How To Handle Four Awkward Situations Where You’re Being Underpaid

How to get what you’re worth when you know your coworkers are making more, or because you didn’t negotiate a good initial salary.

How To Handle Four Awkward Situations Where You’re Being Underpaid
[Photo: Flickr user frankieleon; App Photo: Internet Archive]

Are you really underpaid, or does it just feel that way? American workers are earning less on average than they were 40 years ago, after inflation. But at a more personal level, determining whether you should be getting paid more isn’t easy, and rectifying it can be even harder. Here’s a look at four of those situations, and what it might take to set things aright.


1. When You Didn’t Negotiate A Good Starting Salary

The salary you negotiate when you first join a company sets the benchmark for every increase afterward, so if you botch that negotiation, you may be screwing over the future you. Negotiating is one of those skills that takes practice to improve, meaning a lot of entry-level professionals don’t always broker starting salaries adeptly.

If you suspect you’re now paying the price for that, your first step is to check the facts, advises Philadelphia-based career coach Rita Friedman. Visit Glassdoor, PayScale, and other salary comparison sites to see how your paycheck stacks up. Your second step, says Friedman, is to “talk to your coworkers”–taboos be damned. You don’t need to poll the whole department, but even a couple of confidential chats with the colleagues you’re closest to who work at a similar level can put your own pay into perspective.

“It could be that your company just doesn’t pay people well–everybody is underpaid and it’s not just you,” she points out. Or you have one colleague who’s bragging about all the money she’s making and she’s just overpaid.”

If you discover you really are underpaid, Friedman adds, “go ahead and be angry for a day or two, but don’t let it fester.” Then it’s time to work through this checklist, which Friedman says applies to just about every situation where you’re trying to rectify being underpaid:

1. Reassess your skills. Now that you know how much more the competition makes, you need to figure out why. Do your peers have skills or knowledge or experience that you lack? Head to LinkedIn, search your job title, and start jotting down any standout credentials people at your level have that you don’t. And stick with listing concrete skills, not subjective qualities, Friedman advises–don’t let your frustration get in the way.


2. Define what you’ve done. Even if you are coming up short on certain skills, you’ve probably got some accomplishments under your belt that you can highlight. What’s the quickest way to pinpoint those? “Update your resume, even if you’re not planning on leaving,” Friedman says. Having to distill your achievements at your current job into an updated CV can help you “reflect on what value you’ve brought to the company, then start to build a case for a raise.”

3. Set new goals. Ask yourself: “If you were granted additional salary and responsibilities to go along with [a raise], what would you be doing differently?” You’ll need to explain that when you request more money, says Friedman. How would you answer if your boss asks, “What would you be able to offer me that you’re not doing right now?”

If you’re trying to negotiate more money at a company where you undersold yourself on the way in, Friedman suggests being honest about that. In your raise discussion, “Say to your boss, ‘I’m not thinking about leaving.’” Then continue to be candid, she says: “Hey, I was young and fresh and I didn’t know what I was doing. I’ve gained so much experience working with this company; here’s what I’ve done for the company; here’s how I’d like my compensation to be raised based on what I’ve brought to the table.”

Read More: Why You Can Renegotiate Anything At Any Time (And How To Do It)

2. When You’re Switching Industries

Some industries pay a lot more than others, so if you’re going from a low-paid field into a higher-paid one, there’s a risk that some employers may see you as a steal and lowball their offer. Don’t let them, advises Friedman: “Once you have a good sense of what the market commands, that’s the salary you should ask for.”


Even if you’ve been used to low pay for years, you may have more clout than you think. And executive coach Corrie Shanahan wrote recently for Fast Company that your leverage is at its height the moment an employer decides they want you. Now’s the time to find out how badly.

Friedman even suggests pointing out the salary leap you’re hoping to take. “You can be honest that that’s part of why you’re leaving.” Still, she cautions, look at the total package. “Often in industries where salaries tend to be lower, there are some lifestyle benefits there–the salary is higher because the demands are higher, or maybe the benefits aren’t as great.”

Read More: 5 Often Overlooked Benefits You Need To Negotiate

3. When You Find Out A Coworker Makes More Than You . . .

Let’s say you’ve discovered you’re underpaid, not just relative to the job market, but in direct relation to a colleague. First of all, don’t rush to assume you know why.

Maybe they nailed that initial salary negotiation. Or maybe at the time they were hired, your employer was trying to lure talent in a competitive job market, and dangled fatter paychecks as bait. When you approach your boss to discuss a raise (after running through Friedman’s checklist first), follow the same rule you would in other scenarios: “Ask for what you want,” advises Fast Company contributor and workplace psychologist Art Markman.


This can be tricky because knowing your coworker’s pay sets a new mental benchmark, influencing your perception of what you should be earning. While that can be useful intel, it shouldn’t upend your strategy. When you ask for a raise, says Markman, there’s no harm in mentioning that you know what your colleague is getting paid. Just don’t use that as the main reason why you should be making more. Like Friedman, he also recommends “[justifying] your request primarily with your accomplishments.”

Read More: Should I Tell My Boss I Know My Coworker Makes More Than Me?

4. . . . And It Might Be Due To Sexism

Occasionally, the reason you’re being underpaid is a clear-cut case of gender discrimination. “If you can say that three guys were hired at the same time from the same school with the same GPA, and all three are making more [despite having] the same responsibilities,” says Friedman, “go for it.” But “usually,” Friedman says, “it’s fuzzier than that.”

“A lot of the time people aren’t aware of their own biases, so it’s very possible someone has been gender-discriminating against you” unwittingly, she explained. Many organizations are pouring resources into curbing these unconscious biases, particularly in recruiting and hiring, and there are even some early signs that technology can help weed it out of daily interactions as well.

In the meantime, women whose tamped-down salaries contribute to the stubbornly persistent gender pay gap typically face three options, says Friedman:

  • Stay and fight
  • Leave
  • Tolerate it

There’s no right answer. “If your goal is to stay there, treat it the same way that you’d treat asking for a raise, she suggests. “It’s all performance-based.”

“If the machine is too big to fight and it makes more sense to go somewhere where you’ll be valued,” Friedman says, “sometimes it makes sense to really go for it even to the point of legal action.” But not all women may see that as a viable option, she acknowledges.

“Maybe you can’t risk being out of a job at all, and sometimes you may just have to suck it up and conduct a job search on the sly.”

Read More: How Women Can Get Paid As Much As Men

About the author

Rich Bellis was previously the Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.