how to know what salary to ask for

At some point in your job search, you’re going to be asked what salary range you’re looking for.

You’ve probably read that you should try to avoid naming a number at first, but the reality is that employers are going to ask, and you’ll usually have to answer. In fact, many online applications these days won’t even let you apply without naming your salary expectations.

This is typically nerve-wracking for candidates who worry about lowballing themselves or pricing themselves out of consideration. So it’s important to research your market valueahead of time. That way, you can give an informed answered based on what comparable positions pay in your geographic area.

But how do you actually do this research?

The most obvious answer might seemingly be to consult the many websites that purport to provide salary information. However, many job seekers report that these sites aren’t very accurate, particularly since they generally don’t account for the fact that job titles frequently represent wildly different scopes of responsibility or vary significantly by field or type of company. (They’re particularly unhelpful for very specialized roles).

Here are seven more reliable ways to get salary range information:

1. First and foremost, ask other people in your field for their opinions. Most people don’t want to be directly asked what their salaries are, but you can bounce figures off them and benefit from their knowledge that way. Try asking: “What would you expect a role like this to pay?” Or: “Does a salary of around $X sound about right for a role like this, or does that seem too high or too low?”

2. Ask professional organizations in your industry. Professional associations and trade groups often do periodic salary surveys they can share with you, and even if they don’t, they can often give you general information about what range to expect. They may also be able to connect you with others in your field who you might be able to bounce numbers off of.

3. Look at similar positions on online job boards to see if salary ranges are listed. Many job postings don’t list salary information, but some do, and you can get at least some market data that way.

4. Ask agency recruiters what similar positions are paying. Recruiters are some of the best people to give you information about what jobs like the ones you’re interested in are paying, since they deal with salary negotiations every day as part of their jobs. They’ll generally have the inside scoop on the going rate for different jobs, and they may be able to advise you on which companies pay particularly well (or particularly poorly).

5. Ask around about a specific company’s reputation when it comes to compensation. Are they known for paying well? The opposite? Particularly with larger companies, you’ll probably find that people in your field have a general impression of their pay scales.

6. Look at government salaries, which are required by law to be publicly available. While they’re not always a perfect parallel to private sector jobs, they can give you additional data to factor into your research.

7. Nonprofit job seekers should consult, where they can see any nonprofit’s tax reporting. These forms contain a lot of info about the organization’s finances and will show you the salaries of key employees there. This can help you get an idea of the organization’s pay scale overall. (However, factor in that what the leaders are being paid may not tell you much about what junior staffers are earning.)

Look for patterns, not a single figure.

As you conduct your research, remember that you’re looking for patterns and trends to inform your thinking; you’re not after one single figure. That’s especially true because salaries are only one piece of a compensation package; many companies factor in other elements as well, such as benefits, bonuses, quality of life issues and so forth.

Of course, that’s precisely why it would be a lot more logical for employers to just tell job seekers what they intend to pay, rather than playing coy and pushing candidates to throw out a number first, right? But that doesn’t usually happen.

I originally published this article at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 78 comments… read them below }

  1. _ism_*

    Those websites also aren’t helpful for people employed in rural areas, or other parts of the country where things like cost of living are hugely different from suburban and urban areas. I’ve tried, and can only get salary data for the nearest city, which is 120 miles away and makes the information totally irrelevant. People around here seem to think $18k a year is good pay and I still struggle with whether I really can believe that and how I could possibly prove I am entitled to ask for more.

    1. Usually lurking*

      I’m job searching in rural areas as well and I’m nervous about this. I haven’t yet gotten to salary negotiations with anyone, but all the info I have is from friends of mine who work in the nearby city, so it’s generally useless. Plus I’ve mostly looked at really small places where there aren’t others at my level to ask. I’ve considered using it as an excuse to give them a higher number, sort of “Well I know in nearby Big City most people starting out make X. Since the cost of living is lower here, I was thinking X -10%?”

      Is that a terrible idea?

      1. _ism_*

        I don’t know, I’m hoping more people can weigh in on this. I’m making less per hour here, in a town of 10,000 people, for skilled office work than I was making in a city of 100,000 as a retail cashier.

        1. Editor*

          There is salary data at this Bureau of Labor Statistics site:

          Under Employment, look for Quarterly, then the state and county numbers that come from the Quarterly Census of Employment & Wages – QCEW. I think this page was formatted differently the last time I was on it, and I’m always confused by the various options. But with some job titles, there’s county-level data available.

          If you’re in a metropolitan statistical area, there may be more options. I haven’t explored them all yet. Even though the MSA where I live includes a rural county (most workers there commute to neighboring counties to work), most MSAs don’t include rural areas.

          The problem with all Department of Labor and Census figures about salary is that when a number would identify a particular business or worker, the information isn’t provided. So for some job titles, there’s no information. I don’t know how helpful the county information is for vague or general job titles. It does help to figure out the NAICS code for the job title. I did some research for someone in a suburban area for a higher-level white collar job that was listed in NAICS and apparently had enough data to give local numbers. So the BLS numbers can be useful, but they’re not always there.

          The thing that drives me crazy is that there’s no way to go back to a previous search page when you’ve left it. BLS is not like Google, where the url for a search takes you back to the page listing all your search results for Rick Astley when you’ve been rickrolled. All you get is the url for the main page. So if you’re finding the information you need, get everything before you leave the page(s).

          1. _ism_*

            That was a fascinating data search. This county is so small. I can identify so many of the “industries” here because there’s only one plant of each type, and of course the data wasn’t available ?

    2. ali*

      Does your town show up on cost of living calculators? If it does, you could do the salary searches for a nearby city and then check the difference in COL between the city and your town and then calculate the difference in salary.

      Even going from big city to big city, I had to adjust my expectations pretty dramatically based on cost of living. But I’m from a very small town originally and can’t even imagine trying to figure out what salary I’d ask for if I were looking for a job in that area. I wish you the best of luck!

  2. Rebecca*

    I wish that job listings would also list a salary range. This would be really valuable for those of us who are employed but looking for a new job. If the range is $9 an hour less than I’m making now, I wouldn’t consider applying. $1 – $3 less, in the ballpark. Understood the wiggle room would be different for everyone, but at least putting a range in the ad would help a lot of people.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Can someone who’s been in charge of hiring budgets explain why you wouldn’t put a salary range in? Presumably, even if your company/org/school is of great means, you still have a budget for the position (with some wiggle room). If your budget for the position is $45,000, why would you just not list the salary range at all? Wouldn’t you want to list $38,000-43,000 as the rough range and then pay $38,000 for people with little experience, $43,000 for a good candidate, and then $45,000 for an amazing candidate? If there are candidates who require $65,000, why waste your time and theirs?

      I’ve always been confused by this.

      1. Eric*

        Because when people see that the range is up to $43,000 then they all think “I’m a great candidate, I’m going to insist on at least that much”.

        1. AW*

          Then say no? “For your skill set and experience, we can only offer $X.” You don’t have to offer more money just because someone asks for it.

          Of course, there wouldn’t be this problem at all if companies generally offer a salary based on the employee’s perceived value instead of trying to figure out what’s the cheapest they can get someone.

          1. Chocolate lover*

            “Perceived value” seems to be a moving target though. Based on whose perception, the employer’s or the employee’s? As Lurker mentions below, the candidate’s perception of their value is not always aligned with the position and industry they’re looking at, it’s not always an employer intentionally trying to low-ball someone.

            I currently work at a University, and they can definitely have their own idiosyncrasies. Each position is classified at a specific grade level, and there is a (very broad) range for each level, based on a variety of factors. But the grade levels are determined by the university as a whole, and do not necessarily reflect the available budget of any given department. Which means that the ranges are not particularly helpful, other than knowing what the absolute minimum for the position is.

            1. AW*

              Based on whose perception, the employer’s or the employee’s?
              The employer’s perception. They’re the ones doing the paying.

              the candidate’s perception of their value is not always aligned with the position and industry they’re looking at

              Yes, which is in large part caused by all the obfuscation around salary.

        2. Jamie*

          Yes, this happens but then it’s a conversation about why you’re not offering the top of the range and people can either accept or reject.

          It’s a lot easier to have a couple of those conversations than to post a job which could have a huge range.

          There are a million of them but sysadmin is a great example. This title means radically different things to different companies (I’ve seen it applied to help desk type jobs as well as people running entire departments) and the salary range could be anywhere from the 20’s to the 100’s depending on the infrastructure, complexity, number of users, number of locations, and plethora of other criteria including people hiring who have no idea what the job really entails.

          If you don’t list a range you not only waste the time of unknown numbers of candidates who are trying to read the tea leaves but also whomever is screening the resumes because the pool is filled with people who are taking a shot that the job is in their range, but would never have applied in the first place if it was clearly not.

          Just from a practical standpoint it’s so much more efficient to be forthright with, let’s face it, a major consideration for both sides.

          Unless a company was planning on letting everyone think they are coming in at top dollar (and why would they do that?) it’s assumed by everyone that the company has a budget and makes the offer on what the particular candidate brings to the table and (yes) in many companies how to pay as little as possible.

          If someone is buying a car they know their range – sure they’d love to get something awesome for as little as possible but if their max is 35k it would be silly to go to autotrader with no search filters and have to manually sort though tens of thousands of vehicles, many of which you can’t even consider. The job ad functions should contain the criteria so it works like a human search filter where candidates can self-select out and not clutter the options.

          1. puddin*

            I like the analogy with autotrader. It certainly would speed up my review of the positions I consider. I also think that sites like and do a relatively good job of catering to job types that can help to narrow down the pay range.

            As I have been searching for a new job, I have been pleasantly surprised that nearly all of my HR phone screens have included a salary discussion right off the bat. I may have taken myself out of the running in some of the applications due my stated range (when its required). But I am mostly ok with that. I have lost time of course in applying for those jobs where my salary was not aligned with their budget, but right now I view that as a ‘cost’ of moving on up.

      2. Lurker*

        Because if you put a range then your candidate will likely expect to be offered at *least* the lowest amount listed, and you might be able to get someone for less.

        For example, if we’re willing to pay up to $45,000 per year, and put a range of $38,000 – $43,000 then it would be odd to offer someone $35,000. (When they may have be perfectly happy with $35,000 and listed a range of $30,000 – $40,000 on their application.) Business is business and if you can pay less for something with the same quality as something more expensive, wouldn’t you?

        I also think asking for candidates to list a salary range is useful to gauge how much they know about the industry or position for which they’re applying. If someone is requesting $75,000 plus relocation expenses for an entry level job at a nonprofit (which has happened) then I can tell they haven’t done their research or don’t really know how nonprofits work in terms of salary. If you don’t know or do your research, how can I be sure you’ll do the proper research or follow typically accepted procedures if you were to be hired?

        1. Sunflower*

          I think instead of a range it helps to say ‘X is the maximum we will pay’. To me, that reads ‘you’re only getting that if you are a superstar’ and it doesn’t sound like you are necessarily planning to pay that. That way the candidate has an idea of what they can expect and you don’t paint yourself into any corners.

          1. College Career Counselor*

            In public institutions (including higher ed), you can see what the person is currently making. Doesn’t mean that YOU will be brought in at that level, of course, but very often, there will be a published salary guide that indicates the top and bottom. YMMV, but some places won’t bring anyone in above the top of the first 3rd of the salary range. Other places have more wiggle room if there’s a compelling candidate/it’s upper level. Lately, I’ve seen that some private colleges are starting to make their range known to candidates at the outset. If think this is a good trend to foster.

        2. HigherEd Admin*

          Business is business and if you can pay less for something with the same quality as something more expensive, wouldn’t you?

          Only if I wanted my potential employee to know just how little I value them. Pick a bottom number for the range and stick to it; don’t try to lowball someone just because you can. Good employers reward good candidates by paying them what a good salary, not by getting them to work for as little as possible.

          1. Lurker*

            You’re assuming that an offer $35,000 is a lowball offer, when in fact it may be above average for the position. And the employee is the one who set their value. If they feel their value more than $35,000 then they should list a range that reflects that.

            You all are illustrating the point of why employers don’t list ranges. ;-)

            1. Kyrielle*

              But if the range for the position is $38-43,000, then $35,000 IS a lowball offer.

              You can still make it if, say, the candidate doesn’t have everything the position needs – be honest about that! – but is still worth hiring. But if you’re actually willing to offer it or it’s average, then *you didn’t publish your range properly* if it said $38,000 was the lowest extent.

          2. SevenSixOne*

            Seems to me that the thing for employers to do lowball THEIR range– like, if a position has a salary budget of $35,000 to $40,000, the employer could list the range as $30,000 to $35,000.

            The candidate will probably ask for the high end of the salary range, the employer will probably end up paying them the low end of what they’ve actually budgeted, and it’s a win-win.

            1. HigherEd Admin*

              Right. Advertise what you actually want to pay for the role. If you’d rather hire someone at $30,000, even if you have the budget to go higher, then be upfront about that.

              1. Jamie*

                Sure – but employers need to be okay with the risk inherent in understating their range. If they are actually willing to pay 40k but list it with a max of 35 there will be some potentially good candidates who may need and warrant 36-40k who won’t even apply.

                It seems short sighted to set it up so people will self-select out at a range you’d actually be willing to pay.

                1. soooo Anon*

                  This is actually the logic my boss gives (I am in favor of including a range, but am overruled. She is old school in a number of ways, including basing salaries/offers on salary history.)
                  The general thinking is this- while she may plan/budget to pay $38,000- $43,000, she would also consider paying $48,000- $53,000 for the purple unicorn candidate with rainbows shooting out it’s a**. And for the “right” person, she would consider creating an entirely different position at an even higher salary. She does not want to discourage those applicants. But you can’t include a range that huge- imagine the insanity of an ad for, say, an admin with a range of $38,000-$85,000, pay commensurate with experience.
                  This translates to a crazy amount of time to hire anyone (read: lot of time wasted), a very hit-or-miss track record on the quality of the hires, and no internal consistency on pay.

        3. A Non*

          Fishing for employees who will work for less than what you’re willing to pay is a dangerous game, though. When they inevitably find out that you’ve been taking advantage of them, they will leave quickly.

          If you value your employees, act like it. If you don’t value them, don’t be surprised when they don’t value you either.

          1. Lurker*

            If, as in my example, the employee lists a range of $30,000 – $40,000, how are they not being valued or being taken advantage of if an offer of $35,000 is in the middle of their range, even if it’s less than the maximum we were willing to pay? They set their value so if they aren’t happy with an offer of $35,000 they can negotiate, reject, or list a range more in line with what they’d actually like.

            1. A Non*

              If you don’t see paying someone less than the going rate as taking advantage of them, we’re probably not going to be able to have a useful conversation here.

              1. Lurker*

                Perhaps $35,000 is average or slightly above going rate and the $45,000 budgeted was in the 75th or 90th percentile.

                If you don’t like the answer that’s not my fault — I was just trying to provide insight. I’ll be sure not to do it again.

                1. Kyrielle*

                  But the statement was the published range was $38-$45,000. If $45k is 90th percentile and $35k is 55th percentile, for example, then the published range is reasonably probably $30-$45,000. Maybe even lower than $30k.

                  You’re supposed to be listing the range of salaries you would consider reasonable for someone capable of filling the role…if you only list the upper 1/3 of that, that’s an error in listing the range properly.

                2. Jamie*

                  Kryielle is absolutely correct. Why would anyone list the bottom of a range 3k above market? If the argument is listing incorrect ranges will be a problem then I think we’d all be in agreement.

                  I am having trouble following your line of thought – I’m missing something here. You seem to be arguing something other than what you’ve stated and I am not sure what it is.

        4. Jamie*

          Business is business and if you can pay less for something with the same quality as something more expensive, wouldn’t you?

          This isn’t about getting a great deal on a copier, though. People may be willing to take a job at bargain rates well below market because they need it, but if they are a great employee and you’d like to keep them they will have options – often sooner than later. And you need to either address that with adjusting compensation or risk losing them and paying the cost of turnover which for non-entry level employees typically ranges from 1.5 to 2 x their yearly salary and up.

          If the job is worth 38-43k and you can get someone for 35k the cost savings is pretty immaterial. 3k is certainly not enough to outweigh the risks of morale issues on a good employee down the road or even to wade through tons more resumes because it was left open ended. It’s really short sighted.

          And companies who would want to offer considerably less than what they feel someone is worth because they found out in conversation that their UI was running out or they were in desperate financial straights and would probably take much lower than market – they are lousy companies and it would be great if they could out themselves as such by not offering a range, which is what would happen if everyone else did.

          I love saving money when I buy stuff, most people love getting a great deal. But getting a good deal is different than actually cheating or taking advantage of someone else. The latter are like people who would eat most of a meal and then pretend there was a fly in it so they get it comped. A lot of people love free meals but not at the expense of a restaurant (in particular the waiter/waitress and kitchen staff who could be in trouble.)

          A company that deliberately and maliciously undercuts market by preying upon personal circumstances because they can is no different than the person who brings his own fly to the restaurant. Otoh the company who is willing to pay within a certain range and is transparent about that is like a normal customer – assesses what’s offered and orders something they like for which they will pay a fair value.

          On the third hand the company who is transparent about paying under market for whatever reason (non-profit (some), start-up, just cheap and proud of it, etc.) and plops that crazy low range in the ad is like the customer who has a coupon. They are not paying full price for those pancakes, but the establishment is cool with that and is willing to take the deal.

          TIL I have 3 hands and now want pancakes.

          1. Lurker*

            If the candidate is the one listing the range, then how is the employer taking advantage of them by offering them a salary *within* their desired range regardless of whether it’s $10,000 below the maximum the company might have budgeted for? I never said anything about undercutting the market, or devaluing candidates/employees.

            1. A Non*

              You were talking about hiring an employee for less than your stated minimum. Let’s not move the goalposts here.

              1. Anonymous Educator*

                Lurker from earlier: For example, if we’re willing to pay up to $45,000 per year, and put a range of $38,000 – $43,000 then it would be odd to offer someone $35,000. (When they may have be perfectly happy with $35,000 and listed a range of $30,000 – $40,000 on their application.) Business is business and if you can pay less for something with the same quality as something more expensive, wouldn’t you?

                So the original range was $38,000-$43,000, so not within the original range.

              2. Lurker*

                I’m not moving goal posts; please carefully read what I wrote,

                “Because if you put a range then your candidate will likely expect to be offered at *least* the lowest amount listed, and you might be able to get someone for less.

                For example, if we’re willing to pay up to $45,000 per year, and put a range of $38,000 – $43,000 then it would be odd to offer someone $35,000. (When they may have be perfectly happy with $35,000 and listed a range of $30,000 – $40,000 on their application.)”

                The question was why employers don’t list ranges and I explained why. You assumed the smaller number implied a minimum when I never said that.

                1. Jamie*

                  If a company feels the job is worth 38-43k and offers someone 35k because

                  “Business is business and if you can pay less for something with the same quality as something more expensive, wouldn’t you? “

                  It reads as if your stated defense of not posting ranges is what I quoted from your post above, because you could possibly get them for less.

                  I believe I’m reading it the way anonymous educator did, so if that’s incorrect what did you mean?

                2. matchza*

                  Most people looking at job listings are going to see the lower number as a minimum. If a listing says 38,000-44,000, it should mean that “the company has determined the value of this role to be within these parameters,” the range allowing for a candidate’s past experience/education. List your job at what you have determined it to be worth. If someone’s “perfectly happy” working for less than the range you’ve listed your job to be worth then good for them, but you should still be paying them what you have determined the job to be worth, not opportunistically underpaying them for the role they’re in because they didn’t know any better.

            2. techandwine*

              But the entire point of the article is that it’s difficult to determine what an appropriate range for an employee to offer because salaries are kept secret and not disclosed. It should be on the employer to say “X-X is the salary range for this job” and then offer a number within that range based on the candidates experience, education, etc.

              Yes, of course everyone wants the top number, but we don’t always get what we want. If they expect the top number, don’t get it, and then decline the job because of it, that’s on them.

            3. Jamie*

              I was referring to the employer listing the range, not the candidate.

              I believe employers should be the ones putting the information out there and then candidates can self-select in or out depending on the fit.

              Employers shouldn’t be asking for ranges because the position is the thing with the most definable value. A candidate can command more or less depending on which of their skills come into play, but the employer should absolutely know the market for the position they are posting.

              If I’m selling a car I tell you what I’m asking and the assumption is I might be willing to negotiate so there you know the range of this vehicles worth as I see it. If I’m selling a car and won’t tell you what I’m asking until I know what you’re willing to pay…then you’d tell me to get lost.

              In this case the job = the car and the potential buyer is the candidate. We’re purchasing jobs with our labor and it’s only right that we should know if it’s even in the ballpark before we kick the proverbial tires.

            4. Beebs*

              At the very least it is unwise, especially if there are other employees in similar positions. The eventuality that the low paid employee finds out what their peers are making is significantly higher, really has no positive outcome. This impacts company morale, their reputation, and the risk of losing a good employee, which in all likelihood comes at a much higher cost, fiscally and otherwise. All because they wanted to save a few dollars; penny wise, dollar foolish.

            5. Bunny*

              I thought this entire conversation was saying that *employers* should advertise their range, not candidates? Because the point is that it is difficult for candidates to know what salary to ask for, and wastes time for employers to have to wade through applications from people who are either massively under-qualified for what they want or wildly outside their payroll budget.

        5. ThursdaysGeek*

          Because if you put a range then your candidate will likely expect to be offered at *least* the lowest amount listed, and you might be able to get someone for less.

          Then, put in a range with an honest bottom number. Because the range tells us whether it’s worth even applying, and if our ranges have any correlation.

          You’re also opening yourself to paying your female employees less, because many won’t ask for more. If you just put in an honest range and not try to get every individual as cheaply as you can, you’ll avoid that trap.

        6. Koko*

          “Business is business and if you can pay less for something with the same quality as something more expensive, wouldn’t you?”

          Because underpaying your employees is bad for retention. They’ll leave as soon as they get an offer that pays them closer to their true value. You should know what it’s worth to your company to have someone good in that role and be willing to pay that amount, even if you could find someone who would do it for less.

          1. CM*

            Real-life example from my first job out of college: Had no clue I was supposed to negotiate salary. They offered me $X and I happily accepted. A year later, we’re hiring for the same position, and I’m conducting interviews — and I happen to see a printout of an offer letter, to someone with less experience than me, in the same position, for $X + 15! Sure, they got a good deal, but I felt devalued and demoralized. I asked for a raise and ended up leaving shortly after that.

      3. BRR*

        Because people tend to focus on the higher number. Even if they know they’re at the bottom of the qualifications they think that since the company was willing to pay the higher number they should get it reguardless of the candidates market value.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          So, just tell them “no.” If you’re looking for 3-5 years’ experience and a master’s degree, and the person is good enough to hire but has only 1 year’s experience and no master’s degree, just tell her why you’re offering her not the top number. Why is it so difficult to just explain? If she then becomes extremely difficult and argumentative, rescind the offer.

        2. fposte*

          I’m with Rebecca, though. Not including a range is complicating things on the candidate’s side–and probably losing a few we’d want and gaining some we don’t–out of a desire to avoid having a serious conversation about money and value. And if you’re hiring, you should be able to have a serious conversation about money and value.

          1. BRR*

            Oh I agree too. I was answering why. As I’m hunting now I’m looking for a specific salary. Last time I had little in the skills department so I knew I was at the bottom. Most people work for money. It is a deciding factor. With applicant tracking systems now it takes a long time to apply. Factor in if I don’t want to work for the budgeted salary offered after I have interviewed and it would save both sides a lot of time.

        3. I'm a Little Teapot*

          I actually focus on the lower number. I know I’m not likely to get much higher, and if I’m not OK with the lowest number in the range I won’t apply in the first place.

      4. Gobrightbrand*

        I always put the salary range in my job postings. I list a range and I explain in the job posting what I’m looking for in order to get near the top of the range.

      5. PlainJane*

        Not including the salary range has 2 major drawbacks: 1) Good candidates may not apply b/c they think the salary won’t be high enough, and 2) wasted time on both sides when there’s a mismatch in expectations. The candidate wastes time assembling an application and interviewing, and the company wastes time (and money) interviewing a candidate. Please, please, please post a salary range in job ads. It saves everyone time and headaches.

        1. I'm a Little Teapot*

          I rarely waste my time applying for jobs with no salary range listed. I’ve had unpleasant post-interview surprises in the past (“Oh, it’s minimum wage”) and would rather focus on reasonable employers who are up front with candidates. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of other people are the same way.

  3. AW*

    It’s such an illogical situation: you’re “not supposed” to talk about your salary or ask others about their salary, but employers still expect you to be able to guess what’s reasonable for the advertised position. I really appreciated it when companies put a salary or salary range. I hadn’t thought about options #2 and #4.

    I think you can account for the different level of responsibility on salary sites if you look carefully at how they define a particular position and find a similar job title that actually matches the work effort & responsibility for the role, rather than what most closely matches the title.

    You know what would be really good? Census data. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, they don’t get any more specific than the average pay in an industry.

    1. DG*

      I’ve found salary websites to be really inaccurate. There’s such a wide range of responsibility that can come with any given title, and just too much variation. It’s so frustrating not having any reliable sources of information about salary. For something so important, you’d think we’d have a better system. How are we supposed to find out what a fair pay range is for our work?

    2. themmases*

      The Bureau of Labor Statistics does, for many positions. The different types of what my partner calls “indoors wearing pants” jobs don’t get broken down as well as we might like, for example they have a whole category called just “Postsecondary Education Administrators” which is a huge range of jobs. But for many professions the BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook is really helpful, and breaks down salary by sector/place of employment where appropriate. Where the handbook doesn’t, the Occupational Employment Statistics do. I referred to both a lot when I was doing my research on whether and how to become an epidemiologist (clearly I made the right choice since I love reading public data!). My previous job (research coordinator), on the other hand, was nowhere to be found and I didn’t even find a good proxy really.

  4. BRR*

    #7 A note about 990s, nonprofits must report only their top 5 highest compensated employees who earned over $100k and up to 20 key individuals (defined by responsibilities and compensation over $150k).

    I can speak from experience that where I used to work out executive director was one of the highest paid nonprofit employees in the city especially related to budget size but my salary wasn’t quite so generous.

    1. Lurker*

      True, but you might be able to get a sense of how the other positions are paid. There is a section (can’t remember exactly which one offhand) that lists the sum total of salaries for all others. So if you know that and the approximate number of total staff you may be able to guesstimate whether they are paying a lot of people not very much, or if there is a lot of salary for not many staff. For example, if “other salaries” total $1.5m and you know there are 15 staff, then you *might* surmise they pay better than an organization that has $1.5m spread between 25 staff…

      1. BRR*

        On the first page there is a line for compensation. Can be helpful when applying to smaller organization.

  5. voyager1*

    I am gonna just go with that companies don’t tell what they pay because they would lose some control in getting candidates. Now I am not saying that they actually have much control or the control that they think they have, but that is what I am going with.

  6. Brett*

    #6 Government salaries are not actually what is published, government compensation is. So, you have to know the definition of compensation you are looking at. For example, my published compensation includes unused sick pay/PTO as compensation, as well as any workplace reimbursements.So, if I go to a 5-day conference and pay hotel out of pocket at $180/day that is reimbursed later and receive a $55/day per diem ($1175 total) and take a university class and have $5k in tuition reimbursed, then my published “salary” will go up by $6175 that year.
    Where this really goes wrong, though, is when people retire. Their final compensation will include lump sum retirement payments, 457b cashouts, unused sick pay cashouts, etc. This will put them in 6-figures, sometimes 7-figures for that year and completely skew averages for that position.

    You can often get the compensation scale for a given position, but getting the actual salaries paid to specific employees can be difficult to impossible depending on the sunshine laws in your state. When you see the compensation scales, the bottom of the scale is generally the hiring wage for local government for professional positions.

      1. AW*

        I kind of want to say no. I’m pretty sure my published salary didn’t include PTO or reimbursements on top of my regular pay when I worked for a university but my funding sources were so convoluted that’s probably not a good example.

        1. Brett*

          Your university’s definition of compensation may not have included those either. There is some huge variance in how compensation is defined between different government organizations.

          The key is that compensation, not salary, is what is normally published even though sometimes salary and compensation may be identical for many employees.

    1. lowercase holly*

      are you talking about the ranges listed in job postings? or other published salaries?

      1. Brett*

        Talking specifically about published salaries, e.g. the newspaper sunshine requests all worker compensation and publishes a big database of it every year. The ranges listed in job postings are the compensation scales I mentioned in the last paragraph. Like I said, for local government the bottom of the scale is often the hiring wage (with an unknown discretionary hiring maximum somewhere in the middle of the scale, but top of the scale is never available to new hires without the hiring manager getting special permission from the city council, merit board, or some other entity that sets organization wide wages).
        Federal has a system all to itself, and state government has huge variations from state to state in how the range in the job posting relates to the actual hiring wages available to the hiring manager.

        1. lowercase holly*

          if i was using actual job postings on to get an idea of salary for something, do you think those would be more accurate?

          1. De Minimis*

            Most of the time, it’s pretty easy to see what a federal job pays.
            For most you can just look at the General Schedule, I think it’s on the OPM website.
            Think people usually start at step 1 unless the person is currently working a similar job or if they are trying to recruit them [happens a lot with healthcare professionals.]

            There are some jobs that don’t use that scale, but most civilian jobs do. Be sure to check the locality pay…if it’s in the US and doesn’t have its own area it’ll be under “Rest of the United States.”

            1. De Minimis*

              That is, if you know what grade the job is at, it’s fairly easy to see what it pays…

    2. public employee anon*

      Yes, definitely look at the definition of what’s being published. The local newspaper that publishes my salary includes both my annual salary and my actual gross earnings. So you can see what a position actually pays, as well as what the person actually made. (For example, someone may have an annual salary of $75K, but only have gross earnings of $30K because they joined the organization mid-year.) Of course, where you come in on the salary scale depends a lot on the position–some nearly always start at the bottom of the range, but other positions have a lot more flexibility.

  7. Sunflower*

    The idea of ‘you can’t put a number out there because people will only see the highest number’ goes off the idea that people will adjust their salary expectations based on what you are willing to pay and that is not my experience. Most people already have several numbers in their head including the lowest they would take and what they would be happy with before they go into a salary talk. They want a range or number from you because they want to know if their already determined numbers are in line with yours. They are not using those numbers in order to get more money out of you. I like when companies say ‘the maximum we will pay is X’. To me, that reads as ‘that’s the absolute most and we aren’t necessarily going to pay it’.

    Okay so maybe you’ll get some people try to negotiate more money out of you. That’s going to happen whether you list a range or not. If someone wants the job and they are telling you they will not take it unless you pay at the top, there’s a good chance they had that number in their head before they heard what you were paying.

    If someone is using ‘well it’s in your budget’ as their reasoning for asking for more money, you don’t want to hire them anyway.If you have people who are turning down jobs who would be happy with the salary but refuse to take it because they know there’s more in the budget, that’s not an intelligent move and not someone I would want on my team.

    Note- Some job seekers will argue that employers do this too. When candidates give a range, they worry the employer only sees the low side of that. I’ve seen plenty of employers get pissed because the candidate doesn’t want to take the lowest number. Realize that number is the same as your highest number- given the right circumstances, you’ll take/pay it but just because it’s on there doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      When candidates give a range, they worry the employer only sees the low side of that. I’ve seen plenty of employers get pissed because the candidate doesn’t want to take the lowest number.

      One time, a potential employer asked me for a range, and I gave a range. Only after I gave the range did I realize the low end was quite low (not for the market rate but just in general for my living expenses). I was kicking myself on that… until I got the offer, which was well above the high end of the range I gave (and well above market rate). When I took the job, that gave me a huge morale boost on the first day, because I knew my employer valued my skills. If he had just offered me the absolute lowest part of my range, I would be thinking either A) so that’s how you are—as cheap as you can be or B) I’ll get a job somewhere else.

    2. AW*

      They want a range or number from you because they want to know if their already determined numbers are in line with yours.

      Yes, exactly. If someone is insisting on the high end of your range it’s because it was probably only the middle or lower of their range.

  8. Coffee, Please*

    I joined my wonderful professional network for this exact reason! They conduct an in-depth salary survey for all network members. This has been an excellent guide in determining salary in negotiations for so many of us. The survey also asks about benefits and general work policies. I find myself referring to it at least twice a year .

    1. Coffee, Please*

      The survey includes questions on experience, education, size of organization, area COL, and role responsibilities.

  9. CM*

    The article suggests looking at published government salaries. A word of caution about that — I work for the state government and get paid WAY less than I would in the private sector. I could literally walk out the door and double my salary.

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