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Ask The Experts: Should I Tell My Boss I Know My Coworker Makes More?

Should you use your knowledge of your coworker’s higher salary in your own negotiations for a raise?

Ask The Experts: Should I Tell My Boss I Know My Coworker Makes More?
[Photo: Flickr user rafael-castillo]

While some companies are embracing a culture where all salaries are transparent , how much your colleagues make is still an uncomfortable topic in most offices.

And while a lot goes into determining individuals compensation packages, finding out that a coworker in a junior position makes more than you do can plant the seeds of dissatisfaction that are difficult to uproot. So what do you do? Confront your boss? Start looking for a new job?

Psychologist Art Markman helps this reader figure out her next step.

Dear Experts,

I’m in a really frustrating situation. I recently overheard my coworker talking on the phone (pretty loudly) with his financial planner and he mentioned his salary –it’s $10,000 more than I make.

This is an issue because he’s junior to me (I’m at the Associate level and he’s an Assistant). Not only that, but he also has far less experience than me and has been at the company for less time (he was hired a few months after me). We were hired by the same person and I feel like he maybe got more because he’s a man (I’m a woman) and he always talks up his accomplishments/thinks pretty highly of himself.

I assert myself and try to make my value felt and known, and have been building my case for a raise anyway but now I feel like I got the short end of the stick to start with. Even if I get a raise now, it will still put me on under the starting salary of the person under me!

Is there any way I can bring this up with my manager?

Thanks for your help,
MM


Dear MM,

I agree that this is a very frustrating situation.

One of the big reasons why salaries matter in the workplace is because they influence our feelings that the workplace is fair. Most people have no problem finding out that someone with more seniority or more responsibilities is being paid more money. However, when they find out that someone doing a similar job or even someone more junior has a higher salary, it creates an immediate sense of inequity. That feeling quickly saps motivation and undermines the willingness to put in extra effort.

It is important to say up front that the situation you describe is actually quite common where people hired after you may end up making more money. While there is always the chance that this is related to gender, it may also reflect market forces. Right now, for example, the economy is good, and so there is a lot of competition for new talent. As a result, companies may need to offer high starting salaries to attract new hires. If you were hired in a softer job market, then you may have gotten a lower offer, because that was what the market would support. I see this a lot in universities where faculty who have been working at the university for many years may be getting paid about the same (or sometimes even less) than brand new hires, just because the market has gotten competitive.

I raise this potential explanation, because when you discover that you are being paid less than others who are doing a similar job, it is natural to assume that salary inequalities are a result of more nefarious forces. The problem with that assumption is that, if your company ultimately does agree to give you a raise, you might still walk away with a bad feeling.

That said, it sounds like it is time to sit down with your manager and to ask for a raise. You are already starting to put together a request, so you clearly felt it was time.

When you do have that discussion, you should justify your request primarily with your accomplishments in the workplace. There is nothing wrong, though, with pointing out that you are basing your salary request in part on your knowledge of what other people in the company are making.

The most important thing in your salary negotiations, though, is to ask for what you want. There is a tendency for people to make guesses about what they believe their manager will give them in salary and then to ask for something in that range, even if they feel that they should be being paid more than that.

There are three reasons to ask for what you really want.

First, you should never do your managers job for him or her. In salary negotiations, your manager is the one who has to figure out how to make the budget work. If you have an idea of what you think is fair, then ask for it. Let your manager decide how to make that happen.

Second, there is an important psychological phenomenon called anchoring and adjustment. Whenever we make judgments about numbers, we start by anchoring on a number and then adjusting that number based on other factors. The anchor is important, because people often do not adjust enough afterward. If you ask for what you want, then that request becomes the anchor for any subsequent negotiation. Even if your manager adjusts downward, initial request will work in your favor.

Third, companies want to keep their best employees happy. It is easy to think that the only goal of the company is to cut costs. But, it is usually much more expensive for companies to replace employees than it is to keep them happy. If you ask for less than you want, then your manager may assume that giving you what you asked for is going to make you happy, but because you have asked for less you are not going to be as happy with your raise as you should be. So, give the company a chance to make you happy. They may very well surprise you.

Good luck.


If you have a dilemma you’d like our panel of experts to answer, send your questions to AskFC@fastcompany.com or tweet us a question using #AskFC.

About the author

Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, and most recently, Brain Briefs, co-authored with his "Two Guys on Your Head" co-host Bob Duke, which focuses on how you can use the science of motivation to change your behavior at work and at home.

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