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How to tell if you’re underpaid

One of the most common complaints people have in the workplace isn’t the pile of dirty dishes in the staff kitchen or the spaghetti sauce splattered inside the microwave. Rather it’s the sense that they’re not getting what they’re worth.

“One of the main things that contribute to job dissatisfaction is not just the money but whole feeling of being undervalued and underappreciated,” says career counsellor Shirin Khamisa, founder of Careers by Design.

So you may think you’re being underpaid, but how do you find out for sure when the information you need isn’t readily available? You need to do be prepared to do some digging.

“Most roles have quite a bit of ambiguity in terms of how they’re valued,” Khamisa says. “You could approach HR and look at information about how salary ranges are defined and where you fall into that.”


From there, look at job postings for other, similar organizations. The postings will most likely provide only a salary range, but it’s a start. And read the job descriptions carefully.

“In the financial industry, for instance, different banks will have wildly different titles for same position,” Khamisa says. “Some institutions will have loftier titles or a role with the same title will not have as much responsibility as somewhere else. Don’t pay too much attention to title but to the content of duties you’re expected to fulfill.”

Recruiters can be a valuable source of information as well, as can professional organizations and related networking events. The best source of information is other people in the same position as you.

“Some places will say please don’t talk about your salary, but everyone talks about it,” says career coach Alan Kearns, head coach and founder of Career Joy. “Anyone who believes no one shares their salary is fooling themselves … It’s collective wisdom. By doing that, people share information, and that’s ultimately how people find out what positions are worth.”

Alternatively, do your research online. Glassdoor, for example, offers an inside look at jobs and companies via unedited insights from employees, employers, and interview candidates. Salaries can be searched by specific job title and by city.

“This is a game-changer,” Kearns says. “This is an example of highly efficient and effective platforms of people sharing information. It even has things like what questions are asked at interviews.

“We want to know what real people say about any given workplace, the people who work there,” he adds. “Whenever you buy anything you check out ratings. Now you can find ratings for an employer. This is the world we live in: employers can’t hide.”

Underpaid? Here's what to do about it

If you gather enough information to back up your claims of being underpaid, do something about it — the right way.

Khamisa suggests considering the company’s climate first. Timing is everything, and you don’t want to be asking for a raise if people are losing jobs. Build confidence in how you’ll approach your supervisor by practising what you’re going to say beforehand. And remember to provide concrete details on why a bigger paycheque is justified.

“You have to have a business case,” Kearns says. “It’s not just good enough to say ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’; give me the facts. If you were buying a home in Vancouver, your agent would have you comparing sheets to justify why you should spend that much more. Don’t just say ‘I feel like you should pay me more.’ Provide the data.”

Although more money might be your goal, consider other outcomes if that’s not likely to happen.

“There’s the fair-trade principle,” Kearns says. “When you’re looking for a fair trade, you can negotiate beyond salary to things like title or [use of the] training budget.”

Kearns recalls a client who was justified in asking for a higher salary, but the company couldn’t pay him more, so he requested and received a more senior job title.

“For the short term, it was worth the opportunity because it repositioned him to where he wanted to go in his career,” Kearns says. “Salary is just one element of many and people get fixated on salary, but there may be other fair trades, maybe you do the job four days a week. Find creative solutions that work.”