1. Should my promotion come with a higher raise?

Today I accepted a promotion at work after waiting for the formal offer/salary for almost two weeks. The salary is about $5,000 less than I wanted (and I was aiming for $15,000 less than online pay scales state).

The thing is, it’s a decent raise from my current wage: 20%. It is also my first management position. However, I do bring skills that no one else in the company has and have produced work over the past year for which they would normally pay a consultant twice my wage. Am I being greedy in wanting more?

I feel foolish because I didn’t negotiate: the director who called me phrased it as though it was a great salary and I should be happy. I was stressed after waiting to find out the salary for so long (they told me right after my interview that they planned to offer me the job and they advertised for my current position a week ago). I felt like I had no choice but to accept.

They built this role up to sound very high-profile (significant responsibility nationally) and so I expected a salary closer to those I see online. Have I just accepted a much lower wage than this role would normally receive?

I don’t know. But it’s your first management position, so you represent a risk and you’re guaranteed to need to learn on the job, and so it probably makes sense for them to pay you less than they’d be paying a more experienced and tested candidate.

As for salaries you see online … are you talking about salaries that you see in job listings, or salary websites like Salary websites, unfortunately, aren’t going to give you very accurate information; they generally don’t account for the fact that job titles frequently represent wildly different scopes of responsibility, or vary significantly by type of company or geography. (You can get a far more accurate idea by simply bouncing figures off of other people in your field, checking with professional organizations in your industry, or talking with recruiters.)

But what’s most useful is knowing what salary you can command on the market — you, with your particular set of skills, experience, and ability to market yourself. That’s very different from what knowing what a huge swatch of people all performing vaguely similar duties with very different skill levels at wildly different companies around the country can command.

2. MBA working as executive assistant, disappointed in raise

I’ve been an executive assistant at a large and prosperous firm for about a year now. Although being an EA wasn’t my original plan, when I graduated from my MBA program and spent many months applying like a madwoman and interviewing to no avail, I decided to take this job because of the security and great benefits.

I’ve ended up loving my job and excelling at it. I frequently have to ask if there is any more help I could offer because I finish my regular tasks quickly. I received shining evaluations from the two executives I work under, and was called in to talk about my “raise” at the end of this year. It was $1,000. I was disappointed because I have received nothing but praise since starting here, and was hired at nearly $10,000 less than what I initially asked for. I figured that after a year of proving myself, they would at least try to meet me in the middle. Now I know that I should have advocated for myself more, but I was in shock at the time and unsure how to react.

I’ve researched and even after my “raise,” my salary is significantly lower than even the low range of EA salaries listed on websites such as I have an MBA and finance/accounting experience, and now make even less than I did before I received my graduate degree. I am frustrated because I love my job, my firm, my coworkers and the company culture and don’t want to leave, but I also feel like I have sealed my fate by accepting what I was initially given and then this small cost of living raise. It’s now several months later and I feel it would be awkward to bring it up now. I don’t want to settle for less than I deserve, but I also don’t want to leave. Is it too late?

Well, again, websites like glassdoor or aren’t going to give you very accurate information. See #1 above. But you could probably get more reliable information by talking with recruiters or people with similar jobs at similarly sized companies in your area.

However, what you definitely don’t want to do is to base your raise request on having an MBA or on what you made before your graduate degree. It needs to be based on the value you bring to the company. Simply having an graduate degree doesn’t generally warrant a higher salary in most fields, particularly in a role that doesn’t require one; salary is about the value of the work you’re doing to the company. Are you using the MBA in significant ways in your role? If not, then you can’t reasonably expect that it will factor in to what you’re paid. (Although if you are using it in significant ways, and if that’s not something generally expected of the person in your role, then it can become part of your case.)

Keep in mind, too, that depending on what percentage it is of your total salary, $1,000 might not be such a paltry raise. The average raise nationally is 3%. I don’t know what you earn, but if you’re earning close to the national average income of $43,000, 3% is $1,290, or pretty close to what you got. Of course, if you’re not an average performer, you deserve more — but it might be useful to know that it’s not the shocking insult that it might have seemed at first.

In any case … It’s not too late to go back and say that you think you’ve earned a larger raise. Here’s some advice on how to make that case. Just make sure that you base it on your value to the company in your current role and what you’ve achieved there.

3. Boss doesn’t care if people leave over money

I have worked in the accounts department of a property management company for 5 years. There are approximately 45 employees. I am happy in my job, most of my coworkers are great, the hours are flexible, and it’s close to home.

My boss is the owner of the business and is very tight when it comes to paying anyone what he should or what they are actually worth. Four years ago, I spoke to him about a raise and questioned whether he does performance reviews because I had been there over a year and nothing had been mentioned. Prior to speaking to the boss, I asked a coworker about the procedure for a review and pay raise, etc. and they told me not to bother, because “the boss doesn’t give raises.” I was really surprised, but I didn’t let it stop me from asking for one anyway. So, when I spoke to the boss and stated my case as to why I deserved a raise, he confirmed he doesn’t do annual reviews, but would consider my request for a raise. A month went by before he told me he had decided to give me the raise, but it was a very small one.

Since then, I haven’t approached him about another raise, but I know I certainly deserve one! Mind you, the company has had quite a few employees leave because they have asked for more money and the boss has knocked them back. He thinks everyone is dispensible, so he doesn’t care if they leave. So, recently, I have been thinking perhaps I should state my case again, but instead of asking in person, should I put it in writing? I’m not sure if it’s going to be worth my while even though I know he doesn’t pay me what he should. I feel stuck inbetween a rock and a hard place — I don’t want to leave my job but I am finding it hard to earn so little. It also makes me feel unappreciated too. I’m not afraid to ask him for a raise in person but I feel like it would be a waste of time. What do you think my next step should be?

There’s no advantage to putting in writing over asking in person. In fact, asking in person is usually the better route, since it allows for an actual conversation.

But, you know, you’ve been there five years. If your boss won’t give you the salary you want, it would make more sense to either move on or accept that you’re staying for reasons of your own (whether it’s liking the work, your coworkers, the flexibility, or whatever). This is what your employer pays for the work you do and it’s up to you whether to accept it or not accept it, but it’s not really fair (or good for your own state of mind) to accept it and then complain that he’s cheap and not paying people what they’re worth.

So either you want to stay under these terms, or you don’t. But trying to have it both ways is going to frustrate you endlessly, and probably won’t get you what you want.

{ 51 comments… read them below }

  1. Adam V*

    OP #3: My first job paid me significantly less than I expected. My company had a practice of hiring fresh, straight-out-of-school developers and teaching them what was necessary to learn for real-world development (things like source control and bug tracking, which we didn’t touch while in school). As a consequence, there was fairly regular turnover as people learned enough to compete for mid-level and senior jobs in other companies to get the pay raise. (If you hung around long enough, you were usually in competition for the few supervisory slots, but I didn’t know whether that was the direction I wanted, and enough of the people who had already left were the friends that made the day-to-day more bearable.)

    It sounds like your boss has decided that’s how he wants to work – he’ll hire people and pay them as little as possible to get them in the door, but he doesn’t offer raises or pay competitively enough to prevent them from looking elsewhere when the time comes.

    1. Peaches*

      I’m sort of curious what Alison thinks about these types of employers in the first place? (I’ve come across them in my field too, which is very different from the sounds of things.)

      There are employers out there who constantly hire entry-level, fresh out of school people, and don’t appear to have any interest in retaining them long-term. There are always more entry-level people, especially in this economy, but doesn’t it make sense to try to retain good employees?

      1. Anon*

        They don’t care about that. That is their business model. That’s how I got laid off at my last job. They have vice presidents and entry level staff now. Period. I was “middle-manager” level with years of experience and was let go. Oh and I made too much money.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I think as long as the employer is up-front with people about what they are and aren’t offering, it’s their prerogative. There are some roles and environments where it can make sense to operate that way, as long as you’re transparent with people. (For instance, if the type of person who you want for the role isn’t going to have any room to advance because the other roles you have on staff require different experience/education/skill sets — hire a great person, know they’re only going to stay 1-2 years, and be up-front with them about what they’re signing up for.)

        1. Anon*

          But they often aren’t. And you don’t find out otherwise until you get in. I’ve definitely learned my lesson about asking really good questions at interviews as a result, but most places aren’t up front about it.

      3. Lexy*

        It only makes sense to retain good people at higher levels if you need them.

        I’m an auditor at a Big 4 firm, and their business model is definitely “up & out” but not (at least in my experience) cruelly so.

        You are worked incredibly hard for adequate though not really impressive pay to learn A TON (SO SO much in your first two years it makes your head spin) and be marketable to private companies outside of public accounting.

        If every fresh out of college new hire wanted to stay it would put an incredible market pressure on the higher level positions… it would be much more difficult to move up if more people want to move up instead of out.

        It’s not perfect, and the experience can vary wildly from firm to firm and market to market (my office has experienced very few layoffs, but did have a staff shortage a couple years ago due to turnover, other offices had to do mass layoffs because there wasn’t enough work for the people there)

        But I think overall accounting firms are fairly up front that this is a *stepping stone*. If you love it and want to stay… there’s probably a place for you… but it is never surprising that people eventually want to move on.

        (note: bitterness about the workload also varies wildly… I tend to be pretty meh about it, other people thinks it’s unfair and stupid)

        Tl:dr: Some industries need more entry level people than higher level people and that’s just the way it is.

    1. Aussiegirl*

      OP here. Yes, I keep my eyes open for new opportunities, but it is difficult because I am pretty happy in this job at the moment (apart from the obvious issue of money!).

      1. moss*

        well just like no amount of money can make up for being totally miserable, don’t overlook the incredible value of having a work environment that is mostly okay. If all that stands between you and total happiness is a little money, you are way ahead of the game, and in your place I would consider a part time job if I needed some extra cash.

  2. HalpMe*

    If you choose to search for other position due to a low salary, lack of benefits, or uncomfortable with the direction of the company (for example, I accepted a job as I was told 30% of the clients were Christian based. Now, all clients and perspective clients are evangelical Christians), do you state this in a cover letter?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No, only in an interview if you’re asked why you’re leaving. (I either answered this privately by email recently, or there are two people with this same problem!)

  3. Wilton Businessman*

    For all three: Unless you are under contract, you have the ability to get another job.

    #1: Online pay scales mean nothing. Your industry and location may pay higher or lower than the average. FWIW, a 20% raise with a promotion is pretty good.

    #2: Jumping ship might be a little detrimental since you haven’t been there that long, but I think people would understand you’re under-utilized.

    #3: You haven’t gotten a raise in 5 years and you’re still there? I too wouldn’t do it in writing as it looks like you’re trying to CYA about something.

    1. COT*

      For #2: do you want to be an EA in the future? Or do you want to do something more directly related to your MBA? The longer you you stay, the harder it might be to get out of the EA track and into whatever else you’d prefer to be doing. That totally varies by person and industry, of course, but it’s a consideration to keep in mind.

    2. Anonymous*

      I said “no raise in 4 years” and gee thanks for the advice but I’m not trying to CMA.

  4. twentymilehike*

    This post came at a really good time! If you haven’t gotten a raise in years, and your boss has admitted that you deserve one and she wants to give you one BUT there’s no money to give you one … what do you say to a future potential employer when you are asked your reason for leaving that isn’t just, “I need/want more money?” I could understand maybe saying the company is not doing well financially, but my company is a major player in our small industry and I’m concerned about how that would sound …

    1. AnotherAlison*

      I think you can make that reason about what the new company could offer instead of what is driving you away from the old company. Maybe you are at a large company and want a small company with an opportunity to wear more hats, or, while opportunities for advancement in general are great at Old Co., New Co. offers better future opportunities for someone with your particular skill set.

    2. AdAgencyChick*

      I don’t think it’s wrong to say “I deserve more money” (NOT “I need/want more money”). I’ve had candidates come to me and say, “I like what I do, and I’ve been doing a really good job of it — but there’s been a promotion freeze at my company for two years now,” or something similar, and I always think, “Ooooh, yeah, I understand,” not “Mercenary!” (Of course, this message goes over better when paired with “And I want to work for your company specifically because…”)

      1. twentymilehike*

        “I like what I do, and I’ve been doing a really good job of it — but there’s been a promotion freeze at my company for two years now,”

        I like this … I’ve sort of been working along the lines of, “there’s no room for advancement” in my current role, but I don’t want to be misleading people to think I’m just trying to get ahead. I value stability, and I absolutely have that, it just so happens my paychecks are way too stable …

        1. twentymilehike*

          Well that came out kind of wrong … and I think that’s my problem! I would like to advance in a company, but I mean, it’s not like I’m going to be unhappy and look for a new job if I’m still doing the same thing for years and I like it.

    3. Wilton Businessman*

      I think it depends on the situation. If you haven’t had a raise in 5 years like the OP, I think you tell the interviewer that you haven’t had a raise in 5 years. If you’ve had raises every year, that argument gets a little more difficult.

      1. Aussiegirl*

        OP here. A few people has misread what I wrote. I have been at my job 5 years and the last time I received a raise was when I asked for one, 4 years ago. Thanks for everyone’s replies – still evaluating my situation.

        1. Pandora Amora*

          There’s not a huge difference to me between you having been there 5 years with your last raise 4 years ago, and not having had a raise in 5 years. I see there is a nuanced difference, of course: but overall it’s been a long time since you’ve had a raise.

        2. Wilton Businessman*

          If you haven’t gotten a raise in 2 years it’s a problem. 4 years or 5 is irrelevant at that point.

  5. VictoriaHR*

    When researching salaries, another resource for people is their own HR department. Many companies purchase salary guides from consultant companies to make sure that they’re paying the industry standard and to base their pay ranges off of. Ask HR if you can look at the salary guide for your company, if there is one. Also ask HR what the pay range is for your position at your company. That should give you a good idea of what the company is paying everyone in that role, and where you fall within it.

    1. Former HR Consultant Employee*

      Unless you’re an employee of one of those consultant companies, then you’re just SOL if they don’t pay market.

  6. Sascha*

    This is all very fascinating and I’m grateful for the practical advice, Alison. I’m getting close to a point where I’m going to be negotiating salary soon with an upcoming promotion (in a few months!!). I feel so much more prepared now.

    1. Wilton Businessman*

      The best thing you can do in a salary negotiation is know how much you are worth in that industry and stick to your guns (assuming you don’t need the job). Reach out to your network to see what others in your next position make. Talk to your (third party) recruiter. Sure, you might lose a job over it, but would you really want to work there for less than you think you’re worth? The biggest mistake people make is telling the hiring manager how much they make now, not how much they want to make.

  7. Ann*

    It’s nice to hear Allison’s advice, but I’m in a very specific role and don’t have many contacts I’d feel comfortable asking questions about salary expectations. I wish these websites were more accurate because this information is hard to come by if you don’t have a huge network. But it’s something to keep in mind for sure.

      1. Jamie*

        That would actually be easier, actually. I would never tell someone in my real life network what I make, but giving a ballpark to someone online is different since its not someone in your real circle.

    1. COT*

      Or job postings in your area if they ever list salary. I’ve watched one local job board long enough that I have a pretty decent idea of what I’m worth despite having a unique job. I see postings for roles that involve parts of my current job, or want skills like mine, or are looking for the same years of experience that I have, and together those give me a pretty good ballpark.

  8. B*

    OP #3 – A good thing to remember…everyone IS dispensable. I cannot think of a job where only one person in the entire country can truly do a job. The President is changed every 4 or 8 years, when you are on vacation someone covers, and when someone who is highly skilled retires there is someone right behind taking over. Yes, it does take time to train someone, but still they can be trained to do the task.

    1. DA*

      This exactly. Every single person in every job is dispensable. After all, if you get hit by a bus on the way home today, someone has to pick up your work tomorrow…

    2. Mike C.*

      Not to mention the fact that every President has a replacement sitting down the hallway should the worst ever happen.

    3. Bob*

      Hmmm…We don’t have presidents. Not everyone lives in the USA. How do you know someone covers when the employee is on leave? That may happen at your work place, but not everywhere. Some jobs take a long time to train someone for and we have had cases where that person has left after training because they realise how difficult it is. Then we have to start over. All situations are different. Good employees are definitely hard to find.

  9. Dan*


    Compensation has three components, and only one of them is $: The other two are Quality of Life and benefits.

    For instance, I get five weeks of vacation (great benefit!) live close to my suburban office, roll in whenever I want, and wear jeans to work. Assume I’m “underpaid” and can find a job in the city that pays $10,000/year more, and they want me to be in the office at 9am.

    1. After taxes, my net pay is actually going to be only $7,175 more, or $600/mo.

    2. I have a longer commute, increasing my gas and maintenance expenses, or if I move closer, increasing my rent. Assume my six mile commute (each way) increases to 25. My gas bill alone goes up $116.

    3. I probably have to pay for parking, figure ~$200/mo.

    3. I lose 2-3 weeks of vacation.

    4. My commute time increases from 30 minutes round trip to something like 2-3 hours.

    So, I might be “underpaid” (what does that truly mean?) but I’m going to be sticking around for awhile. You might be “underpaid” too, but there’s plenty of reasons for you to stick around.

    TBH, turnover is either at acceptable levels for management, or it isn’t. If it is, then nothing is going to change.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Dan – while I agree with the math you’ve shown and also agree that non-monetary work-life benefits are worth a lot, I have a question that flips your analysis the other way.

      Lets say you live in the burbs. Industry is concentrated in the city. Almost all people with your specialized skill set are in the city. They also do not want to commute to the burbs – they’ll lose their accumulated benefits, have to buy a car to get there, commute time increases. To replace you, your company would have to go to the city to poach a competitor for someone similarly skilled, and that guy is already making $10K than you. To entice him to commute, they have to pay him another $10K, or effectively $20K more than your salary. So, maybe you should be earning $20K more. : )

      This is something I personally struggle with. Most people like me are on the coasts (making double my pay) and positions like mine are very hard to fill locally, but also rare. It would be very hard to attract talent to fill my position, but it would be a PITA for me to relocate to where more lucrative jobs are. From my own HR, I have heard that industry salaries are actually kind of consistent across the US, despite dramatic cost of living differences. To me, this means although it costs more to live in NY/Boston, it takes more to get someone to leave there to come to flyover country. Who has the upper hand? Is there a meet-in-the-middle solution?

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think there is an upper hand, or any different one based on regions–places with more jobs are places with more applicants, after all. I also don’t think you can credibly require a bump on the grounds that some people would hate to live where you do :-).

      2. V&SFX Addict*

        May I ask what you do for a living? I think it’s interesting when companies start competing for employees because they’re looking for a certain skillset. I’d be happy to relocate but it’s not possible to find much on salary/hourly wage comparisons.

    2. Aussiegirl*

      OP here. Thank you for reply – yes, this is how I think about my job also, which does help a lot to put it all in perspective.

  10. Beth*

    I tell people all the time that salaries are based on two things: the value to the company and the value of the individual in it. An EA may have a value of X to Y at the company. So even if OP1 is the very best EA at that company EVER, they have put a value on the position and she may be capped out there. Two options remain: 1) Add something to the position that makes the position more valuable (new projects, revamped efficiencies, etc.) or 2) take the skills to market and find a company that values the position and will hire you between Y and Z.

    1. Jamie*

      I say that all the time, salary = value of position (scarcity of needed skill set) + individual value + negotiating skills.

  11. mel*

    Raises… oh… I think I remember those. Used to have em when I was a cashier. Our employers held celebratory meetings to announce our 15 cent raise! Wooo, 15 extra cents an hour!

    I miss those.

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